U Street

The neighborhood just north of Logan Circle is known as the U Street corridor since it centers around that very street. More specifically, when locals refer to “U Street,” they generally mean the area between 9th and 15th Streets, including U Street and the 2 or 3 blocks to the north and south. The U Street area is served by the U Street-African American Civil War Memorial-Cardozo Metro station (Green, Yellow).

The city of Washington, D.C. is a diverse one, and there is perhaps no area of the city more important to that diversity than U Street. It seems that almost every building is steeped in the history of African Americans in the District. The story of U Street starts, as most do in this section of the city, just after the Civil War, when demand for more housing increased. The increasingly diverse and, at the time, segregated nature of the city made U Street a neighborhood popular with black citizens that was unofficially divided from the predominantly white areas to its south and west.

A side effect of this division was that U Street became a place where African Americans could excel at a time when they were being repressed elsewhere. For instance, the Prince Hall Masonic Temple at 1000 U Street (completed 1930 – the ground floor is a CVS) and the True Reformer Building at 1200 U Street (1903) were both designed and financed by African Americans.

At 1816 12th Street is the former home of the Anthony Bowen YMCA (now located in a new building on W St). This groundbreaking branch of the YMCA organization was founded by Anthony Bowen, a former slave, in 1863 as the United States’ first chapter open to African Americans. The building that stands at that address today is called the Thurgood Marshall Center and was completed in 1912 by W. Sidney Pittman, one of the country’s first African American architects. It is named after Thurgood Marshall because, in the 1950s, the Supreme Court Justice used the YMCA here to create his strategy for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.

The U Street Corridor is also known for music, specifically jazz. Club Caverns – later called Crystal Caverns, now Bohemian Caverns – is at 2001 11th Street (at the intersection with U) and still features jazz often. The Howard Theater, a few blocks away at 620 T Street, was closed for many years but has recently been reopened as a music venue once again. Both of these clubs were home to the best jazz musicians of the time including Duke Ellington (who was from the U Street area), Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, and Nat King Cole.

Any discussion of U Street seems remiss without mentioning Ben’s Chili Bowl at 1213 U Street. Sure it’s a great place to get a chili dog and a shake, but it’s more important for what it is than what it serves. Ben’s was opened in 1958 and has been a staple of U Street through the music boom, the riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the degradation of the neighborhood in the 1970s and 80s, and the recent redevelopment. If you stop by you may even see one of the many celebrities that has eaten at Ben’s.

Added more recently to the U Street Corridor is the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum found at 1925 Vermont Avenue. This museum was opened in 1999 to honor the United States Colored Troops by telling their stories through photos, documents, and presentations. These soldiers who fought for freedom during the Civil War are also the focus of a memorial in the street in front of the museum. This sculpture and the Wall of Honor lists the names of the known United States Colored Troops, all 209,145 of them. The museum is free to the public and open Tuesday through Friday from 10:00 am to 6:30 pm, Saturday from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, and Sunday from noon to 4:00 pm.