The Revitalization or Destruction of Shaw?


The Revitalization or Destruction of Shaw?

The building in which We Work’s coworking office spaces are housed makes no mention of We Work on the outside but instead is labelled the Wonder Bread factory. Having stood there with the same physical structure since 1913 (Wilson), The Wonder Bread Factory has looked very similar on the outside ever since it was first constructed. From drug dealers to young entrepreneurs, all types of people have frequented the building over the course of its history. Shaw’s overall condition dictated what took place outside and inside of the building. With median income and saftey much higher, Shaw has recovered from its crime and drug infested heyday to attract young entrepreneurs and large amounts of financial investment. Although by many metrics and insights Shaw is in the best condition it has been in since the 1920’s, the changing landscape and demographic has gradually taken away the culture and people that gave Shaw its identity. Shaw, a place that had a vibrant culture which was described as D.C’s harlem during the 20’s and 30’s for its musical acts, entertaining drama, and intellectual thought which in culmination with other cities spurred black pride and shaped an identity that African Americans had longed for for such a long time. This transformation has not had tacit approval from some of the older residents of Shaw and other African Americans who cannot even recognize the space which they have called home for their whole lives. Although Shaw has less crime, drugs, and unemployment, the vibrancy and historicity of African American culture is being slowly stripped away as Shaw and other parts of D.C are being revitalized by the process of gentrification.

Duke Ellington (left) with his band getting ready to perform

Shaw’s history can be defined by three transformations: the renaissance era, the drug and crime era, and present day gentrification. Named after Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Whiteside), the famous Civil War leader who led one of the first black infantry units in the Civil War, Shaw has always been largely comprised of African Americans. Originally being a place where freed slaves set up camps during the war (Sheir), the neighborhood became a center for black culture during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. During the renaissance period which coincided with the Harlem renaissance in New York, many African American entertainers, thinkers, and musicians gained national attention and brought out African American pride. In 1920, Washington D.C had the largest urban population of African Americans in the U.S (Whitehead), and Shaw was the social, cultural, and economic center. A place where Duke Ellington played piano and Langston Hughes wrote poetry, Shaw’s history is African American history. Located on U Street, The Lincoln Theater also known as Black Broadway, along with Dunbar Theater and Howard Theater, were venues where jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington entertained guests (Whitehead). U Street in Shaw was a hub for African American entertainment and after Slavery served as a major place where African Americans shaped their identity. Because of Howard University’s proximity to Shaw, many black leaders in science, medicine, law, the arts, education, humanities, and the mili

The aftermath of the 1968 riots

tary frequented or called Shaw home. Many of the African American leaders who attended Howard University between 1920 and 1960 were active and leading members in the civil rights movement (Whitehead). Although African Americans had seen violence and discrimination, the death of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr spurred the 1968 riots which triggered massive upheaval that Shaw and many African Americans in urban areas could not recover from. With four days of rioting, there were 10 deaths, thousands of arrests made, and more than 1,200 fires burned with $13 million in estimated damages in D.C (Fenton). Including looted businesses and many buildings in dilapidated condition all across cities in America, decades of anger were let out in a reaction to the death of MLK Jr. who many in the African American community saw as their greatest advocate on the national stage. The riots sped the white flight and black middle class leaving Shaw and inner cities of America. The stability that those groups brought vanished rapidly after they left and that left many poor blacks with little support whilst being confined to ghettos. Coupled with grocery stores and businesses that the community lied on burnt down and not in service resulted for consequences that the African American community in Shaw and around the United States still feel today. As many African Americans were left without jobs, support, and hope, drugs and crime swept into an area ready to implode.


Inside We Work’s Wonder Bread Factory

As the crack epidemic hit Shaw, the murder rate increased exponentially, and D.C being the country’s capital was dubbed as the “murder capital” (Shade) of the country. During the early 1980’s, Wonder Bread along with many other businesses left Shaw. This left vacant buildings that businesses had retreated from to be susceptible to being used as drug houses and vandalism, and the Wonder Bread Factory was no exception. Ruben Castaneda in his book S Street Rising, talks about how during the 1980’s the Wonder Bread Factory was surrounded by drug dealers and prostitutes and Shaw was in an overall terrible state. After reaching a peak of 482 murdered in 1991, the numbers dwindled in each successive year after the crack epidemic started to decline. During the 1990’s and 2000’s, crime and drug use fell as Castaneda credits increased incarceration of drug offenders and increased investment in Shaw with the rebuilding of infrastructure. As Shaw has recovered, a growing number of white, young, educated people have moved in. To accommodate this group, a lot of buildings such as restaurants and barbershops have been torn down or redesigned for housing or for businesses that attract this audience which has changed the literal landscape of Shaw. On the outside although there is little change, The Wonder Bread Factory is now used as a coworking office space for young entrepreneurs. Although Shaw has improved in many statistics with median income now at $108,600 (Shade), it is becoming a different place almost unrecognizable by many older residents. Also as home values have gone up, many poor black residents have left. With a demographic shake up and a changing landscape, the people and history of Shaw are slowly vanishing.

The Marvin Gaye mural being built over

Shaw has improved by almost every metric and massive amounts of wealth are being invested in it to become as The Washington Spectator calls, “The New Diamond District.” Shaw and many parts of D.C have been revitalized and are much safer than they ever were. Although Shaw has recovered to become a more safer and prosperous area, Shaw’s identity and history shaped by the African American community is slowly deteriorating.According to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the zip code 20001 that Shaw is included in saw a 27.2% increase in non-Hispanic white residents from 2000 to 2010 which puts it at tenth nationwide in terms of white increase (Austermuhle).  From murals of Marvin Gaye that exemplify African American culture being torn down to many black residents leaving because their home values have skyrocketed, African culture once a hallmark of Shaw is fading away. Many older residents who still live in Shaw were interviewed in the Washington Post’s article Bittersweet Renaissance and reminisce about the neighborhood being predominantly black and the culture being more prevalent. For many of the residents, all of their memories have taken place in Shaw and it is the only place that they have ever known. But even though they have seen friends and family leave they have decided to stay in order to keep a black presence. As resident Norman Wood explains, “Shaw has the richest history, the only way for us to maintain that history is to be guardians over it.” Many of the poor African American residents who left had never been offered such incredible amounts of money so they sold their homes because as civic leader Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy said sadly “Cash rules in all matters.” Even though attempts to preserve the black identity are pursued, it cannot be guaranteed that those in the future will maintain the promise. The propping up and renovation of highrises that are replacing liquor stores and homes such as the Wonder Bread Factory which reflect the new era of gentrification, are done to accommodate the young urbanites. These changes have brought revitalization in some areas with a growing flow of wealth and less crime but are slowly stripping away the vibrancy and historicity of African American culture in Shaw and D.C.

A new housing development in Shaw


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Castaneda, Ruben. S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in D.C. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014. Print.


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  • Images were inside my sources

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