The faces behind U Street: Gentrification efforts create rift in historic neighborhood

10 years ago by in Uncategorized Tagged:

Observer Contributor
Feb. 27, 2008

Joseph Gilliam sits in the alley between Lucky Carryout and a green, chipped building trying to stay warm from the heat of a fire that he made himself. On the top of the smoky flames, Gilliam heats up some scraps that he and another homeless man have managed to find. Some chicken bones, someone’s leftover tortilla, and a few pieces of chicken will soon become their next meal. While staring into the manmade fire, he wonders what has happened to the place he used to call home.

“Thirty-five years and see where they put us,” said Gillam. ”We go from shelter to shelter.”

Gilliam represents some of the area residents that could not afford the high rent on U Street.

Observer photo by CASEY LABRACK
The U Street corridor, a historically black neighborhood, is adapting to higher property values created by gentrification.

On one of Washington’s historical streets, a major phenomenon has been taking place. A street that once represented black culture and history has become a place for businesses like Starbucks and expensive condos. U Street now is a representation of gentrification, something that has been affecting communities all over the country, from Harlem to San Francisco’s Mission District.

Standing on the corner of 10th and U streets, Joseph Greenley wonders from where his next meal will come.

While begging for food, Greenley looks around at this “new and improved” U Street, one that is completely different from the one he knew 20 years ago.

“The change is good, but at the same time, it’s sad,” said Greenley. “They’re building it up, but basically the blacks are moving out and they are moving the whites in.”

Greenley now rents a room on 13th Street where many of the residents are students at surrounding schools like the historically black college, Howard University.

John Muse, 43, a black resident born in Washington, believes in gentrification and said that it’s good for the area, but it’s definitely a different environment.

“Well, back in the day you used to see no white people at all in this area,” Muse said.

Muse said that there seems to be more peace in the area because of gentrification, but many of the families that have lived on U Street cannot afford to live there anymore.

“That’s a big problem. A lot of families that grew up in this area, because of affordability are forced to move. That’s the way it is,” Muse said.

There are a few traces of an old U Street, with the historic Lincoln Theatre and Ben’s Chili Bowl restaurant still serving residents. But behind the iron dedication statues that bear the names of the blacks who served in the Civil War, sits a new community.

Along the line of red, yellow and blue brick homes are “For Sale” signs.

White families are buying many of the homes; what was once was a predominantly black neighborhood has become an entirely new community. Amidst the hustle and bustle of the street, in what some used to call the “ghetto,” a white businessman discusses politics and larger companies replacing the mom and pop restaurants and shops.

David Ford, one of the area’s white residents doesn’t know much about the history behind U Street but thinks there is definitely a change.

“It must be hard for those who have lived here. There’s probably a sense of losing it,” Ford said.

Ford said he has lived in Washington for one year after moving from Ukraine. He pays more than $2,000 a month in rent for a basement in the area.

“I can’t help but wonder what’s happening to those being priced out.”

Joseph Gilliam is one of the many residents who were priced out of the area. Now homeless, Gilliam doesn’t like what he sees from his community.

“This is what U Street has done for me,” said Gilliam.

The American University School of Communication Graduate Program in Journalism works to prepare students for the realities of today's news and information space and the challenges of tomorrow. Find out more by visiting us online at

Latest posts by administrator (see all)