Built Environment Exterior
The first thing one sees when they approach French street are the colors. Vibrant, and unique each house is painted a different pallet. Although the houses are beautiful, an unknowing eye could easily miss the turbulent history of the location. French Street is located in the Washington DC neighborhood known as Shaw. Shaw, a historically black neighborhood was once known as the epicenter of African American culture in the United States during the turn of the century. But by the mid ‘80s Shaw was no longer the cultural capital it once was but a shadow of its former self. It had turned from an area known for its arts and music into an area known for crack, prostitution and burnt out buildings. Today, forty years later the area has greatly changed, many of the older buildings have been renovated and turned into luxury condos, only to be neighbored by empty foundations and oddly located parks- scars of the past standing as reminder that the area still hasn’t changed all that much from what it once was to what it is becoming.
At the end of the block sits a park, it isn’t that odd, parks are commonplace in Washington DC. However, what makes this park peculiar isn’t so much the place where it is located, but what it once was. This park was once the location of a row house, which capped off the end of the block. This house, which most likely burnt down during the riots following the assignation of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968, is now the site of a park. The proof of what this park once was, is easily seen because the neighboring apartment just cuts off. Lacking any windows, the only thing looking over the park is a simple mural of flowers. A serine image for the turbulent past this block once held.
Going down the block from the park, you see that the change occurring in French Street hasn’t finished. Houses are still getting restored and re-painted, some are still gutted while others look as though they were just built. But this is only superficial; French Street still is recovering. For example, when I visited French Street a few weeks back, I wasn’t paying too much attention to where I was walking and I stepped on some glass which happened to be littering the sidewalk. At first, I thought that I had merely stepped on a broken beer bottle that someone had thrown there (French street is located right around the block from a small cluster of trendy bars so this was not a crazy idea), but as I look closer I realize that what I had, in fact, stepped on was automobile glass. The clear sign that some person had their car broken into fairly recently.
This shows the perfect dichotomy of this block, on one hand, you have young Yuppie couples walking their children down the street on a brisk fall evening, between well-manicured lawns and luxury automobiles, while on the other hand, you have a car being broken into and gutted buildings who haven’t seen a proper owner in at least 25 years let alone a proper coat of paint.
This dichotomy is only a short lived phenomenon. As more wealthy residents move in and push out the older inhabits, these empty lots and decrepit homes will become luxury condos and dog parks. Despite all the renovation which has and will occur, it can never cover up the past, as it the rhetoric of the city is seared into the block.