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Walk past Jumbo Slice on U Street NW on a Saturday night, and you might catch a glimpse of a dude peeing in an alley or a pack of strung-out clubgoers tottering by in 5-inch heels—but you’ll see few vestiges of the corridor that once rivaled Harlem as a center of black culture in the early 20th century. Cory Stowers, co-owner of Art Under Pressure, a skate-and-graffiti-art shop that moved from Petworth to the 1300 block of U Street in April, wants to educate the area’s newcomers on what came before. With his new mural hailing U Street as last century’s Black Broadway, Stowers stakes a bold claim for history in a neighborhood that’s changing faster than you can say “Trader Joe’s.”
Though Stowers is white, the musician and graffiti muralist says he and other local veteran artists share a “feeling of heartbreak” over the whitewashing of Black Broadway in recent years. He found a kindred spirit in Chris Naoum, one of the organizers of the recent D.C. Funk Parade festival, which acted as a staging ground for the mural’s first stage of painting. “You can have responsible people…that are in charge of presentation of [history], like the Funk Parade,” Stowers says. “They can look to partner with people who have lineage and bonafides to bring those cultural aspects to the forefront.”
The “Black Broadway” painting, at 1344 U Street, replaced the Latin American Youth Center’s “Evolution” mural, a pink and blue confection conceived in 2008 that had since been defaced with graffiti. The new work conjures images of U Street’s marquee signs of yore with white-on-black block lettering, open typography that Stowers might later fill with lightbulbs or bars of neon.
The storied Twins Jazz Lounge lives on the floor above the painting, which inhabits the alley-facing wall of—you guessed it—Jumbo Slice. If grant funding comes through, Stowers hopes to expand the mural up to Twins with a collage of the musicians and old venues that earned the corridor its old moniker. “We’d be creating something even more iconic that can help keep the neighborhood’s history alive,” he says.
Stowers’ ultimate goal, he says, is to “go into these new spaces and make sure the history is not lost.” The legacies of local artists from decades past risk losing relevance on today’s U Street, and without representation in the changing landscape, they’ll fade away. “I like to think that the folks coming into the city who are becoming citizens of D.C. now have just as much potential to preserve the city as those who were here before,” he says. “It begs some education and a healthy respect of the arts, though.”