U Street: Progress and Place in DC

The Frank D. Reeves Center is an essential part of the conversation in the U Street neighborhood, one that often turns to simultaneous fears of development and neglect. In turn, such discourse falls within the citywide debate on gentrification. The surrounding neighborhood, known as the U Street Corridor, has a storied history that dates back to the late 1800’s. The implementation of Jim Crow laws throughout Washington D.C. led to a “city within a city” being formed. African American residents were cut off from the culture and society of downtown, and proceeded to create their own. The neighborhood saw the work of African American architects creating still-standing structures such as Minnehaha Nickelodeon Theater and the Industrial Savings Bank. Barred from downtown clubs, residents created their own music scene that spawned some of the most recognizable artists in America, including Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey and Emma Fitzgerald among many others. In 1948, the city was desegregated and residents spread throughout the northwest, but U Street remained at the center. Everything changed when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, resulting in widespread rioting throughout DC. Recovery didn’t pick up until years later, when the Frank D. Reeves building was constructed and metro access was given to the neighborhood through buses and a subway station. Today, the neighborhood is largely recovered and more diverse than ever, with housing of various levels and an active nightlife. While the neighborhood has been renewed, the ongoing transition to high-end housing, retail and restaurants may threaten its culture and community, leaving U Street with an uncertain future.

Upon first emerging from the metro escalator, my first thought is of how different this area looks from its historical name of “DC’s Black Broadway.” My 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 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 pricing-out 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.

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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; which was still recovering from the 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. 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.”

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The columns of the Frank D. Reeves Center present a noble facade to a potential visitor. In the style of much Washington D.C. architecture, concrete, marble, glass, and steel are combined to produce a veritable Parthenon for each public structure. As I pass under the columns and through the steel and glass, I’m immediately greeted by a security checkpoint manned by 4 guards. I place my phone and wallet in the ceramic bowl as I ponder what this means for visitors without my privilege. Just as I expect, I’m asked no questions and receive no comment except for how nice my ID picture is. For others, this may not have been the case. A security checkpoint might be imposing or threatening, instantly deterring individuals from the services and community on the other side. I collect my items, reorient myself, and enter into the atrium.

I look around and am impressed by the display of local artwork. What draws me the most is a life-sized sculpture of a baby elephant. Its anatomy was not its greatest quality as the way in which it was adorned. From differing angles, one can see Lady Liberty contort into view upon its ear and body. Closer inspection of its skin reveals images of billowing smoke and twisted steel. Block characters read “9/11.” proceed to take photos from various angles of this beautifully ingenious sculpture before a guard prohibits me from taking anymore. More security has transgressed upon aesthetics.

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Passing the atrium brings me to the utility of the building. To the right is a glass cubicle housing an NGO providing advocacy for the African LGBT community. On the balcony of the next floor I see various fire and EMT trainees participating in a seminar. Apart from these two entities, I thought I might be the only life in the building. I head to the opposite end and pass an unlocked glass security door to board an elevator. I wish to go to the top floor and get a commanding view of the neighborhood.

6th Floor: Restricted.

5th Floor: Restricted.

4th Floor: Restricted.

I go up to the third floor. Greeting me is an office of DC transportation and a room of locked doors with scanners. I head back down to the second floor where I had seen the paramedics training and see them filing out down the stairs. I follow the path and exit through a side door that brings me into a beautiful garden with a fountain and playground. It is surrounded by a high fence that offers limited views of the surrounding neighborhood. I wonder who could use this park and why, as well as who might never see it.

U Street is soon to be left very different, as the DC government prepares for the demolishment of the Reeves Center in favor of redevelopment. This is part of a proposal to the property to Akridge Invested, a real estate developer, in exchange for 38 million dollars and a stretch of land at Buzzard point. The purpose of this will be to construct a stadium in Buzzard Point and allow the Reeves Center to be demolished and the property redeveloped. The discourse is regarding the nature of the center’s replacement as well as its impact on the future of the U Street neighborhood.

In June, Akridge president Matt Klein stated that the new development would be composed of high-end housing with retail units on the ground level. This is common to the trends of gentrification occurring in similar neighborhoods and represents a clear desire for profit over community fulfillment. The timeline for this was originally to see a fully constructed “New Reeves” by the end of 2016. This has been pushed back due to a variety of reasons. One is the amount of community discourse on the project. Another is conflict with DC United, the owner of the stadium project in Buzzard Point. Akridge led local businesses to prevent the stadium from receiving zoning, claiming that its current design stifles economic growth and damages the area by preventing thru-traffic. DC United responded by claiming Akridge was attempting to force itself to receive a greater share in retail derived from the project. Nevertheless, it has halted work on both projects, with the stadium projected to open in late 2018.

