The centre of D.C.’s historic black neighbourhood, the U St corridor in the northwest quadrant was the scene of massive celebrations during Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 and again in 2012.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but my first glimpses of Washington, D.C., were probably the truest of them all. The view from the bus from New York coming in through the northeast quadrant of the city offers glimpses of a gritty urban landscape — shuttered shops, foreclosed houses and a less-than perfect geometric street layout. Although it was a shockingly hot August afternoon in 2011, I spotted several dishevelled homeless men slumped in the full glare of the sun, trying to get some sleep.

Yet, only a few blocks from the bus interchange, I found myself practically tripping on the steps of the imperious, stately Capitol building. Standing on the very spot where President Obama took his second oath of office on Monday, I was less than a mile from those images of destitution, but might as well have been in another city.

As a congressional reporter for a Maryland newswire, I got to know Washington as the Capital largely before I got a feel for it as any other kind of city. I spent six months working out of an office just a stone’s throw from the White House, poring over Bills and memorising (“memorizing”) the names and faces of congressmen, Senators and Governors. But that side of Washington is, in some ways, tightly bounded; once you leave the Mall and memorials behind, you’re in a different place altogether.

As the newly-minted administrative centre of America, Washington was plonked down on what was already a thriving trade port. Situated on the banks of the swampy Potomac River that ambles down from the hills of West Virginia, Washington was a place with its own rich history as a historically-Southern, majority-black city.

I lived in a house just off U Street, an area that’s the heart of the old black neighbourhood just north of downtown Washington. Most mornings — so long as it was warmer than 5 degrees — I jogged with my girlfriend around the neighbourhood, and we’d take it in turns to pick the route. My first choice was a no-brainer: south, around the Mall and the towering Washington Monument. But the very next day we headed east, leaving 14th Street further behind and entering a different neighbourhood altogether.

During segregation, the north-south meridian of 14th Street was the boundary between the black neighbourhood of Shaw, to the wast, and the mostly white Dupont neighborhood to the west. Before 1968, 14th Street — which is now a hub for some of the city’s most sought-after bars and restaurants — was a rare place where white and black businesses traded, albeit uneasily, side-by-side. The U Street/14th Street area changed irrevocably though in April 1968, when protests in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination sparked massive race riots. President Johnson declared a state of emergency and sent the National Guard in to reinforce overwhelmed police lines and drive out rioters in this strip of shops, theaters and restaurants just a 20-minute walk from the White House. The U St corridor was especially devastated.

One restaurant was famously spared — indeed, it even kept trading during the crisis; a green zone of sorts where both police and protestors could get a meal. It’s called Ben’s Chili Bowl, and it’s a humble diner still standing opposite the U Street metro station, serving up chili, fries and shakes just the way it did in 1958 when it first opened.

The lines go out the door almost every day and its walls are adorned with pictures of its founder Ben Ali and his family with celebrities from across the globe. President Barack Obama famously stopped by for a D.C. classic half-smoke (think a bigger, spicier hot dog) on his way to his first Inauguration in 2009; and he evidently recommends it to other world leaders. The picture of Nicolas Sarkozy with a half-smoke, beside a very uncomfortable-looking Carla Bruni, is my personal favourite.

Until 1920, when New York’s Harlem overtook it, D.C. was home to the largest urban African American population in the United States, with U St as its cultural, commercial and intellectual heartbeat. D.C. native Duke Ellington was the vanguard of an age of talented jazz musicians like Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey and Sarah Vaughan. In the 1930s and 1940s, the scene was so magical it was dubbed Washington’s “Black Broadway”.

Some of the clubs from U St’s golden era were revived after the riots and decades of neglect. The Howard Theatre on T St — a beautiful Beaux Arts treasure where Ellington frequently played — was reopened in 2012 after a long-awaited, splashy renovation. My one regret from living in the U St corridor was missing out on the Howard’s gospel brunch, an experience combining two of the greatest traditions of the south: shrimp n’ grits and soul.

Across the other side of the city, perhaps, a very different social set would be brunching in Georgetown: the elegant, monied — and very European — old town of Washington, on the banks of the Potomac. But while those streets were full of visitors taking a break from treading the Mall and the Monuments this Inauguration weekend, they should know there’s a vibrant part of the city’s history, a little north, and a little east, that they’re missing.

Photo credit: Tessa Khan

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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