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The Metro construction fence at 13th and U Streets makes for a rather self-effacing art exhibition. Across the street from a shoe repair shop, a chain pharmacy, and a McDonald’s, and just down the block from the Lincoln Theatre, there’s a modest 40-foot-long stucco wall covered with quotes from neighborhood residents and pictures of Duke Ellington and the other famous (and not so famous) African-Americans who made U Street the “black Broadway” from the ’20s to the ’50s.
The pictures on the wall don’t come only from local libraries and archives. Because such institutions often don’t document everyday events very well, co-curator Kathryn Schneider Smith asked local residents to open up their private collections. “A lot of times,” she says, “the best pictures of local life are just thrown away….One goal of the exhibit is to make people realize that personal photos are important historical documents.”
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The wall, covered with weatherproofing and graffitilike writing, is not really intended for the usual local art consumer, Smith says. “It’s meant for pedestrians and residents” of the Shaw/Cardozo neighborhood.
Tony, who declines to give his last name, pulls up in a car with two friends he has told about the exhibit. “It’s important for the community to look in hindsight at what it was, especially for younger people,” he says. “It’s too easy for us to focus on all the bad things instead of the good things about the neighborhood.”
Kevin O’Nalty, also an African-American in his late 20s, has just opened a computer store down the street. He didn’t grow up here, but he says the exhibition reinforces the hope that “we can get back to where this neighborhood consists of a variety of businesses to come home to.”
The exhibition, which took more than a year to assemble, enjoyed the participation of, among others, the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, Metro, the Corcoran, the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., and local sculptor and rapper Terence Nicholson, also known as “Sub-Zero,” who can be found pounding together another section of the wall in a nearby warehouse. The next installment goes up the second week of November.Tracy Wahl