By Bianca Alexander
For an authentic adventure in the Nation’s Capitol, step away from Museum Row and lose yourself in the bohemian U Street District.
Over 17 million people flock to Washington, D.C. each year from all over the world, and for good reason. With its balmy weather, beautiful architecture and historic appeal, Washington, D.C. is one of the top three vacation destinations in the United States, a place where discriminating travelers can find a range of package holidays. Though most tourists visit with hopes of catching glimpses of The White House, the Smithsonian or the cherry blossoms in full bloom, those seeking a more unique eco-conscious experience of the nation’s capitol should look no further than the historic U Street Corridor.
Approximately ten minutes north of the White House and a hop, skip and jump from museum row, the U Street District is an emerging part of town that offers a savory taste of D.C.’s past, present and future. During daylight hours, saunter “U” between 9th and 18th to find a mix of eclectic boutiques, artsy restaurants and specialty yoga studios. After dark, listen for the pulsing beat of urban nightlife: a stand-up bass and snare drum emanating from a live jazz band, the sultry cooing of a lounge singer at a cigar bar, or the thump of hip-hop dance mixes at one of the area’s velvet rope nightclubs.
In the early 1900s, the area was largely populated by middle-class African-Americans, who first settled there during the Civil War, moving into the beautiful Victorian homes that now border U Street. At the time, the region offered new streetcar lines, inexpensive land, and the absence of residential segregation. Many residents belonged to a privileged class of doctors, lawyers and business owners who due to their skin color, were forbidden to live in other parts of the city. By the 1920s, the neighborhood incubated a renaissance of institutions, artisans and services that not only met the needs of area residents, but also helped make the area one of the city’s most vibrant cultural, residential, and business districts. In the 1940’s, U Street was the place to go to hear musicians like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and other artists who began their careers in the neighborhood’s nightclubs and theaters.
By the 1960’s, U Street had become a center point for the civil rights movement, serving as a bastion for activists against legal segregation and racism. 1968 marked a historic turn for the corridor. In April of that year, Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Distraught and angry blacks acted out by setting fire to popular U Street establishments, leaving empty storefronts, depressed property values and urban blight in its quake for the next forty years.
The area didn’t begin to recover economically until the opening of the nearby U Street and Columbia Heights Metro stations in 1991 and 1999, when visionary entrepreneurs began showing renewed interest in the area. Real estate investors rehabbed the old Victorians and transformed abandoned lots into condos for new waves of upwardly mobile young people moving into the city for government jobs. This slow migration helped gradually gentrify the area with hip coffee shops, novelty bars and vintage boutiques. Today, the neighborhood boasts a fresh mix of urban hipsters, artists and fashionistas who consider U Street a mecca for great food, conscious shopping and nightlife.
With a metro pass, a bike share, or a good pair of walking shoes, you can too. The U Street Corridor is accessible from the U Street/Cardozo/African-American War Memorial stop on the green line of the Washington, D.C. Metro system. A twenty-minute walk from downtown, it’s also easily navigated on foot. Or, for sporty types, find one of Capitol Bike Share's 300 bike stations across the D.C. area. They're free for the first 30 minutes, which means you can pick up from downtown and drop off near U Street gratis, then pick up again to head to your next destination without increasing your carbon footprint.
However you arrive, here are a few tips on enjoying the best of the neighborhood:
Walk the Heritage Trail
Get the lay of the land by walking the U Street portion of D.C.’s African American Heritage Trail, a celebration of sites that denote locations of historic and cultural significance to the African-American community. The trail consists of a searchable database, a free booklet, and sites marked with historical plaques, including Duke Ellington’s childhood home. On your walk, brush up on American history by stopping by The African American Civil War Memorial and accompanying museum, which preserves the untold stories of the United States Colored Troops, and African American involvement in the American Civil War.
Shop ‘Til You Drop
If you’re a homebody, find a piece of southern comfort—and a lesson in eclectic interior design–at Good Wood, a mercantile and dry goods store that curates unique pieces of furniture, artwork, and home accessories. Brand-name fashionistas will love Current Boutique. Arguably the hottest (and most affordable) consignment shop in D.C., it’s a place where trendy “gently used” clothes and accessories have another go-round, along with new duds from New York and Los Angeles. For a taste of the city’s burgeoning eco-fashion scene, head to Ginger Root Design, where you can score one-of-a-kind tops, bottoms and accessories all made with fashion forward style from revamped fabrics and textiles.
Grab a Bite to Eat
Walking U Street can stir up an appetite, and whether you’re in the mood for ethnic or traditional comfort food, you’ll find no shortage of culinary options—and entertainment to boot. For a saucy veggie burger or chili dog, and a taste of D.C.’s notorious go-go music, don’t miss the world famous Ben’s Chili Bowl, frequented by celebrities from President Barack Obama to Bill Cosby. For a more upscale dining experience, head up to 14th and V for a bite at eco-friendly restaurant Busboys & Poets, which hosts a progressive book store and open mic nights with live poetry nearly every night of the week and an outstanding variety of delicious comfort food. For authentic international cuisine, culture and cocktails, head down to 12th and U to visit Dukem, consistently voted one of the best Ethiopian restaurants in the city, or the Islander Carribbean Restaurant and Lounge, for a vast menu of traditional Trinidadian cuisine including hand-made Rotis.
Feel the Music
Just walking U Street is itself a musical experience given its natural sights and sounds. But for those in need of a more intimate experience, head to one of many local clubs, including 9:30 Club for the hottest indie rock acts. If you love R & B, check out what’s playing at the nearby Howard Theater, which after gaining notoriety in the ‘60s for hosting acts like James Brown and the Temptations, was recently reopened after being closed for nearly forty years. For more traditional concerts, don’t miss the Lincoln Theater. Originally built in 1922, this U Street landmark was home to musical greats like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn. Now restored to its original ‘20s splendor, it boasts some of the best local music, dance and theater performers, as well as national acts like Carrie Fisher and Alicia Keys. If you just want to get your dance on, look no further than Marvin. With a wall-size homage to its namesake, the late Marvin Gaye, this pub offers Belgian inspired comfort food downstairs, and some of the best funk, soul, and reggae dancing in the city upstairs on its rooftop deck. And unless you want to dance the night away, be sure to catch the last train home, which leaves the U Street Metro stop at 2am sharp.
Wherever the spirit takes you during your visit, hanging out on U Street is a key part of the Washington, D.C. experience, and unlike what you’ll find in any other part of town. For more information about this area, or other fun things to do off the beaten path in D.C., visit washington.org.
Photo by: Dasha Rosato