A mural painted between on 9th Street NW between Q and Rhode Island Ave. The lower line has since been painted over.
Many Washingtonians know Kojo Nnamdi as a journalist — a longtime presence here at WAMU 88.5 and, for years, at Howard University’s WHUT.
But for many years, in Shaw, people also knew him as their neighbor, a dad raising his sons in a neighborhood going through difficult times. Kojo and his wife moved to Shaw in 1972, in search of a larger home to accommodate their growing family.
“My wife and I had twin boys, and so the two-bedroom apartment in which we were living was no longer large enough, and so we moved to 929 S Street,” he says.
“It seemed at the time that it was a great neighborhood for young people who were starting families. There was a lot of rental housing available, including in the houses that we lived in. And I spent my first six years in Shaw living in that house, and my sons made friends with neighbors’ children in the neighborhood.”
Their arrival came just a few years after the 1968 riots, and the scars of that time remained. But Kojo says the neighborhood was still tight-knit, despite the departure of many families for the suburbs.
“A lot of my friends considered me an urban pioneer, because at the time they said, ‘We wouldn’t think of living in Shaw, especially after the riots, there’s likely to be a lot of crime.’ Interestingly enough, that was not my experience — at first. Indeed, for all of the years I lived in Shaw I never had a home or a car broken into.”
But by 1977, when he and his family moved to Eighth Street, drugs were starting to infiltrate Shaw — first heroin, and later, crack cocaine.
“It was a more challenging experience than living around the corner, on S Street. However, I got to know the people in my neighborhood, and was able to distinguish between those who were involved in criminal activities, and those who were not, and somehow managed to befriend them all. Because regardless of what activities people were involved in, one had to live with them. And it was better if one acknowledged them, if one befriended them, than if one made enemies out of them. So we became friends with everybody in the neighborhood.”
Tragedy hit the family in 1982, when the twins were ten — their mother died of an aneurysm, leaving Kojo a solo parent. He says he worried about the boys “constantly.”
“Raising two kids in a neighborhood that was rife with drugs and crime was not only a challenge, but was also a reason to fear,” he says. “But we talked a lot — I explained to them a great deal what was going on in the neighborhood and what their boundaries were."
"There would be literally drug battles that would be going on on our street, one gang of people fighting another gang of people who all lived in that same neighborhood. And we’d be walking down the street, and they’d say, ‘Stop, stop, stop fighting. Here comes Mr. Kojo.’ And they would almost literally part, and we would walk past them… and then they would start fighting again. So even though it was a dangerous neighborhood to live in, for some reason we were made to feel welcome and at home in that neighborhood.”
Kojo moved to another part of the city in 1997, but says he still feels comfortable in Shaw, despite the changes to the neighborhood.
“There’s a coziness about that neighborhood. People still say hello to you on the street… people still feel comfortable there, so yeah, I still love the neighborhood.”
[Music: "Home Town Blues" by Duke Ellington from The Duke Ellington Anthology]