A Lost Identity: How Statistics Infringe Upon the way we see the History of the Shaw Neighborhood

     The Shaw neighborhood, a historically black area in Northwest Washington DC, has in the past ten years undergone the common phenomena known as gentrification. With this change, The conversation that is currently presented with Shaw is that of positivity and admiration for the improvements that have occurred in a previously crime ridden and impoverished area. With trendy shops and restaurants at every turn, it’s no wonder that almost every article that discusses Shaw engages in this very conversation. Everyone wants to talk about the fact that developers were able to come in and entirely change the common perception of one neighborhood. While acknowledging the reality that this change has in fact pushed Shaw natives to leave the neighborhood due to economic disparities, it is agreed that the change has made improvements that are for the better of the neighborhood. However, what is not included in this conversation is the idea that before gentrification took place, the individuals of Shaw were grouped into a collection of statistics and facts that therefore deemed them, and in turn Shaw as a whole, with an identity in need of replacing. With these facts being the only representation of Shaw and its people, it is no wonder that gentrification was so appealing to outsiders. Through daily news reports about the struggling drug infested neighborhood, the people of Shaw weren’t given the chance to display who they really were. A nightclub known as “John’s Place” existed in Shaw back in the 1980’s and 90’s. Little is known about this mysterious nightclub other than what a few Washington Post articles tell us. In this essay I will use one of these Washington Post articles to argue that John’s Place and it’s lack of qualitative information is indicative of the rest of Shaw, in that the neighborhood during this time, to the outside world, was nothing more than a collection of bad statistics. I will argue that as a result, an identity beyond these statistics was unable to form and a new era of consumerism with overwhelming amounts of organic beef and artisan coffee eagerly took it’s place.

     A Washington Post article titled 4 Slain, 2 Hurt in NW Club by Ruben Castaneda and DeNeen L. Brown reports on a shooting that took place on February 25th 1990 on the doorstep of John’s Place, which as Castaneda and Brown report was “a nightclub in the 1700 block of Seventh Street NW in the Shaw neighborhood.” This article gives a general play by play retelling of the crime that occurred. At around 1:30 am two armed men made their way into John’s Place with the intent to shoot 20 year old Robert Lee Walker (Castaneda and Brown). Four men ended up losing their lives and two men were left severely wounded (Castaneda and Brown). As tragic as this violent crime was, an important aspect to observe in this article is the idea that these are strictly facts. This report contains facts that are functioning to inform their intended audience about a shooting that had taken place in Shaw. The article points out that this is not an uncommon occurrence, yet it classifies it as “one of the deadliest outbursts since drug-related violence began sweeping the region in recent years.” This implies that the target audience of this article is the people in Washington, DC who most likely do not live in Shaw. This shows that the primary information that outsiders receive about Shaw comes solely from factual news reports like this one. And why should they not? Crimes like these are most certainly worthy of reporting, however, what is pushed aside here, is the idea that in reports like this actually inhibit the ability for the general public to understand Shaw in any other way. Ruben Castaneda and DeNeen Brown are simply doing their job, but in doing so they are adding to the negative statistics that define the area.

     The absence of information and the absence of sources and dialogue regarding the original Shaw is shocking. Along the same lines, there is so little information about John’s Place. Was John’s Place’s identity solely the place where people went to get shot? Of course not. This article by Castaneda and Brown is one of very few articles that even mentions John’s Place. When it is mentioned in other instances, it is always in reference to this one horribly violent incident that took place. In comparison to Shaw as a whole, the media similarly portrays John’s Place in this solely negative light. And, it’s no one’s fault that this is the way it is. Reporters are simply doing their jobs. The lack of sources about John’s Place is interesting in itself because it raises several questions. Who was John? What type of people went to his “place?” It cannot be that it was only a place where people would be shot. I do not accept that identity. But, this is truly all that is given to it’s name.

     My journey to John’s Place started in an uber. Pinpointing the actual address of where John’s Place would have been, as it no longer exists was surprisingly difficult. I was able to go off of where Ruben Castaneda said it was located in his report about the shooting that took place there. I also referred to google maps in order to get an exact location. My uber driver was named Dwayne. We quickly began talking.  Dwayne was familiar with the area. I asked him if he had ever heard of a club back in the 1980’s or 90’s known as John’s Place. He had not. He asked me why I was going to a coffee shop in Shaw. I told him I was going to start at the coffee shop and then go explore Shaw, specifically 7th street, where John’s Place was said to be located. Dwayne told me that if I were to go venture through Shaw 20 years ago it would be extremely unsafe, but he said I’d be safe now “after all the improvements.” He also pointed out that a lot of his friends were forced to leave Shaw in the past ten years because it has simply become too expensive to live there. As I walked up 7th Street I couldn’t help but think how interesting and fun a place Shaw is now. However, knowing a little about the history of Shaw made it difficult for me to appreciate the trendy area after knowing that many of the people who were from Shaw, and who were part of the original community didn’t and couldn’t live there anymore. It was hard to believe that Shaw had ever been such a place. At every turn there was a trendy looking restaurant. The streets were adorned with murals and cobblestone sidewalks. It truly is a wonderful area. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but think about John’s Place and think about how it used to be. I stood across from John’s Place which is now a red brick wall covered with beautiful graffiti art. There was a muffin shop to my right, and a colossal entirely glass apartment building almost directly across from where John’s Place would have been.

The old Shaw was so very different from what I experienced on that Thursday afternoon. After seeing photographs by Michael Horsley (see figure 1) of the Shaw neighborhood in 1986, it was hard to process the utter transformation. The photograph reveals the sad state of parts of Shaw.

Fig. 1. Homeless Couple II 14th and P Streets NW. 1986.

Before the gentrification of Shaw specifically during the 1980’s and 90’s, the neighborhood was a dangerous and drug infested place. Buildings everywhere were falling apart. The amount of disorder and lack of care throughout the streets of Shaw was horrendous during this time. Again, from the outside in, Shaw consisted of a cluster of statistics: a large homeless community, an abundance of drug related violence, gun violence, high rates of poverty. Thus, gentrification was highly appealing for outsiders.

Additionally, I wonder what caused developers to intervene and turn Shaw into what it is now? It’s disheartening to think that anyone who could have made a difference didn’t seem to care about Shaw before it could be seen as a gold mine. It was known for being a dangerous and high risk area where you would most likely be shot passing through, according to people who only knew the statistics. But no one bothered to talk about anything else. I think that’s why gentrification in Shaw is a greater deal than it appears to be. It completely erased an unknown identity that didn’t have the chance to present itself to the world because the negative statistics, despite them being true and valid, overshadowed the possibility of anything good being known. Everyone thinks that the gentrification has given it a new and sophisticated identity, but what they don’t realize is that the identity it replaced was potentially misrepresented from a purely factual standpoint and this unknown identity is what I want to uncover.


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