The sights that define Washington, D.C. are the pride of a nation: the Washington Monument piercing the sky, the White House inviting worthy guests, the Capitol building housing momentous debate. In this area, that is known as official Washington. The “unofficial” side of the nation’s capital is grittier, scrappier, and less conventionally beautiful – and few neighborhoods capture that as well as the U Street corridor.
U Street showcases the black pride of a city the U.S. Census Bureau estimates is 55 percent African- American (by contrast, the country as a whole is about 12 percent African-American). Duke Ellington, one of the greatest jazz performers in the genre’s heyday, learned his craft as he grew up in the District in the early 1900s. The U Street neighborhood, once known as “Black Broadway,” pays homage to him and his peers now with jazz clubs and blocks named after musicians. Yet the neighborhood was one of those torn apart in the riots following civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, and today’s U Street corridor recognizes the good times and the bad times.
The first thing a visitor sees when stepping out of the Metro station at the intersection of 10th and U streets Northwest is the African-American Civil War Memorial. The circular monument features African-American men who fought on the side of the North in the civil war, each peering past the next as he holds his rifle close. Across the street is the African- American Civil War Museum, which moved and reopened in July.
A couple blocks away is the majestic Lincoln Theatre. Built in 1922, the theater hosted the jazz greats and has been restored to its original splendor. Visitors can see a mix of nationally known and local performers at the theater now. Though Lincoln Theatre might be the most historical theater on the strip, there are several places to see shows and concerts. Source, a theater located just off U Street, is the home stage for several local drama groups. The nearby 9:30 Club is a destination for well-known touring acts; farther away, the Black Cat hosts lesser-known bands.
Steps away from Lincoln Theatre is Ben’s Chili Bowl. The restaurant, which opened in 1958, hosted President Barack Obama not long before his inauguration in January 2009. (French President Nicolas Sarkozy had lunch there in 2010.) The restaurant’s famous half smokes are hot and meaty, but it also has vegetarian options now. Tourists looking for a more upscale option can go to Ben’s Next Door, a classier restaurant the same owners opened in late 2008.
A local favorite is the café and bookstore Busboys and Poets, and its flagship location is just a block off U Street. In addition to being a great place to get brunch or buy a book on liberal politics, the store also has a performance space. Across the street is Eatonville, a great place to get Southern comfort food. Both restaurants are owned by the same people and take their cues from poet Langston Hughes. Like Ellington and some of the other musicians remembered on U Street, Hughes lived in Washington in the 1920s, and his work became synonymous with great African-American literature. And in that sense, U Street embodies the spirit of those achievers.