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Since 1986, it has taken a public-private partnership to bring back the once substantial community in Washington, DC, centered around U street, previously called Uptown and now called Shaw. The federal government, the city government, several private non-profit foundations including the Public Welfare Foundation, as well as private developers and non-profit developers such as the community development corporation, Manna, have all played important roles in revitalizing this part of the city. Their efforts have led to the construction of new city office buildings, modern condominiums, and new structures as well as the important renovation of several historic sites and literally hundreds of classic 19th century row houses that had once been in grand condition, deteriorated and have now been renovated and rehabilitated.
The entire rehabilitation effort has not only revived the community but has given it a different character. At its historical peak during the first three decades of the 20th century, Uptown was entirely an African American community, in which black people were forced to create their own destiny because of the oppressive system of segregation of the Jim Crow laws of that period. In the modern renaissance of this area, there is much greater racial and ethnic diversity, giving the modern community a different character. Historian and Shaw resident Ed Smith sees the far reaching implication of the U Street revitalization. "It has a very important national meaning because you have to remember--the riots of 1968--31 years ago, brought down the whole U Street Corridor," Smith recalls, "Now the U Street Corridor is being brought back because integration has indeed worked. What you see on U Street, and the surrounding area, is a corridor being brought back with black and white cooperation. It's not being brought back just by whites; it's not being brought back just by blacks. It's being brought back by a coalition of both. This is what the great struggle was all about, and in U Street, you see it as a living reality, and of course it's going to be the model for the rebirth of many other communities that went through the same kind of experience, for the same reason."
The basic purpose behind the plans to rehabilitate the Uptown/Shaw district has been to use the proud heritage of the past to generate economic development in the present and the future. That is a goal shared by the city government, the DC Chamber of Commerce, the DC Heritage Tourism Coalition , as well as the various non profit organizations and private developers who have all played roles in the process of renewal.
The first major step in the rehabilitation of the Shaw urban area was the decision of the city government to build a major municipal office building at the intersection of 14th and U Streets, which had been the site of major rioting in 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and had already begun to decline because of the dispersal of many of its most prominent social and community leaders following the school and housing desegregation in the 1950s.
Former Mayor Marion Barry chose the intersection of 14th and U for the construction of the Reeves Center, as the city's new office building was named, because of the historical importance of that intersection as a crossroads of two major arteries connecting the African American community with other parts of the city. The city's investment of $50 million in that construction project became the catalyst for other private efforts at urban renewal.
The second major city construction project which helped spur the economic revitalization of this neighborhood was the building of a new metro stop at 13th and U Streets. Eventually the plaza around this metro station was decorated with a large wall mural of Duke Ellington, symbolizing the modern effort to use the area's proud history and its cultural legacy as an engine for redevelopment. The station opened in 1991.
Later in the 1990s, funding from the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development enabled the city to channel about $7 million to different projects in the Shaw area, both as seed money, to encourage private developers and nonprofit organizations to renovate and restore historic sites, and for the general improvement of streets , lighting, parking , and facades of commercial buildings.
These public initiatives were matched by a variety of private redevelopment projects. Together the major public and private investments helped stimulate the reopening of former nightclubs , restaurants and theaters; the restoration of rows of handsome old 19th century homes in the Shaw area and neighboring LeDroit Park; and the construction of new apartment buildings and condos.
U Street/Columbia Heights Task Force:
The restorations of such important sites as the Whitelaw hotel, the Lincoln theater, the 12th Street YMCA, and True Reformers' Hall - have each been carried out as individual projects, with their own organizing committees and fundraising efforts.
The one major cultural site that has yet to be restored is the Howard Theater which was once the crown jewel and the cultural heart of the African American community in Washington. Once again, an effort is now underway to raise funds to rehabilitate the Howard Theater and to bring it back as a historical museum.
