City Guide: Washington D.C.'s U Street
Washington D.C.'s U Street -- and beyond
by Meredith Stanton October 2008 U Street is an emerging neighborhood rich in history and jazz—and a visual counterpoint to the city’s sparkling monuments.
As I pop out of the dark metro tunnel and onto vibrant U Street in northwest Washington, D.C., my view of the nation’s capital takes on an Alice in Wonderland effect.
Gone are the marble monuments classic to D.C.; the rep ties and suits have nearly disappeared, and the stately houses typically reserved for Georgetown are nowhere to be found. Instead, the “new U” is buzzing with modern energy and urban life. An engaging new epicenter for the District, the neighborhood is the latest in a wave of revitalization projects under way in and around the city.
Before New York’s Harlem, there was U Street. In its heyday in the early 20th century, “Black Broadway,” as it was known, played home to top jazz musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis. By the 1960s, the neighborhood had fallen into disrepair following intense race riots that left buildings boarded up and the community neglected.
Saunter down U Street between 9th and 16th Streets today, and change is evident. A transformation that began in the 1990s has blossomed into a growing yet established community of artists, boutiques, chic eateries and nightlife seekers. Flashy, multimillion-dollar condo complexes, like Union Row and the Ellington, have replaced once abandoned houses; an old car dealership is now home to a nearby collection of art galleries; and an influx of bars, restaurants and stores has given fresh life to rehabbed buildings and row houses.
U Street’s proximity to D.C.’s business hubs, surrounding Pennsylvania Avenue, Dupont Circle and Farragut North, make the neighborhood an even more tempting spot for tourists and businesspeople. For visitors to a city otherwise known for its monuments and politics, it’s worth the short cab ride or walk from the hotel to immerse yourself in U Street’s rich history and newfound growth.
Old and new converge here. To my right on U, patrons line up for a taste of the venerable Ben’s Chili Bowl, a city institution for chili dogs and shakes since 1958. Next door, the Lincoln Theatre is lit up with families and balloons for a graduation ceremony. To my left, the street is a flurry of activity, with cars cruising down the U Street strip and young professionals heading to happy hour at the new hangout called Marvin.
Nowhere is the neighborhood’s development more evident than at the hopping Busboys and Poets, named for African American writer and poet Langston Hughes, who worked as a busboy at nearby Wardman Park Hotel. This hipster hideout, café and bookstore opened in 2005 and has helped put a face on the entrepreneurial fervor fueling the community. Grabbing a seat on an oversize lime-green chair, I order hummus with warm pita bread and mussels. The food is great here, but the atmosphere is even better. The lofty space is filled with books, local art for sale and offbeat couches and tables. It also offers free Wi-Fi, inspiring many locals to bring their computers and type away while sipping coffee and munching on vegan plates.
Fashion for your home can also be found along U Street. Part retail, part restaurant, Simply Home combines the best of shopping and eating in the Corridor. Find chic candles, soaps and clothing, all imported from Thailand, then move to the restaurant for Thai dishes, including pineapple fried rice and squid-ink spaghetti.
Washington is known for its museums, with 19 of them and the National Zoo owned by the Smithsonian Institution. The National Gallery of Art on the National Mall is a first-class arts destination, with works from the Impressionist period to the modern day.
Art enthusiasts looking for less traditional flavor flock to the Corridor for a range of independent galleries. The Nevin Kelly Gallery on U is one artist haven, located in a quaint basement space. Owner Nevin Kelly has traveled extensively throughout Central and Eastern Europe, so many of the works featured in his gallery are by Polish artists. Just up 14th Street from U, a car dealership has been transformed into the 1515 Arts Building. Adamson Gallery, G Fine Art, Hemphill Gallery and the 240-square-foot Curator’s Office together offer an eclectic mix of new-wave art.
U Street’s vibrant musical past hasn’t completely faded. The neighborhood is still the best place in the city to hear jazz, Motown and other traditionally African American music. Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway played regularly at Bohemian Caverns, which opened in 1926 at 11th and U. Today, top jazz acts still perform in this underground hotspot nearly every night. Nearby on 14th and U, the hip club Black Cat looks like a run-down warehouse from the outside, but don’t be put off. Some of the best local, national and international performers can be found there.
The U Street Corridor is forever changing, I think to myself after watching throngs of twentysomethings head into Marvin. The neighborhood hasn’t completely surrendered to luxury condos and snazzy tapas joints—don’t be surprised to find graffiti-covered storefronts still boarded up along U. But it’s not only the shiny new places that are luring locals from Dupont Circle and Georgetown to the new U—it’s the community’s vibrant character.
Exploring Chinatown and Beyond
If U Street is Washington’s new epicenter for the arts and hipster hideouts, the revitalized Penn Quarter/ Chinatown neighborhood is the Times Square of D.C., all glitz and light, with chic young professionals dining on small plates and sipping at wine bars.
Travel north just above the city’s business corridor of Pennsylvania Avenue, and you’ll quickly find the burgeoning Penn Quarter scene. The center of the neighborhood is Verizon Center, a mammoth structure that holds everything from Madonna and Coldplay concerts to Washington Wizards basketball and D.C. Capitals hockey games. Once known as the MCI Center, the entertainment hub inspired the area’s boom in the late ‘90s from a place full of deteriorating housing and large warehouse spaces to a successful haven for new shopping, dining, hotels, sports, art galleries and museums.
Traversing the streets of Penn Quarter can be hazardous, as they’re packed with sports fans and nightlife seekers. I stood on the 7th Street strip of the Quarter one recent night, and from a single vantage point could see one of the hottest restaurants in town, a traditional, marble-encased museum, plenty of upscale stores, and everything from Maseratis to city cabs cruising the main drag. Farther up the street sat the traditional Chinatown arch, still a predominant architectural detail in this growing modern scene.
It’s not only Verizon Center that has lured visitors to this corner of the city. The International Spy Museum, the only museum in the country devoted to espionage, opened in 2002 and continues to draw millions of visitors each year to its interactive, multi-floor space in the heart of the Quarter.
More museums have renovated and reopened, including the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum. Step into the marble-columned buildings, and you’ll find portraits of everyone from America’s past presidents to, at one time, Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert. The $450 million Newseum, a museum dedicated to the news, is the Quarter’s newest celebrity. It re-opened just last year in its new location along Pennsylvania Avenue, featuring 250,000 square feet of journalism history—and Wolfgang Puck’s Source restaurant.
I don’t have to walk far to find a slew of amazing restaurants in the Quarter, a dining mecca of sorts in D.C. On G Street, chef Michael Hartzer at Indebleu dishes out his take on French-Indian fusion, with a tandoori shrimp caesar and tofu tindaloo. Next door, the restaurant/wine bar Proof offers diners and oenophiles a chance to taste more than 40 wines by the glass, along with a range of dishes made from sustainable ingredients. Zaytinya, which occupies a large space on the corner, is the place for Mediterranean tapas. Even though the eatery opened six years ago, reservations are still hard to come by here.
The Quarter is continuing to expand. Multimillion-dollar condominiums spring up seemingly overnight; more restaurants and stores open every day. A plan for a new 428-unit condo project named the Jefferson is in the works, which also calls for a Balducci’s gourmet grocery store and an Anthropologie in the same space. As represented in this bustling, stylish hood, D.C. is now open to more than just monuments and politicos. It’s also a great place to live.
MEREDITH STANTON is an editor and freelance writer in Washington, D.C.