The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, but You Can See it on the Wall

When I step out of the Shaw-Howard U Metro Station in Washington, D.C., I come across a cafe called Uprising Muffin. At first, I chose to ignore the cafe embedded inside a tall glass building. I wanted to understand the culture of Shaw that I felt was being overrun due to gentrification. I believed it was smart for me to explore the surrounding areas and pay special attention to the run-down buildings only utilized by the older residents of Shaw whose most defining characteristics were “low-income” and “black.” As I started to learn more of Shaw’s history, I felt that the narrow approach I took did not allow me to understand the complexities of the changing community. The friend that I was with one time wanted to buy smoothie, so we walked into Uprising Muffin, where we found a beautiful mural. The mural was filled with quotes like, “Feet don’t fail me now,” and “The revolution will not be televised.” I believe the mural best represents Shaw, and this single genre has different effects on the owners of Uprising Muffin, the older residents of Shaw, the newer residents of Shaw, and college-aged students.

For the owners of Uprising Muffin, the mural helps the cafe embed itself into the history, culture, and political atmosphere of Shaw. Shaw used to be a primarily black neighborhood, and over time, it has witnessed the coming and passing of activists like Dr. Martin Luther King, J.r., and artists like Duke Ellington. Furthermore, Shaw is known for its various murals that are sprinkled throughout the neighborhood. I believe the owners of Uprising Muffin intentionally placed a mural inside the cafe to make local customers feel more welcome. Additionally, the cafe was installed inside of a new building that was the result of a development project. To pay respects to the area, and make residents feel that their lifestyle isn’t overrun, the owners have installed this mural.

To older resident the mural’s purpose is to recognize and voice the struggles they have faced as a result of the changing political atmosphere and gentrification. In recent years, Shaw has been subject to many intense projects aimed at bettering the community through development projects. New buildings, new businesses, and new people have begun to pour into Shaw, ultimately changing it. As a result, older residents of Shaw feel that they are being evicted from their communities because of rising costs in the area. These residents often live in high rises and depend on their low or fixed income to sustain themselves. With the arrival of new residents, older residents may feel threatened because they simply cannot afford to live in Shaw any longer. Gentrification is an inherently violent process to them. The quotes on this mural, however, may serve as source of inspiration. If older residents find themselves in Uprising Muffin, quotes like “‘Cause I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me,” and “Keep Ya Head Up” communicate inspiration.

In contrast, newer residents may view the mural as a window to the culture and history of Shaw. People moving into Shaw tend to be white people who are comfortably middle class and are young. The new residents are occupying a space which they know nothing about, unless they avidly research the history and culture of Shaw. This is where I believe Uprising Muffin comes in as a catalyst to integrate these new residents into the community. The cafe’s mural can be considered a window into the character of Shaw. When new residents visit Uprising Muffin and see “We’re a winner, and never let anybody say boy you can’t make it cuz an evil mind is in your way,” they understand the community cares a lot about activism and social justice. Although I don’t believe that the mural is responsible for changing perspectives of new residents, I do believe that it helps them understand their area a little better.

Lastly, it’s important to recognize that the cafe is near Howard University, so other rhetors may include Howard’s students. The students of Howard may feel that the cafe is honoring their history and the history of Howard, a historically black university. Washington, and the United States as a whole, is constantly facing intense racial conflict. Students from all over Washington and all over the United States come to study at Howard University to pursue their passion and infuse it with social justice and racial equality. Uprising Muffin recognizes that and creates a very welcoming atmosphere. Students are always welcome to come and study in the cafe under this mural. As a result, to students, the cafe seems warm and welcoming. I think the owners would have wanted them to feel this way.

 

 

 

The Howard Theatre, the Theatre’s Website, and the Future of Shaw

A worm's eye view of the Howard Theatre front
Photographed by me.

Although the Howard Theatre’s website cherishes the black roots of the community, it is beginning to reflect the dangerous trend of gentrification in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C.  The theater, built in 1910, became a venue through which a vibrant black narrative emerged. It allows African American culture to flourish in Washington considering it has hosted entertainers like Duke Ellington to activists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Although the theatre has venerated its history, the theatre’s website clearly shows it evolving to serve another audience, and in doing so, its role in Shaw is constantly evolving due to the larger demographic shifts. Unfortunately, this development is hurting older residents of Shaw and therefore must be addressed.

Inside the lobby of the Howard Theatre there are pictures of black singers, subtle light fixtures hanging from the ceiling, and a man at the booth asking for show tickets.
The inside of the Howard Theatre, the lobby, photographed by me.

The very existence of the Howard Theatre has been a political statement in the realms of culture and will always be. It was first established in 1910 on a vacant lot by a man who made his name by selling furniture in Shaw. The birth of the theatre was especially groundbreaking because it was the first theatre in all of Washington to serve blacks in an era plagued by segregation. Because of its purpose, the theatre consistently drew more and more black crowds. Eventually, it also drew black residents. As a result, “white flight” became commonplace in Shaw, and it left behind a largely African-American community in the nation’s capital. This ultimately led to the theatre’s most common patrons to be the “black bourgeoisie.” The Howard Theatre soon boasted events like musicals, occasional circuses, testimonials, church and organizational meetings, and everything in between (Garner and Bettye Thomas). This reinforced the notion that the theatre was built for and used by African-Americans exclusively due to its location and thus served a plethora of purposes all of which further strengthened community ties. Unfortunately, after the assassination of one of America’s greatest civil rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., riots ensued and patrons no longer visited the Howard Theatre. Subsequently, the hostility of these events in Shaw resulted in many black elites fleeing the area. The many businesses that budded in the midst of the excitement the theatre created had closed down. Shaw was devastated and the Howard Theatre was crumbling.

