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In an effort to fill the chic new Ellington Apartments building at 13th and U Streets NW by next month, developers have had local shops stocked with hundreds of postcards hyping the building’s granite kitchen countertops, panoramic city views, and hip urban vibe. To judge from the postcard’s rendering of the not-too-distant future, U Streeters are in for some surprises: The completed Ellington will loom majestically over Shaw, 13th Street will glow in its reflected cleanliness, and pedestrian traffic will undergo a slight shift in racial demographics.
According to the picture, everybody will be white.
In real life, residents of the U Street corridor are about 48 percent black and 36 percent white, according to the 2000 census, the most recent available. But in the rendering, eight pedestrians, seemingly all white, make their way down historic Black Broadway at 13th and U. The bleached cavalcade of businessmen doesn’t exactly conjure the sounds of Cab Calloway or the greasy spoons at Ben’s Chili Bowl.
Chris Donatelli, president of lead project developer Donatelli & Klein, says the homogeneous sketch was an accident. “There was certainly no intentional steering along those lines,” he says. In another curious detail, the posting for the African-American Civil War Memorial is absent from the pictured Metro sign, which simply reads “U Street/Cardozo.”
On 13th and U Streets, Mohammed Ben, who runs a variety store on Georgia Avenue NW, studies the illustrated version on the postcard. “I hope these people know what they’re doing,” he says. “The way they represent it, every executive manager has to be white….You don’t know how this would affect people around here.”
Donatelli says the clunky Civil War Memorial posting was included in previous drafts but was removed to make the sign legible in the drawing. The company contracted a Maryland company for the artist’s rendering and failed to carefully vet the postcard for inappropriate whiteness. “We’ll certainly keep out a more watchful eye for that,” he says.
Nigel Gragg, one of Donatelli’s partners in the project, who is African-American, says he and his co-developers have made a point of bringing black-owned businesses to U Street, such as Destination U, a clothing store that will open inside the Ellington. His company, Gragg and Associates, has a 30 percent stake in the venture. “[The postcard] does concern us, because it doesn’t match up with our practices,” says Gragg. “I happen to be a brother myself.” (Although the project’s moniker calls to mind D.C.’s favorite black native son, Gragg declined to comment as to whether Duke Ellington was actually the building’s namesake.)
As the developers are quick to point out, the Ellington’s Web site features a “lifestyle” photo gallery that nails all points of diversity: In one picture, two white men dance with one another at a club; other photos show a black DJ spinning records and a black diner raising his martini. To judge from the weighty text of the postcard, the Ellington ad campaign seems catered to cultured 20- and 30-somethings of any race as long as they have disposable income: “There’s a weight in the rhythm of the living here. Pulsing beats through open doors of city streets. Music singing. Restaurants brimming. Friends speaking. Leaning across their wine.”
Gragg says the banner they’ve hung from the Ellington—showing four stylish, upwardly-mobile-looking youngsters of all colors—better reflects their vision for the new U Street than the postcard. “I hope people will look at our history and not just one flyer,” he says.CP