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Shaw's Roots: From 'Heart Of Chocolate City' To 'Little United Nations'

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Shaw was once D.C.'s "Black Broadway." Pictured here: newsboys and others in front of the Howard Theater, with Cab Calloway's name on signs, c. 1936
Photograph from Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History
Shaw was once D.C.'s "Black Broadway." Pictured here: newsboys and others in front of the Howard Theater, with Cab Calloway's name on signs, c. 1936

Shaw struggled for decades to recover from the legacy of the 1968 riots. Now, new residents and businesses are being lured to the area by new amenities and the neighborhood's proximity to downtown Washington.

Neighborhood's earliest days

Shaw is named for Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who led the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first official black units during the Civil War.

"The neighborhood, from its earliest days, was very strongly African-American, as a result of a number of Union army camps that were located here to accommodate what were called 'contraband,' or escaped slaves, or former slaves that had managed to make their way to the District of Columbia," says Alex Padro, a Shaw advisory neighborhood commissioner and the executive director of Shaw Main Streets.

Padro is a big African-American history buff, "because I'm multi-racial, and so it's part of my heritage as well," he says.

Thanks to that early concentration of freed blacks, Shaw had schools, churches, hospitals, and a university -- all established and constructed in close proximity to be able to serve that large African-American population, Padro says.

Walking through his neighborhood, he says he's proud of its role as the home of "Black Broadway"; of the father of black history, Carter G. Woodson; of many fighters in the struggle for civil rights.

Shifting demographics

But these days, if you look at the 2010 census tracts that include the historic U Street Corridor, the neighborhood is skewing less and less African-American.

Shaw's stats are not unlike those of D.C. itself, where barely 50 percent of the population was African-American in 2010; that's a more than 11-percent drop from 2000.

Padro says the shift in Shaw actually started more than half a century ago.

"Remember, this was a segregated city, so after the 1947 Supreme Court decision that made restricted covenants illegal, African-Americans who could afford to move out of the neighborhood were able to move anywhere in the city that they chose to," he says. "The folks that remained became more highly concentrated and poorer. Single-family homes got chopped up into boarding houses."

Then the streetcars disappeared in 1962.

"Obviously this was a neighborhood that was built on streetcars," he says. "So the concentration of retail that existed down here started diminishing."

What came next was an event that has had a lasting impact on many areas of D.C.'s history. "And then the 1968 riots basically brought an end to most of the commercial activity down here, when a number of businesses and some entire blocks were burned out," says Padro. "The businesses that could, moved out."

And with the business exodus went many residents. Later came urban renewal -– which Padro says brought in amenities such as a library, new schools and a recreation facility -- but these changes once again pushed people out.

"High-density housing, high-rises, and garden apartments replaced a lot of the buildings that were homes to longtime neighborhood residents," says Padro.

The 'g' word: gentrification

Fast-forward to 1997, and Shaw had even more change, when the city announced a new Convention Center would be built in Shaw's south section.

"I mean, that was a series of service parking lots, impound lots and dilapidated buildings that had crack houses and shooting galleries on them," says Padro. "So that's a pretty big transformation!"

To give an idea of how big "pretty big" is: "In the years the Convention Center was being built, there was, on some blocks, a 300 percent increase on property tax assessments," says Padro.

Those property values led some families who'd been in the neighborhood for generations -- "whose ancestors bought their houses for between $10,000 and $15,000," Padro says -- to take some generous buyouts.

"They were being offered $300,000, $400,000, $500,000, as is, un-renovated," he says.

But other people, primarily renters of single-family housing and then residents of the rooming houses and boarding houses, were more or less forced out.

"Because when the new owner says, 'I'm going to renovate this and I'm going to move in,' or 'I'm going to turn it into condos,' those folks needed to go," he says.

And that led to what Padro calls "the G word:" gentrification.

"A handful of people say, 'Oh, I don't know what's going to happen to me if property values keep going up, and others say, 'Some of these new neighbors, they're not very friendly,'" says Padro. "Well, you know, it's reality. Market forces. Things change!"

Witnessing the transformation

Gretchen Wharton knows that well. She moved to Shaw when she was just six months old -- more than 60 years ago. For her, gentrification is "a loaded question."

It does have a down side, she says, like how it's driven senior citizens out of the neighborhood.

"Many seniors lived around here, and could not afford to keep up their properties. And they were offered what I think at this point was a very low amount of money by many people who came in trying to buy up properties and land at the time," she says. "The seniors had an awful lot of wisdom to impart and we're missing that kind of thing now."

But Wharton also says she likes how the neighborhood has changed, especially as it moves further away from the 1968 riots.

"You saw everybody getting bars on their windows and being careful and watching themselves all the time," she says. "So many of my friends said to me, 'Well, why on earth aren't you moving?' And I said, 'You know, I really think it's going to come back. This is the center of the city. It's a wonderful neighborhood. It's close to everything.'

"I said, 'We're going to stick it out.'" She's glad she did.

Now, like Padro, she's also seen a significant drop -- at least 10 percent, she says -- in Shaw's African-American population.

But she says it's a good thing. "'Cause I think it's good that we have interracial, intercultural communities. You can learn so much, you can share so much. I'm for that kind of change," she says.

Diversification and revitalization

One of those white residents diversifying Shaw is Scot Rogerson, who moved to the neighborhood about seven years ago.

"We've got this great mix of people. It's really been a nice, nice change to see just in the seven years, our little United Nations," he says.

Rogerson says he and his partner enjoy living among people from so many cultural walks of life.

"We really do see that we all sort of have the same interests. We want safe neighborhoods, we want places to play, we want green space," Rogerson says.

These are all things Alex Padro says he's been fighting for as an ANC Commissioner.

"Everybody understands that this is a neighborhood directly north of downtown that's integral to the entire city's revitalization because we've got so many major assets here," he says.

'Everybody' benefits

Yes, some people lament that Shaw might be losing its identity as the heart of black Washington.

"But the thing that is most compelling is that even folks who have some qualms about the changes are grateful for the fact that we don't have as many boarded-up houses," Padro says. "That now there are plenty of places where you can walk down the street and find a job.

"And it's not just 'those people' or 'the newcomers' that are the beneficiaries," he continues. "Everybody is. Whether they're seniors and they're black, or they're new arrivals and they're white, or Asian or Hispanic and gay."

And they're all living in Shaw, a neighborhood where, in the future, change just might be the one thing you can count on.

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