Culture, LIFE+STYLE, NEWS

Still Standing: Shaw’s last Black-Owned Buildings Dodge Gentrification

By Carrington York, Staff Reporter

Dr. Benjamin Chavis, president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association. Photo by Carrington York

An assortment of seasonal flowers lies ready to be cut and arranged, as the phone rings eagerly with the day’s bouquet orders for Lee’s Flower and Card Shop.  Lee’s has been a staple of Shaw’s U Street corridor since 1969, but is now one of the black owned-businesses that has had to adapt to the changing landscape caused by gentrification.

Since the 80s, Shaw’s U- Street, previously known as Black Broadway, has experienced some of the nation’s most dramatic cultural displacements in history. A study conducted by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that only seven cities account for over half of the nation’s gentrification, Washington, D.C. being one of them.

Stacie Lee Banks, co-owner of Lee’s,  has witnessed the change in consumer culture caused by gentrification.

“Gentrification, to us, is bitter-sweet because we don’t want people to be displaced out of their community but all of our customers are very supportive. New residents were a little hesitant to come in but once we renovated the shop and got more current and modern, more people came in thinking it was a new establishment. We had to let them know that we’ve been here.”

 Banks, along with other black business owners, recalls the construction of the U Street Metro station as the beginning of the neighborhood’s gentrification trend.

“Our whole street was gutted. It was like a ghost town,” says Banks, recalling how this construction stunted the shop’s business. 

Another one of the community staples which generates fans locally and nationally is Ben’s Chili Bowl. The hot dog shop has served the Shaw neighborhood for 61 years, surviving the city’s construction, drug infiltration and even a surprise property tax of $1 million.

Despite its fame,  the effect of gentrification has made its impact on the family business. 

“These new condos invite a new demographic. Our regulars have either moved or passed away”, says Nizam Ali, co-owner of Ben’s Chili Bowl and Ben’s Next Door.

The son of Ben’s original founders, Ali has also seen the rise in property taxes over the years first-hand—in DC, property taxes can increase about ten percent per year versus the national average one percent. He noted that there were times when the business was, “down to just a few employees because that’s all we could afford to pay.”

It’s not just that businesses are suffering, but history is being devalued as well. In the early 1950s, the hotels in DC remained segregated, prohibiting musicians, entertainers, and even renowned African American lawyer Thurgood Marshall from residing in the area. This racist era, birthed in Shaw’s YMCA-turned-community center, a safe haven for black artists of the Harlem renaissance who visited and performed in the district.

The building also was a place where Marshall did much of his legal work for the famous Brown v. Board of Education case. Now known as the Thurgood Marshall Center, it is home to organizations such as the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA).

Yet, gentrification has no value for history as Shaw continues to see a decrease in black ownership. Dr. Benjamin Chavis, President and CEO of the NNPA, reflected on this fact.

“Because a lot of African Americans had mortgages, there was a series of foreclosures in the Shaw community. Former residents were not able to come out of those foreclosures and had to move,” he says.

The influx of investments, as well as construction,  leads to rising home values, family incomes and educational levels of residents. Cultural displacement is left to run rampant as minority areas see a steady decline in their numbers. White gentrifiers tend to be the demographic that replaces original residents as they have the means to support these rising values.

 “A lot of the condominiums and urban redevelopment have priced out indigenous residents. The buildings around us and across the street are no longer black-owned. The significance is that gentrification has had a significant dislocation impact on black residents”, Chavis insists. 

The survival of these last few buildings is not just a testament to the resilience of black culture in America but a commentary on the continued struggle for black people to find somewhere to call home. 

March 12, 2020