MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Now, after the riots, a lot of people wanted out of Shaw. Many fled to other parts of the city or out to the suburbs, but many people stayed. In fact, you actually saw a lot of people moving in to the neighborhood, including this guy.
MR. KOJO NNAMDI
Hi, I’m Kojo Nnamdi, host of "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," here.
WAMU's own Kojo Nnamdi put down roots in Shaw in 1971, just a few years after first coming to D.C. He lived in Shaw more than 25 years, finally leaving in 1997. He sat down this week with "Metro Connection's" Tara Boyle to share his memories of the area so soon after the 1968 riots.
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. 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. Most of the houses that we lived in on our street were either people renting or people who were owning, but quite a lot of people were renting. And I spent my first six years in Shaw living in that house, and my sons made friends with neighbors’ children in the neighborhood.
MS. TARA BOYLE
It's so interesting to me that you say Shaw, at that time, was a really great community for families, because so often in the media that era is characterized, you know, as a time when Shaw was really devastated and people were fleeing the neighborhood. But it sounds like your reality was quite a bit different from that.
Well, 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 during the course of all of those years. When we moved from S Street to 8th Street, however, that was when by 1977 drugs had begun to overtake that community and 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 kinds of 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. And we watched all of the families who moved in with us in 1977, because it was a part of an urban renewal project -- all of the homes were newly renovated. So we all moved in at around the same time.
Several of those families had children. And it was a remarkable experience over the course of the next 20 years to see a few of those children go in what would be considered the right direction, taking to education, getting through school and going onto college and then watch the majority of them deteriorate into a life of crime and jail.
Did you worry about your own twins in that context?
I worried about my own twins constantly, especially because when they were 10 years old, in 1982, they lost their mother. She died of aneurysm. I became a single parent and raising two kids in a neighborhood that that was rife with drugs and crime was not only a challenge, but was also a reason to fear. 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 they'd say, hello, Mr. Kojo. How you doing? And we'd walk past and then they would start fighting again…
Oh, my lord.
…just as we got past. So even though it was a dangerous neighborhood to live in, for some reason or the other, we were made to feel welcome and at home in that neighborhood.
When you visit Shaw now, it is such a different neighborhood then it was when you moved in. What do you think is gained and what do you think is lost in the changes that are coming to Shaw now?
Those changes started to occur before we moved. Starting in the early 1990s, new families began to move into Shaw, the kind of families that we had not seen before in Shaw, families of black and white gay men. And so it was clear that a change was beginning to occur. I think the first gentrifying family that was not black that moved in our neighborhood was a gay couple, one black, one white, and they immediately started renovating the house on the corner to look like a place we could only imagine before. And so you said, what's happening to this neighborhood?
All of a sudden the neighborhood is being beatified, even though right next to their renovation were guys still selling crack on the corner. But it was the shape of things to come.
Does it still feel like home when you walk around Shaw?
It certainly does. I still feel like it's my neighborhood, even though the people now look different in the neighborhood, they are still -- there's a coziness about that neighborhood. People still say hello to you on the street. I've heard people complain in other gentrified neighborhoods, well, the neighbors don't even speak to me. But that doesn't seem to be -- because the truth of the matter is I still park in that neighborhood when I have to go downtown. And I catch the Metro on the corner at 7th and S. And I park there and invariably when I come back I stroll around the neighborhood for awhile and it still has the same feel that it always has.
I think that's one of the reasons that neighborhoods like that lend themselves to gentrification, because people feel at home in those neighborhoods. Of course the block on which I lived, those houses are all adjoining houses and so you feel clustered in a way. Everywhere there's a need for some neighborliness, and I think that transcends race. And people just feel comfortable there, so yeah, I still love the neighborhood.
That, of course, was WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi talking with "Metro Connection's" Tara Boyle. And if you are a long-time resident of Shaw or a total newbie, we'd love to hear your stories of life in the neighborhood. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Facebook.
After the break, cutting-edge cuisine. We'll find out why some of the city's most ambitious chefs are setting up shop in Shaw.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1
You know, I signed my lease a year ago. And I think myself and maybe Table and A and D maybe got some of the last good deals available. I think there's some spaces now that are still available and reasonable, but I think probably a year from now that price would probably go up a lot, as well.
It's coming up on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
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