The steady decline of African-American culture in Washington DC

The steady decline of African-American culture in Washington DC

H Street, in Northeast Washington, used to be one of the economic and cultural hubs of the city’s Black community.

(Andréane Williams)

Under five-foot-tall Virginia Ali, white-haired and frail, welcomes the never-ending stream of customers entering her diner. The 84-year-old woman is the owner of Ben’s Chili Bowl, one of the most famous restaurants in Washington DC (District of Columbia). Opened 60 years ago, on U Street in Northwest Washington, it is one of the last vestiges of the heyday of African-American culture in the city.

“When I arrived in Washington in 1952, I realised how prominent and classy the Black community was. We had our own banks, Howard University, two state-of-the-art movie houses, without mentioning all the businesses, doctors, lawyers and architects we had,” Virginia recalls.

Once known as “Black Broadway”, with its many Black-owned businesses and nightclubs, U Street was the cultural and economic hub of the city’s African-American community, until the riots that broke out following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. Sacked by rioters, the neighbourhood was left abandoned, only to be taken over by gangs and crack dealers in the 1980s.

Until then, the US capital, home to famous African-American leaders such as abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Mary McLeod Bethune – an educator and advisor to President Roosevelt – had been at the forefront of the fight for civil rights. Already in 1830, 35 years before the abolition of slavery, the majority of the city’s Black population was already free. Washington was also the first city to give African-Americans the right to vote, in 1867, three years before the rest of the country, and to abolish segregation, one year before the historic Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision declaring segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional.

U Street is now considerably gentrified. Several period buildings have been demolished to make way for luxury apartments and trendy stores, designed for, more often than not, the city’s white newcomers. The less fortunate Black residents, meanwhile, are often forced out by the rising rents. Ben’s Chili Bowl is one of only three Black-owned businesses in the area to have stood the test of time.

“The Shaw/U Street area was the political powerhouse of DC’s Black community. Losing the Black majority there is symbolic of losing political power. Black churches are also leaving for other areas. It’s almost like losing your homeland,” explains Derek Hyra, author of the book Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City.

A few blocks from there, in the Shaw neighbourhood, the recently renovated Howard Theater has been one of the Black community’s most popular cultural hotspots since it was built in 1910. Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, James Brown, Aretha Franklin – almost all the legendary African-American musicians have performed at this venue.

“Look at this photo. This is me playing at the Howard Theater,” says Jimi Smooth, an African-American musician from DC. During his teenage years, this now 72-year-old man used to work as an usher at the famous entertainment hall.

“Howard Theater was a real cultural phenomenon. We didn’t have many places to go, and Howard Theater kept the community together. People would come to see their idols,” explains Smooth.

Like many other symbols of the city’s African-American culture, the Howard Theater, vandalised during the 1968 riots, was also left neglected until a private group took over its management in 2006.

“The theater is the shadow of what it was in the 70s…money changes everything. If you don’t have money, you have to step back. That’s why gentrification brought the decline of Black culture in DC,” he adds.

Go-go music: the rise and fall

In addition to the legendary figures of the African-American music scene born in the city, such as Marvin Gaye and Duke Ellington, Washington is also the birthplace of go-go music. Created in the 1970s, this subgenre of funk with a strong African influence was the pride of Washington’s Black community during the bleakest decades in the capital.

The music bands at the time found themselves having to compete with DJs who didn’t need to stop between songs. Chuck Brown, known as the ‘Godfather of Go-Go’, therefore decided to extend the percussion solos during the interludes to keep people on the dance floor.

“Music is the soundtrack of a community. It is its voice. Go-go was for us and by us. We could claim this for ourselves in DC. It was ours,” says Kato Hammond, an African-American musician and journalist, considered to be go-go’s de facto historian.

“It’s a music that allowed young people to express themselves, to claim DC as their home and to say they were proud of where they were from,” explains Brandi T. Summers, assistant professor in African-American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Like many other African-American cultural riches, go-go also fell victim to the upsurge in violence and crime in the capital during the 1980s. The city, plagued by a crack epidemic at the time, came to be known as the “murder capital” of the United States. The venues of the go-go bands, very popular amongst young people, became the stage of disputes between rival gangs.

“Violence definitely contributed to the decline of go-go music. When two neighbourhoods had a fight going on, they knew where to find the rival crew because everybody would go to the go-go. So the police targeted venues where go-go bands played, to stop the violence,” recalls Hammond.

Gentrification and identity crisis

Weakened by years of economic recession, at the end of the 1990s, the city council launched a plan to revitalise Washington and its poor neighbourhoods by attracting several billion dollars in property development projects. The result: 52 per cent of the city’s poor neighbourhoods have been gentrified since the year 2000, according to a study by Governing magazine.

“The U Street NW and H Street NE corridors have gone upscale, pushing out the places where you could buy tickets, hear go-go music live and purchase your neighbourhood’s unique brand of embroidered sweats,” wrote Natalie Hopkinson, journalist and author of the book Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City, in an article published in the Washington Post, on 11 April 2010.

Albert Hillman has been cutting the hair of people from his community for 50 years in his small business on H Street, in the northeast of the capital. Photos of Mohammed Ali, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Malcom X on the walls of the small barbershop stand as a reminder of the African-American heritage of this neighbourhood, where businesses like Hillman’s are an increasing rarity.

“I receive phone calls from developers who want to buy the building every day. They are offering me US$1 million. Gentrification is good because it brings work, but a lot of people have been forced to leave because of the rent rises,” says the barber, holding up a property brochure.

Grocery stores, funeral parlours, beauty salons and barbershops are among the many Black-owned businesses shut down as a result of the neighbourhood’s gentrification. According to the Urban Institute, which conducts research into political, social and economic policies, almost 68,000 new residents came to live in Washington between 2000 and 2010; 50,000 of them were white. Millennials aged between 18 and 34 accounted for 35 per cent of the city’s population, as compared with 23 per cent for the rest of the country.

Patrick Nease, a 25-year-old musician and consultant from West Virginia, moved to the H Street area in 2015. “Moving to H Street made me feel like I was moving to the heart of the city, where I could be part of a community where people had been living for many years. But I talk to some of my neighbours and they are telling me that the neighbourhood is changing very fast. Some of them are being forced out of their homes because their landlord is increasing the rent. This makes me feel uncomfortable,” he says.

For Brandi T. Summers, this is part of the reason for the decline of African-American culture in the city.

“Everyday culture means cultivating Black life, entrepreneurship, small supermarkets opened and owned by Black people, professors and artists, political decisions that keep Black people thriving, access to education and employment, as opposed to laws that tend to be disproportionally against Black people and lead to poverty, incarceration and disenfranchisement; everything that made Washington great for the people who lived here, even when the rest of the country saw it as a terrible place,” she explains.

It is in a bid to stop his community from suffering the same fate that artist and cultural activist Vernard Gray decided to set up a website to register and feature local Black artists from the deprived neighbourhood on the east of the Anacostia River, an area of the capital known for its poverty and high crime and shooting rates. Artist, curator, art collector, Vernard Gray has been fighting since the 1960s to preserve African-American culture in Washington. In 1976, he opened the Miya gallery, an art space dedicated to promoting African-American art, which he directed until its closure in 2001.

“My project is intended to expose those artists and the fact that they reside east of the river. Hopefully, as they get exposed, people will do more business with them,” explains Gray. ”I saw a real estate listing that described the area as ‘up and coming’, which is code for ‘opportunity and affordable’ for people to come and take it over. Developers rename places and claim it as something else, as if nothing had happened.”

This story has been translated from French.