Editor’s note: Hey everybody, thanks for all of your support. We’re back to scheduled programming here at U Street Girl, trying to move on. Hello to all new readers, welcome.
Woolly Mammoth‘s current production, Clybourne Park, deals with gentrification in a Chicago neighborhood. When they graciously invited me to come see the show and share my thoughts on the issues the play raises, I was more than happy to.
Clybourne Park (written by Bruce Norris) brought up those seemingly age old questions that come along with gentrification. Is a neighborhood better after gentrification? Before? Who can come in and change things? What does race have to do with it (or what doesn’t it have to do with it)? The play showed how difficult having frank conversations about race in this age are, with everyone careful not to offend anyone, yet often coming to the table with preconceived notions and stereotypes.
Thinking about U street and gentrification, I first think about the history. U street was Black Broadway, it was where Dizzie Gillespie and Billie Holiday came to play. It’s where Duke Ellington grew up. It’s where Langston Hughes spent some of his formative years. This is a neighborhood rich with black history.
In the decades since the riots, where U street has seen gentrification – no one can claim that at least all the huge condo and apartment buildings aren’t a part of gentrification – it has tried to celebrate the past. What are the names of these condo buildings? Why, they’re the Ellington and the Langston. Is gentrification better if we celebrate the past?
Is the neighborhood better?
For more of my thoughts continue reading below the jump.
Readers of U Street Girl can see any performance of Clybourne Park for only $15. Use this numeric code 789 when arranging tickets. Reservations can be made online (woollymammoth.net), over the phone (202-393-3939), or in person (641 D Street NW, Washington, DC). Clybourne Park runs March 15 – April 11, 2010. Performances are Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm and 7pm.
I don’t think I at least can make that call. I wasn’t around in the 70s and 80s when 14th and U had been described as an outdoor drug den (though I’m sure all are glad the drugs and violence has decreased). I wasn’t around in the 90s when the metro was coming to the neighborhood and the first pioneers (Polly’s, Go Mama Go, Good Wood) were opening their doors. And I certainly wasn’t around in the 20s or 30s when U street was at its Black Broadway heyday.
What I can talk about is what I see now. I see thriving local businesses opening on U street, few chains. I like that a lot. I see institutions that I can easily imagine being around for another 50 years (Ben’s Chili Bowl, Florida Ave Grill, the Lincoln Theater). I see huge condo buildings that host young professionals (yeah, that’s me, guilty as charged). I also see beautiful old rowhouses that have been lovingly restored to their former glory.
And I see poor families that used to live in the neighborhood and can’t afford it anymore. I see the old businesses closing (bye Polly’s and Go Mama Go). And for better or worse, I see bars opening that cater to more of the Adams Morgan/bridge and tunnel crowd than those that live in the neighborhood.
I see a diverse neighborhood that seems to becoming less so. What I loved about U street when I moved here was the diversity, the feeling that I was a part of a vibrant neighborhood with a rich history. That’s not gone, but it does feel less like that now than it did 3 or 5 years ago (which is how long I’ve known the area, short, admittedly). The energy’s still there, but it’s different now.
U street is changing in the same way that DC is changing – traditionally poorer, black neighborhoods are becoming less so. Young professionals and families are buying houses in these neighborhoods. Housing prices are going up. Large construction firms are buying empty lots or broken down buildings and building high rises. It’s the story of gentrification, and you see it everywhere in DC (I highly recommend the documentary Chocolate City – the link is a preview of the documentary, which explores this topic better than I could).
Is it better, is it worse? I’m not sure, but it certainly is change, and it’s something that we aren’t really equipped to talk about. So I thank Woolly Mammoth and Clybourne Park for giving me the opportunity to open the discussion. Go see the play, and tell me what do you think?