Tracing a D.C. Neighborhood's Comeback from 1968 In Washington, D.C., riots sparked by the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. decimated the U Street corridor. Now 40 years later, residents and business owners see the area rejuvenated, in large part by the neighborhood's rich African-American heritage.
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Tracing a D.C. Neighborhood's Comeback from 1968

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Tracing a D.C. Neighborhood's Comeback from 1968

Tracing a D.C. Neighborhood's Comeback from 1968

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The aftermath of a much larger tragedy had taken 40 years to unfold. That's how long Washington, D.C., needed to undo the damage from a few days of rioting. This morning, we'll visit a neighborhood that people left for dead after fires in 1968.

Mr. STANLEY MAYES: They said, you burned it up, you live with it. There's a few of us around who still know the sordid details as to how this place came back from the abyss.

INSKEEP: That's lifelong resident Stanley Mayes. He's been helping us understand how one American neighborhood has evolved.

We listened yesterday as Mayes showed us where the riots started after the murder of Martin Luther King.

Mr. MAYES: The smoke from the fires and all that were taking place and all; the neighborhood was such you couldn't breathe.

INSKEEP: Next we walked with Stan Mayes down a street being reborn. We passed a construction site and an upscale wine shop. We passed a luxury apartment building with a sushi counter on the first floor. And we stepped into one of the only businesses to survive all the hard times since the riot.

Unidentified Man: What's up, baby?

INSKEEP: It's called Ben's Chili Bowl.

Mr. MAYES: We have original Ben's chili half-smokes or chili cheeseburgers ...

INSKEEP: And this is where we invited half a dozen residents to sit down to talk at lunchtime.

Pretty tasty milkshake. Did you guys order?

Ms. VIRGINIA ALI: I'm Virginia Ali. My husband, Ben, and I opened Ben's Chili Bowl in 1958. U Street was such a classy neighborhood.

INSKEEP: It was a row of nightclubs and theaters known as the Black Broadway. Yet after the riot of 1968, every plan to revive this area seemed to fail.

Ms. ALI: What was it, 25 years? At least 25 years. The area deteriorated into a real ghetto - influx of drugs, boarded-up buildings.

INSKEEP: It sounds like April of 1968, as awful as it was, was not the low point for this neighborhood.

Ms. ALI: No. It was the beginning of the low part of this neighborhood. It was what drove people away.

Ms. CATHY SMITH: I'm Cathy Smith. I'm a Washington historian, and I've been involved in bringing people here to learn something about the rich African-American history of this neighborhood. And I recall that tour buses wouldn't stop. They would drive by, and they would point out the window. Am I right, Virginia?

Ms. ALI: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SMITH: But they certainly wouldn't let anybody out of the bus. And that was the mid-'90s.

INSKEEP: Even the good news turned bad. The city built a new office building here, but the construction of a new subway line blocked the streets and choked off traffic to local businesses.

We can trace what happened next by working our way around this table full of residents.

Ms. CICI MUKHTAR: I'm Cici from Polly's Café, and we actually were the first of the new businesses on U Street. We opened in 1992. And there was a whole cluster of young entrepreneurs because it was affordable, because it was an area that had sort of been abandoned and no one was sort of looking at. It was dark. You couldn't get cab drivers. This was considered that dangerous. It was heroin. It was prostitution.

INSKEEP: This is the neighborhood where Cici Mukhtar chose to buy a restaurant. Others followed - black and white. And then something else happened, as we learn from the next of our residents to move in.

Phil Spalding is a local elected official.

Mr. PHIL SPALDING: I moved here in 1999, when the changes started to accelerate. All of a sudden, developers had the opportunity of looking at blank land.

INSKEEP: When you say blank land, I'd like to know if there's a strange irony here in that the reason there was blank land is because so many buildings were burned or destroyed during the riots, and it was in that destruction that you had the seeds of what eventually became a vibrant neighborhood again.

Mr. SPALDING: That is absolutely the case. Lying fallow for that 30 years allowed concepts in urban design to develop as well. And I think a lot of the projects that are going in now, they respect the streetscape.

INSKEEP: And they at least attempt to respect the sensitivities of the neighborhood's old residents. It's typical around here to name upscale buildings after famous African-Americans who used to live around here - the Ellington Apartments, the Langston Lofts.

Yet our lifelong resident, Stan Mayes, says gestures like that have not eased all tensions.

Mr. MAYES: Lots of people felt as though, well, whites are taking over the neighborhood.

INSKEEP: Many black renters had to leave as urban pioneers bid up the prices of historic brick row houses.

Mr. MAYES: And then there would be this discussion going on as though there was no history here, there had been no value in this community prior to the time that someone renovated their house. And people was like, well, why are you talking down to us as though there was no value here until you arrived? There were things going on in this community before you arrived here.

INSKEEP: Well, that gets to my very last question. And I have to ask it because we began with the riot, 1968, time of segregation, Martin Luther King being killed. Does this count as an integrated neighborhood?

Mr. SPALDING: Phil. I do get up in the morning and go out for coffee and a doughnut occasionally. And I look at the parade of people who go to 13th and U subway entrance. And it is just a wildly divergent set of people - age-wise, race-wise.

INSKEEP: Cathy Smith?

Ms. SMITH: Integration can be defined in various ways. How socially integrated is the neighborhood, I don't know. It's different than who walks down the street next to one another. One of the reasons that I became so interested in the history of this neighborhood is I have seen gentrification happen. And I always felt that this neighborhood, of all the neighborhoods in the city, has a chance to become a truly integrated neighborhood because I'm hoping the African-American community will never let this community go.

INSKEEP: What's the difference between social integration and people just walking down the street?

Ms. SMITH: Are you invited to someone else's home?

INSKEEP: Among these neighbors - some black, some white, some old, some new - the last person to answer is the first person we met, Stanley Mayes, who witnessed the 1968 riot.

Is this an integrated neighborhood?

Mr. MAYES: Well, the catch phrase these days is towards a more perfect union. We are moving in that direction. The telling of the history of this community will lend itself towards a more integrated community.

INSKEEP: Stan Mayes gestures at a white restaurateur across the table.

Mr. MAYBES: And as kind of an old head here, I look forward to the day when Cici is sitting around and she'll say, well, you just don't know where this neighborhood came from.

(Soundbite of laugher)

Ms. MUKHTAR: Exactly.

Mr. MAYES: Those things will come to pass.

(Soundbite of applause)

INSKEEP: All that may take is another 40 years in this neighborhood in Washington D.C. You can see it, then and now, in a slide show at

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