- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Dave Schaefer, owner of Urban Essentials at 1330 U Street NW, has been in business for just nine years but still can claim to have been one of the first to play a part in the gradual reversal of the historic neighborhood’s fortunes. Before he opened his furniture store, his retail space was one of many in the area spreading beyond the intersection of 14th and U streets that had been boarded up and out of use for years.

“We’re absolutely a part of the revitalization process,” Mr. Schaefer said. “We feel like we began it.”

The U Street corridor, once described as the D.C. version of Broadway, was decimated by riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, after which the area fell into a steep decline. Mr. Schaefer, a D.C. resident for 28 years, remembers a time not so long ago when he wouldn’t have dreamed of driving on U Street, let alone opening a store in the neighborhood.

“You’d never get out of your car,” Mr. Schaefer said. “You’d be afraid to walk down the street during the day. There was nothing here.”

Construction of the Metrorail system, which began in 1969, eventually would help spark the revitalization of U Street by bringing people back to the neighborhood, but not before construction took its own toll. Plans for a Metro station on U Street were haggled over for years, and funding constraints threatened the completion of the Green Line designed to serve Northeast Washington.

Many of the neighborhood’s remaining residents and businesses would leave, unable to live and work on roads torn up to build the Metro tunnels. Only a few, such as Industrial Bank, Lee’s Flower and Card Shop and Ben’s Chili Bowl, survived.

In a two-year span (1998 and ‘99), several events helped assure the Metro was worth the long wait. In 1998, Jim Graham was elected to represent Ward 1 on the D.C. Council. At the time, Mr. Graham also served on the Metro Board of Directors, where he helped manage the construction of several thousand apartments on parcels of land that had been used during Metro construction.

At the same time Mr. Graham was focusing on bringing residents back to the community, the 14th and U Business & Arts Coalition was formed in 1998 to focus on redeveloping small business in the neighborhood while maintaining the region’s artistic heritage. Now known as the MidCity Business Association, the organization represents more than 40 businesses on 14th Street, U Street and in the surrounding neighborhood. In the association’s view, there always was something to the neighborhood, even in the harshest times.

“There was a lot of vibrancy and community there already in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” said Natalie Avery, executive director of the MCBA. “It’s not like all of a sudden, in the last 10 years, something sprung up from whole cloth.”

In 1999, the midcity section of Metro’s Green line was completed. The combination of easy commuting, new residences and businesses to support a community finally began to pay off.

“We’ve been to the dentist for a prolonged visit, and now you can see how Metro has contributed,” Mr. Graham said.

Venues such as the Lincoln Theatre and the 9:30 Club helped assure the musical vibrancy of the area, and the neighborhood remains a popular destination for music and performing arts. In addition, organizations such as the Cultural Development Corp. (CuDC) have helped take up the cause.

In 2006, CuDC purchased Source Theatre on 14th Street after the community learned of plans to turn the run-down theater into a restaurant and pool hall. The chance to save a theater important to the neighborhood and to the District as a whole was an easy opportunity to take, said Anne L. Corbett, CuDC executive director.

“The decision was about the legacy of theater artists that had come through that building and its role in incubating theater in Washington,” Ms. Corbett said.

Now CuDC manages the fully renovated facility, which provides theater and rehearsal space for four resident performance groups and enough space and time for smaller community performers.

Other businesses, including Busboys and Poets - which has two locations along the corridor - buck traditional retail trends to create their own artistic space as well. Busboys and Poets is equal parts restaurant, bar, bookstore and theater.

“There are a lot of places that have business models that aren’t just about sitting down and having dinner or going out and getting a drink,” Ms. Avery said, “but are also really innovative performance spaces.”

While 14th and U is a vibrant area, it’s still not complete, Mr. Graham said. The MCBA and Mr. Graham are pushing for long-delayed streetscape renovations to start in 2011, and the MCBA continues to encourage more businesses to trickle into the neighborhood.

“It’s certainly been a slow process,” Mr. Schaefer said. “There are spaces right across the street from us that are boarded up.”

The business owners will continue to work at transforming their neighborhood. For many, including Mr. Schaefer, U Street isn’t just where they work; it’s their home.

“Its future is assured,” Mr. Graham said. “It’s a very lively, interesting but balanced neighborhood, which is going to be more so in the future.”

• Ben Giles attends the University of Maryland.

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