Before the restoration of the famed Whitelaw Hotel in 1991, carried out by Manna, a community development organization, it was so deteriorated that the roof was gone, there were no windows, and trees were even growing up inside the building! It looked as though a bomb had gone off. Manna founder Jim Dickerson explained how the historic restoration was able to take place. "The Whitelaw is one of the African American treasures in the Shaw neighborhood ...and it's one of the treasures of Washington DC in general... We (Manna) put together ...a financial package, in partnership with the city, with the community and with foundations. We put together about $3.2 million worth of financing from a dozen sources." Restored to its former glory, The Whitelaw now offers low-income housing and a lobby exhibit testifying to its glorious heyday and documenting its decline and rejuvenation. Since 1982, Manna has rehabilitated or built hundreds of homes and sold them to low-income, working families, many of them in Shaw.
The 12th Street YMCA is another important site in the Shaw neighborhood. It has recently been completely restored, at a cost of $6.5 million, a portion of which came from a federal HUD grant. It is now called the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage, and will house private social services offices as well as a small historical museum honoring the neighborhood of Shaw. The primary tenant is the non-profit group, FLOC, For Love of Children. Developer Jair Lynch supervised the building's restoration, which was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1994. "There is so much history in this building," Lynch explains, "that people need to learn, that people need to understand. And one of the driving forces (of this restoration effort) is that we want to provide these inspirational stories as a method of getting children in this generation to be the leaders of tomorrow."
True Reformers Hall , where Duke Ellington played his first gig, was named a National Historic Landmark in the 1980s. Initial funding to restore the facade of True Reformers' Hall and to install tall windows in its two story theater and balcony came from a federal grant. With this stimulus, the building was subsequently purchased by the Public Welfare Foundation in 1999, and it is currently being completely restored by J.J. Development Company at a cost of about $8 million. The Public Welfare Foundation will put its national headquarters in the building, which will also be used for retail, restaurant, and office space.
Built in the 1920's, the once grand Lincoln Theater, which also had deteriorated and shuttered its doors and windows, was restored and reopened in 1994. Located in the heart of the U Street corridor, across from the metro at 13th and U, it was brought back to its former glory by the U Street Theater Foundation, with $10 million in public and private funds. It has reopened for local and traveling performances, and is open to tourists during the day.
One of the major objectives in the redevelopment of the Shaw area has been to preserve it's residential character as well as to refurbish its commercial corridor along U Street. The Community Development Corporation, Manna, has restored and reconditioned more than 300 homes and sold them at subsidized prices to first time homeowners .
In addition, such business groups as the DC Chamber of Commerce and the U Street Arts Coalition as well as the non-profit Heritage Tourism Initiative have sought to promote economic development and stimulate job growth through various strategies designed to encourage private investment and a mixed cultural environment in the Shaw neighborhood. At the core of all these strategies is the determination to use U Streets celebrated history as a springboard for future growth and renewal. Several redevelopment specialists have suggested that other urban centers across the country can adopt similar strategies - mixing public and private partnerships, drawing upon past local achievements and traditions, and combining the restoration of historic sites with the construction of important new commercial developments.
Urban historian James Horton emphasizes the potential for using what has been done in Washington D.C. as a model. "One of the things that the renaissance of this community means to people elsewhere in the country is the possibility (for them) When this place can restore itself to some of its former glory of a century or more ago, it seems to me it offers hopes to a Detroit, a Cleveland, a Newark, New Jersey, my home town. Part of the possibility rests in the ability of a community to say to its young people who are going to, after all, carry on this tradition, that you've got a strong history to build on."
If you know of a building or neighborhood in your city that you think should be restored, or if you have a community event, art project, or any other idea to help preserve history, build community or revitalize the local economy - a good place to start is your local chamber of commerce.
There are many resources available to help in the revitalization of any city. Local community groups and religious organizations are often eager to help with projects that restore a sense of community to an area. Not only are they a rich source of information, but they can often help with networking, getting you in touch with like-minded individuals and organizations. City councils and local business associations also can be rich sources of support.
The following is a list of resources, some local to Washington DC, that may be helpful in finding support for the revitalization efforts you have in mind for your own city.