Images of America: Greater U Street

The African-American Experience in 20th Century Washington

By Paul Kelsey Williams
Arcadia Publishing, 128 pp, paper, $19.95

Reviewed for the InTowner, August 2002
by Michael Kugelman

Portner Flats. Whitelaw Hotel. Club Bali. The Crystal Caverns. For the unenlightened Districtite, these names may elicit nothing more than a blank stare. Yet those with an appreciation for Washington, DC history will immediately associate these establishments with the city's Cardozo-Shaw neighborhoods commonly referred to as Greater U Street. From its heyday as a bustling center of African-American business and entertainment to its tumultuous role in the 1968 urban riots, the neighborhood has forged a lasting identity. For those not familiar with the area, Paul K. Williams' visual history, Greater U Street, makes for a particularly fascinating read. Not that longtime U Street area residents would find it a bore--on the contrary, flipping through the extensive range of pictures and accompanying captions should be a pleasure for anyone.

Williams is the proprietor of Kelsey & Associates, an historic preservation research firm. Thumbing through the book, it becomes clear that he is an accomplished archivist; many of the photographs, particularly in the first chapter, are cited as from "Author's Collection." The book is comprised of six chapters, each of which focuses on a phase in the neighborhood's history, from the Civil War era to its golden age in the 1920s and through the 1950s and decline in the late 1960s. The reader is treated to portraits of prominent inhabitants (from Frederick Douglass to Duke Ellington) and institutions (from the Whitelaw Hotel to the legendary Ben's Chili Bowl). Williams is thorough; at times, he includes several photographs of the same structure, with each snapshot taken from a different angle. The photographs are of high quality--even the old, turn-of-century images are not as grainy as one would expect. A variety of kinds of images are represented: elegant portraits of posing dignitaries (an 1890s photo of necktie-clad Howard University professors is quite memorable); staid views of stately area edifices; dramatic action shots (the 1968 image of a Safeway manager perched on the checkout counter, defiantly wielding a gun as he glares at the broken store window, is searing). Williams also contributes the occasional photo affording a fascinating glimpse into the quotidian; for example, a shot of the corner of 11th Street and Vermont Avenue features debris strewn about the curb. Additionally, he includes the work of noted photographers Gordon Parks and Robert H. McNeill. Captions accompany each image, and Williams' prose is cogent and concise.

Greater U Street is, above all, a visual study of the African-American experience over the last 140 years. The photographs reveal black Americans at work and at play, in the printing shop and at the dance club, at the bank and in the car for a drive. In all the images, the reader is struck by the absence of scenes of poverty (one photo is included of a "panhandler," whose sharp attire doesn't exactly bespeak destitution)--a testimony to the neighborhood's prosperity. Photographs abound of well-groomed revelers enjoying performers such as Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey, and Amos Williams in the U Street area's glitzy haunts. In an era of segregation, U Street created its own insulated world in which African-American entrepreneurs built, owned, and managed businesses of all types. Yet Williams' photos also remind readers of an important fact: Though the neighborhood was comprised of mostly African-American-run businesses and black inhabitants, it was also imbued with a degree of racial harmony. One 1947 picture features blacks and whites amiably standing in line for tickets at the old Griffith Stadium on 7th Street, which was, as Williams points out, "one of the few public places never racially segregated."

Williams does not, however, shy away from the theme of racism. His book celebrates African-American life, and racism, after all, has played a profound role in black Americans' lives. Its treatment is subtle. The theme is broached from time to time, and typically in the text captions. Beneath a photo of Fire Station Number Four, the neighborhood's black fire station, Williams notes that the firehouse was organized by one of only four black firemen working in the District because "it was his belief that it might be his only opportunity for advancement."

Another theme discerned throughout the book is one of contrast. Williams repeatedly contrasts the neighborhood's glory days stretching from well before the Jazz Age through the immediate post-Second World War period with the epoch of decadence and stagnation towards century's end. Buildings appear in the first few chapters as proud and majestic structures, only to materialize in the final chapters as dilapidated and abandoned wrecks. Particularly poignant is Williams' portrayal of the Twelfth Street YMCA. A 1913 picture showcases an immaculate gymnasium graced with a beautifully polished floor. Yet, a 1970 shot presents a horrifying view of the Y's filthy, graffiti-ridden pool. Above, the ceiling is pocked with gaping holes. Williams issues incessant reminders about how the most fashionable buildings were later torn down or transformed into housing projects or senior citizen homes. An early image of the Portner Flats (a swanky apartment complex) is reminiscent of a castle, complete with spires and towers. By 1978, it was gone and replaced by an housing project for the elderly. Fittingly, Williams' section on the 1968 urban unrest is preceded by a few depressing shots of the abandoned and then demolished Garfield Memorial Hospital, which appears earlier as a chateau-like structure with finely-manicured grounds.

Greater U Street is a visual tour de force, yet the book is not devoid of faults. In particular, it suffers from a surprisingly inordinate amount of editing errors. The caption for a portrait of Gen. Oliver Otis Howard (Howard University's namesake) notes that "he is seen here after losing his left arm in the battle of Fair Oaks in 1862," though it's clear that it is the general's right arm which is missing. Similarly, the book's very last caption alludes to "this building at Fourteenth and U Streets," though the picture above clearly shows street signs for Fourteenth and T Streets. And then there are the chapter numbers. Inexplicably, chapters Five and Six are both listed as "One" in the body of the book, even though they are clearly labeled "5" and "6" in the Table of Contents.

More substantively, one could have wished that the book might have focused more on the neighborhood's revitalization. Though the area has been on the upswing for nearly a decade (particularly since the opening of the U Street/Cardozo Metro station), Williams was not able to provide any current photographs attesting to the area's recent resurgence due to the Arcadia's constraint that no images be more recent than 40 years in works published as part of its "Images of America" series.

The second-to-last chapter provides a breath-taking visual account of the 1960s riots and the resultant destruction of many parts of the neighborhood. Yet after completing the brief final chapter (which consists mainly of abandoned buildings), one closes the book feeling that something is missing. A half-dozen shots of the "new" U Street would have provided a logical endpoint for the book's chronological trajectory. Nonetheless, the glaring omission--clearly no fault of the author--of current neighborhood images should not detract from this otherwise excellent and informative book. It is highly recommended.