State of Duke Ellington playing a piano and sitting on a treble cleff
A statue dedicated to Duke Ellington, photographed by me.

The history of the Howard Theatre, as told by its website, does not deny this rough past and imbues hope for its future. It cherishes the difficult past it experienced and preserves it in digital amber by presenting images of past artists and show time advertisements of the twentieth century. The website of the Howard Theatre also reflects that it was dubbed the “Theatre of the People” by the Washington Bee, a well-known local newspaper. It further boasts that it has been attended by dignitaries such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Additionally, artists like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holliday have had the pleasure of performing there. The rhetorical significance of such a statement further bolsters the theatre’s cultural influence. These descriptions also issue a clear message to whoever finds themselves reading it, and that message is the theatre once had prestige and still does.

A signed guitar on display in the Howard Theatre lobby.
A guitar on display inside of the Howard Theatre, photographed by me.

The last sentence of the digital history on the Howard Theatre’s website, however, is arguably the boldest statement. In contrast to the description the theatre offered regarding the wide range of artists and theatre attendees in the past, the last sentence makes a statement on the theatre’s current standing. It reads, “Today, The Howard Theatre is enjoying a rebirth and is entering a new era in its long and prestigious history.” This is an especially loud proclamation because it acknowledges the existence of change in today’s world. It acknowledges it is part of that change and it acknowledges that it is ready for this change.

Sign of the Howard Theatre
The sign outside of the Howard Theatre, photographed by me

By making such a proclamation, the Howard Theatre is indirectly recognizing the alteration in demographics of Shaw and its contemporary American identity. Due to restoration efforts and increased community development projects, Shaw has slowly been rebuilding itself. However, this does not come without a price. The arrival of tall glass buildings, a restored metro center, and several quasiethnic brunch sites also prompted the arrival of richer, white young urbanites with newer, more globalized tastes, and a lust for life. As a result, the Howard Theatre has modified its web content to welcome this new audience. For a venue that once held church services and Sunday concerts, the option to transform it into a nightclub is nevertheless there.

Screenshot of the Nightclub tab on the Howard Theatre’s website

When you click on the “Nightclub” tab, which is conveniently placed in the header of the site, the first images you see are of white DJs and artists. The images of black performers are seen further down the page. Why would a theatre, essentially built for black entertainers, place them second? Fundamentally, the theatre is just conducting business as normal. After all, why should the Howard Theatre market itself in accordance with a seemingly outdated era? However, this important business decision is rooted in something much larger. It’s rooted in the influx of the younger, wealthier, and whiter residents coming to Shaw. The Shaw neighborhood then becomes a space where they can build their own narrative. Although it may be unintentional, this narrative runs counter to one that was purely owned by African-Americans in Washington, D.C. Therefore, the images shown on the Nightclub page, are signs of a larger battle of cultural influence that older residents of Shaw may begin to lose.

Screenshot of the Menu tab on the Howard Theatre’s Website

Similarly, on the “Menu” portion of the website, the theatre’s dishes are listed and contain everything from appetizers to brunch to wines. While normally one can neglect or overlook such a simple feature, the ultimate impact isn’t so simple. The biggest difference I came across when evaluating the Howard Theatre’s menu was its lack of prices. The lack of prices on the Howard Theatre’s menu clearly indicates that the menu caters to those that probably don’t even have to worry about money. Unfortunately, that’s not a luxury many old Shaw residents can have. Many old Shaw residents are fixed or low-income residents. Unlike their counterparts, these residents must learn to live with a tight budget. By not displaying prices on its website, the Howard Theatre is making a decision to prevent older residents from walking into its doors and sitting in its seats. While this is not the same case for most of the site’s pages, it is still worth discussing.

An bar/venue, deli, and another building. The area looks run down.
The buildings and area immediately to the left of the theatre, photographed by me.

One can argue that the demographic shifts are a great thing because they’re restoring Shaw to its former glory. This can be seen in the restored livelihood of Shaw. After all, there must be a reason why businesses are once again blooming. There must be a reason why the theatre is being a restored. There must be a reason why Shaw has been becoming an attractive site to move to and start a family. However, my criticism of this argument is that the demographic shifts and community development projects that were taking place in Shaw have begun to contest the rich and vibrant history it already has. Because of gentrification, the costs of living in Shaw have subsequently increased. The adverse effects of such a trend causes older residents, who are usually African-Americans with low or fixed income backgrounds, to essentially be gutted from the narrative of change that Shaw has been experiencing. As Shaw former resident Curtis Mozie has put it, “It’s a shame that I survived the war zone era here but now I’m being forced out. Changes in this neighborhood are for the better in terms of quality of life, but I feel I should be able to be included in that change.” No community member should be forced out of their homes because of gentrification. Unfortunately, the only way to stop gentrification is to encourage residents to increase their local political activism and hold their elected officials accountable to the people who already live there. Additionally, elected officials must be pressured to stand against the selling out of Shaw.

What’s at stake here isn’t just a home or a few, but an entire culture and its history.

A sign reading "No Human Being is Illegal Here"
Sign on one of the resident buildings in Shaw, photographed by me