A Bittersweet Renaissance

Paul Schwartzman, Washington Post, Feb. 23, 2006

As a kid, W. Norman Wood liked to bike around the corner, linger outside a fancy restaurant and soak up the glamour of blacks coming and going in their tuxes and gowns. Seven decades later, Wood still lives on Eighth Street NW in Washington’s Shaw neighborhood. He bought a rowhouse three decades ago for $12,500.

Harry “Sonny” Brodgins was 9 when his mother moved into a rowhouse two blocks away, across from a lot where he and friends played football and hung out, sometimes 30 deep, drinking beer and talking about the Redskins, cars and girlfriends. He’s still there, caring for his mother, who scraped and saved and bought the place for $65,000.

Moses Lofton was driving for Greyhound in 1976 when he paid all of $35,000 for a five-bedroom three blocks west. The rowhouse was run-down, but Lofton saw charm in the worn wood trim and the stained-glass window. “Look at it,” he said recently, gazing up at its turret crown. “It’s like a castle.”

They are among the many homeowners who have lived in Shaw for decades—through the 1968 riots, the crack epidemic, black flight. They are there now for the rebound. Their homes have mushroomed in value, and they are adapting to new neighbors, many of them white and more affluent.

And they find themselves confronting a question that arises in any neighborhood where prices skyrocket: Why not sell?

But this is not just any neighborhood. These owners are nagged by something deeper and more complicated than how far their new wealth would take them or how they would adjust to new surroundings. They fret about the future identity of the neighborhood, a bastion of black culture and history—their history—where Langston Hughes wrote poetry and Duke Ellington played piano, where African Americans started their own bank, built their own buildings and thrived for generations.

They know that much of Shaw has been transformed and is gone. But what about the rest? What would become of the black-owned barbershops and shoe shops, the familiar faces who still congregate on the corners? Would the presence of African Americans be erased and eventually forgotten?

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Turning onto U Street, Lofton said he views the neighborhood’s transformation with a mixture of excitement and sadness. “All of this used to be black,” he said, his hand extending toward a horizon that includes the Starbucks where he drinks drip coffee three mornings a week, designer boutiques, sleek condominiums, Ethiopian restaurants and Ben’s Chili Bowl, a neighborhood institution that has evolved into a tourist attraction evoking a vanishing culture.

Sliding into a booth at Ben’s, Lofton recounted that after leaving Greyhound in 1990, he taught fourth grade at Janney Elementary in Northwest until he retired. He has no problems with whites, he said—Janney was mostly white—and he appreciates Shaw’s newfound diversity. He’s just sorry blacks are leaving.

“I have to hold up the banner,” he said. If others sell, what would he see if he drove through Shaw in five or 10 years? Would only whites come out of those front doors? As long as he’s around, he said, people will say, “ ‘Oh, there are still black people here.’ ”

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