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If any one theme connects the neighborhoods of Logan Circle, Shaw, Mount Vernon Square, and Chinatown/Penn Quarter, it might be this: Most everyone thought these hoods were violent, drug-dealing hell holes in the ’70s and ’80s until developers and/or the government decided to reclaim them for the gentler vices of the high-income set. If you’re ever in doubt about your hood’s history, just remember this handy shorthand—some important event or building (the Civil War or a major retailer are safe guesses) transformed former pig pastures into a thriving neighborhood, which then slid into decay after the ’68 riots, but was then rescued by forward-thinking business types as a home for the District’s seemingly bottomless pit of lawyers and lobbyists.
The details are much more interesting, of course. You folks in Shaw should go to your local library and find out more about the neighborhood once known as the “Black Broadway.” Oh, wait, the city closed your money pit of a library. Well, go to the interim one instead—the one you can’t wait to replace.
Shaw, despite following the standard developer’s blueprint, has not enjoyed an easy relationship with gentrification. While the U Street NW corridor has become the city’s latest trendy address—filled with overpriced condos and underwhelming restaurants—the hood’s eastern streets have remained as mean as ever. For years, rival gangs were gunning each other down for reasons they didn’t even remember anymore. A Muslim neighborhood watch group first tried to restore order, but it took some former gang members to negotiate a peace between the 7th and O and the 5th and O crews in 2007 (“Truce and Consequences,” 5/30).
Ethiopians were among the first to see the promise of Shaw; with rents soaring in Adams Morgan, they moved their eateries and retail stores to a desolate strip of 9th Street NW, between T and U Streets. For their efforts, they had hoped to earn the right to name their small business district “Little Ethiopia.” What they got instead was an earful from longtime Shaw residents who resented that Ethiopians were trying to rewrite some of the African-American history of the neighborhood.
Ethiopian or not, new business is what drives developers to seek out emerging neighborhoods. The International Spy Museum and the Verizon Center helped revitalize Penn Quarter and reduce Chinatown to a shriveled old fool of a neighborhood that still requires all businesses to slap Chinese pictographs on their awnings, including, ahem, Hooters. The sprawling Whole Foods on P Street NW put Logan Circle on the gentrification fast track; hard to believe the circle was little more than a statue with tall weeds around it in the ’70s. Even the Northern Liberty Market, built back in 1846, was considered key to developing the prairie land that once was Mount Vernon Square.
But this reliance on buildings to do the heavy lifting for city planners can backfire. The Walter E. Washington Convention Center opened in 2003 on a massive patch of real estate between 7th and 9th Streets NW. It was supposed to spur development along those corridors. It hasn’t yet, thanks in part to Shiloh Baptist Church, which, in a true display of Christian mission, has refused to sell its holdings to developers just so they could build more temples to the rich and powerful. Likewise, the City Museum of Washington, D.C., opened in 2003 in the former Central Public Library on Mount Vernon Square. It was supposed to draw visitors by the hundreds of thousands. It didn’t, and closed in 2004.
These neighborhoods don’t spend a lot of time looking back on their own history, unless forced to by preservationists. They’re mostly on a relentless march forward, which isn’t all that bad, frankly. Penn Quarter has become a major destination for those interested in art and fine dining; famed Spanish chef José Andrés has consolidated all of his THINKfoodGROUP restaurants to the area, save for a couple of suburban outlets of Jaleo. After months of delays, the Newseum finally reopened in 2008, probably just in time to watch newspapers die off, and now the Quarter is home to yet another concept museum, the National Museum of Crime & Punishment. It’s affiliated—of course—with America’s Most Wanted.
But the history of these neighborhoods hasn’t been completely buried under towering condos. The True Reformer Building in Shaw (whose completion earned perhaps the most offensive headline ever in the Washington Post: “Erected by Negroes, White Race Had No Hand in Any Part of Work”) still stands tall on U Street, as does Ben’s Chili Bowl, that indomitable dog purveyor that has survived both the ’68 riots and the construction of the Metro station in its backyard. The boarding house run by Mary Surratt—one of the co-conspirators in the Lincoln assassination—now houses the Wok ’n’ Roll restaurant in Chinatown.
If you’re looking for ironies, however, check this one out: The Wah Luck House, the low-income apartment complex built in 1982 to accommodate the Chinese residents displaced by the old convention center, is now up for sale. A new owner could turn the building at 6th and H Streets into condos, displacing those elderly residents who were originally displaced during the first wave of gentrification in Chinatown.
• Some will tell you the cultural core of Logan Circle/Shaw/Penn Quarter lies along the 14th Street corridor, where a gallery district has taken shape. Others will point to the cluster of destination restaurants around the Verizon Center. But they’re all wrong. The hood’s true epicenter lies at Ben’s Chili Bowl. The restaurant’s resilience, its cultural capital, and its damn fine half-smokes have made the landmark a primary wet-your-whistle stop on every politician’s tour of D.C. Hell, the stuffy, academic Anthony A. Williams practically lived at Ben’s just to prove he was black enough to run this city as mayor.
• One of the better turf wars in Shaw focused on a baseball diamond at the northwest corner of R Street and Vermont Avenue, the home field for Garrison Elementary School and, for years, the Sunday parking lot for Metropolitan Baptist Church. In the late ’90s, parents got fed up with their future big-leaguers tripping all over the tire ruts on the field, so they bitched about the church’s sweetheart parking deal until the D.C. Public Schools superintendent reached a compromise: They would shorten the outfield and create a paved thoroughfare behind the ball fences to give churchgoers access to another lot. These days, the battlefield has gone to the dogs. Literally. There’s talk of turning the diamond into a dog park.
• His name is a mouthful—Al Hajj Mahdi Leroy Joseph Thorpe Jr.—and he was more than a handful during his 18-year reign as an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Shaw. Thorpe was known for banging his gavel and cutting off visitors during ANC meetings. He even, according to Washington City Paper archives, “once led a campaign to transfer a police officer he disliked” and “attempted to stall a community project because he doesn’t like the person in charge.” Residents finally voted Thorpe out in 2006, but he quickly re-emerged. The new ANC chair appointed Thorpe parliamentarian and executive assistant to the chair.