A benefit of the halted construction of the stadium and demolition of Reeves is a chance for the community to voice its input on the project. In the original public proposal meeting in 2013, facilitators opened to questions and concerns from the public. One common concern was the fate of community events such as the weekly farmers’ market that occurs in the recessed plaza in front of the center. Residents feel that this event and other programs are an essential part of the community. One even desired this square to be designated as a historic civil rights marker. Another very common concern is what will be done with the services that currently operate out of the center. Multiple individuals expressed a need for the daycare to continue, even if it changes location. People also wondered about the Department of Real Estate Services the post office, and the Office of Latino Affairs among others. These services are necessary not only for residents, but from individuals across the city that require consultation and assistance.

City council members entered the discussion in 2014 when they expressed their desires for the nature of the new structure. Jim Graham met with constituents who were united in their disdain for the prospect of another high-end condo, instead desiring daytime traffic and business and the preservation of Reeves’ services. He threatened to block the solidification of any plan without the needs of his constituents being met. Similarly,  Council Member Tommy Wells stated that “the No. 1 priority should be that they’re leveraged to create more affordable housing.” DC zoning laws require 8 percent of housing units to be for low-income residents, but Wells and others claim that this is far from enough.

Evidenced above is the competing interests of the community and profit. Change is inevitable in any built environment as people move, economies change, and generations go by, but it is not ipso facto to the detriment of the community. It can’t be argued that change itself is good or bad, but only that it will occur. It is not necessary for the community to be gentrified, its residents forced away and its culture eliminated. The transition is in the hands of the polity of U Street, with choices to be made and priorities to be set. Will they allow a purely for-profit venture to occur on the site of the much-beloved Frank D. Reeves Center, or will they participate in the system, negotiate with the parties and strike a deal for the benefit of all? One of these futures might be a U Street of glass and steel, filled with high-end boutiques, expensive restaurants, and astronomically-priced condominiums. No generational residents will be in sight, and the new community will likely be unaware of the storied past on which they now settle. Another, brighter future sees historical buildings preserved, a music scene restored, mixed-income residents sharing a commonplace, and a “New Reeves” providing the events and services that brings them all together.


 

Works Cited

DeBonis, Mike. “Reeves Center Concerns Could Complicate Soccer Stadium Deal.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 18 Dec. 2013, www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/mike-debonis/wp/2013/12/18/reeves-center-concerns-could-complicate-soccer-stadium-deal/?utm_term=.5995326528cb.

“Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center.” Justice for Janitors DC: A Digital History, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, Apr. 2013, georgetownlaborhistory.org/collection/places/frank-d-reeves-municipal-center.

Goldchain, Michelle. “The D.C. Real Estate Market, According to a U Street Realtor.” Curbed Washington DC, 15 July 2016, dc.curbed.com/2016/7/15/11773402/dc-narratives-koki-adasi.

“Great Places in America: U Street NW, Washington DC.” American Planning Association, 2016, www.planning.org/greatplaces/streets/2011/ustreet.htm.

“Greater U Street Historic District.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2010, www.nps.gov/nr/travel/wash/dc63.htm.

Haynesworth, Shellée M et al. “Black Broadway on U: A Transmedia Project.” Black Broadway on U, 2016, blackbroadwayonu.com/.

Lerner, Michele. “Stylish Lofts near U Street Live up to Their Name.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 1 Dec. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/realestate/stylish-lofts-near-u-street-live-up-to-their-name-a-ladder-leads-to-a-half-floor/2016/11/30/63dfe75a-aa9c-11e6-8b45-f8e493f06fcd_story.html?utm_term=.5fb76b2ba9d4.

Najarro, Ileana. “Frank D. Reeves Center’s Glory Days Long Gone, Locals Say.” The Washington Post, 8 Aug. 2014, www.washingtonpost.com/local/dc-politics/frank-d-reeves-centers-glory-days-long-gone-locals-say/2014/08/08/c20fbebc-1e7c-11e4-ae54-0cfe1f974f8a_story.html?utm_term=.8485b589e4a8.

O’Connel, Johnathan. “Escalating Feud over Stadium Design Threatens D.C. United’s Plans.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 13 Oct. 2013, www.washingtonpost.com/news/digger/wp/2016/10/13/escalating-feud-over-stadium-design-threatens-d-c-uniteds-plans/?utm_term=.09657ffb6a54.

“Paul Robeson, a Brief Biography.” Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, University of Chicago, 2004, www.cpsr.cs.uchicago.edu/robeson/bio.html.

“Reeves Center.” DC.gov, Washington DC, Department of General Services, 2013, dgs.dc.gov/page/reeves-center.

Thorne, Oakleigh J et al. “Summary Appraisal Report: Frank D. Reeves Center.” Land Value Panel, 11 Dec. 2013.

Wiener, Aaron. “Wells: Affordable Housing Must Be Part of D.C. United Deal.” Washington City Paper, 10 Jan. 2014, www.washingtoncitypaper.com/news/housing-complex/blog/13123884/wells-affordable-housing-must-be-part-of-d-c-united-deal.

Wiener, Aaron. “What Would Replace the Reeves Center in the D.C. United Deal?” Washington City Paper, 27 June 2014, www.washingtoncitypaper.com/news/housing-complex/blog/13124168/planned-14th-and-u-development-begins-to-take-shape.

*All photographs property of author