Like much of Washington, this northwest neighborhood, bounded east to west by 10th and 16th streets and north to south by W and N streets, was largely undeveloped land until the days of the Civil War. The establishment of Union camps and a hospital during the war engendered new activity, including the creation of Howard University in 1867, built specifically to welcome African American students.
The introduction of streetcars in the latter half of the 19th century led to easier travel to this neighborhood and around town generally. More people made their homes here. Many of the brick and Victorian-style townhouses you see today were built between 1870 and 1900.
African Americans, especially, were drawn to this area, in large part because of the presence of Howard University. Intellectuals, business people, families of different economic means, and musicians all felt at home and black culture flourished. The 1920s, ’30s and ’40s period was the Greater U’s heyday, a time when legends Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, Sarah Vaughn, Jelly Roll Morton, and native son Duke Ellington performed in clubs along the central U St. boulevard, which came to be known as Black Broadway.
Events of the 1950s and 1960s, including the passage of legislation ending legal segregation and the riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, helped bring about the neighborhood’s decline as residents fled to better housing opportunities and safer parts of the city.
Today, the Greater U defines the phrase “urban renewal.” The neighborhood’s past is on view in its architecture and in landmarks like the Lincoln and Howard theaters, where Black Broadway stars once entertained, and in Ben’s Chili Bowl, here since 1958, and the only place to remain open during those August 1968 riots, feeding policemen and residents alike.
But the neighborhood now is a lively multicultural mix, a shopping mecca for homegrown boutique lovers, a dining destination for a range of appetites, and a nightlife haven, where theaters, bars, and live music clubs once again thrive.
Chances are, you’ll find yourself in this neighborhood seeking enjoyment of one or more of the above attractions. For more of a historical perspective, take a self-guided tour, “City within a City: Greater U Heritage Trail,” courtesy of Cultural Tourism DC. You can download a booklet and/or audio tour from Cultural Tourism’s website. Or you can pick up brochures from the Greater U Neighborhood Welcome Center, at 1211 U St. NW, right next door to Ben’s Chili Bowl.
Metro: U St.-African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo on the Yellow and Green Lines. Both exits.