The U Street neighborhood is one in transition. Upon first emerging from the metro escalator, the first thought is of how different this area looks from its historical name of “DC’s Black Broadway.” The first sight is the Starbucks and gourmet pizza eatery at the metro’s entrance. Across the street is the famous Lincoln Theatre, home of Nat King Cole, flanked by Ben’s Chilli Bowl and a consultancy firm. Walking west towards the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center the change in character becomes ever more evident. Each side of the road is lined with luxury boutiques and upscale eateries while small businesses flounder. A single mural of Paul Robeson, an African American Civil Rights activist and singer, is painted on the bricks with his quote “I make no separation between my work as an artist, and my work as a human being.” It is unlikely that he would have considered the ousting of residents in exchange for upper class professionals and the closing of local businesses in exchange for high-class restaurants to be suitable inheritance of his work for equality. An interesting, but soon to disappear structure on this path is what appears to be an affordable tenement. At this time it is in the process of being demolished or converted into a Rite Aid pharmacy. The scaffolding is coated in graffiti that is telling of the consciousness of the street. A recurring red stamp read “Rent is Due.” A stylized phrase read “Carpe Diem.” Amharic inscriptions remained unintelligible to me save for a few borrowed Arabic letters, but no doubt contributed to the rhetoric of the corner. Past the doomed housing were four men loitering outside of their local store, eyeing high-class passersby with suspicion and gloom.
Finally, the Frank D. Reeves Center appears on the next corner. It’s an impressive 8-story building from a different era than these commercial centers and luxury apartments. It was opened in 1986 by Mayor Marion Barry in an effort to demonstrate the care of the district government in the affairs of the U Street neighborhood; then still recovering from 1968 rioting. In it, representatives of local departments such as transportation and emergency services maintained offices, providing relatively easy access to the government. It hosted events and cultural celebrations that gave the neighborhood a sense of community that would be unavailable without such a central and open common space. Today, it performs largely the same function, but increasingly is the home to local non-profits such as the DC Center for LGBTQ Advocacy. While the function remains similar, its operation has begun to change. Security checkpoints due to criminal concerns create a barrier for those without government identification or who seem “out-of-place” for the structure. The building is quiet save for an EMT certification class and the lunchtime migration of minor officials. The outside is host to a great number of people waiting for buses and for the crosswalks to change signal. A single stand offers halal street food to what remains of the African diaspora. Half a dozen homeless individuals crouch near the edge of the building, conversing and fighting the cold. Many appear that they would wish to lie down and escape the wind but every column and niche in the building is covered in sinister-looking spikes to discourage rest. The side of the building yields scant views of a small garden and playground shielded by a tall and thick metal fence: “For Official Use Only.”