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Washington's U Street: A Biography

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This book traces the history of the U Street neighborhood in Washington, D.C., from its Civil War–era origins to its recent gentrification. Home throughout the years to important scholars, entertainers, and political figures, as well as to historically prominent African American institutions, Washington’s U Street neighborhood is a critical zone of contact between black and This book traces the history of the U Street neighborhood in Washington, D.C., from its Civil War–era origins to its recent gentrification. Home throughout the years to important scholars, entertainers, and political figures, as well as to historically prominent African American institutions, Washington’s U Street neighborhood is a critical zone of contact between black and white America. Howard University and the Howard Theater are both located there; Duke Ellington grew up in the neighborhood; and diplomat Ralph Bunche, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and medical researcher Charles Drew were all members of the community. This robustly diverse neighborhood included residents of different races and economic classes when it arose during the Civil War. Jim Crow laws came to the District after the Compromise of 1877, and segregation followed in the mid-1880s. Over the next century, U Street emerged as an energetic center of African American life in Washington. The mid-twentieth-century rise of cultural and educational institutions brought with it the establishment of African American middle and elite classes, ironically fostering biases within the black community. Later, with residential desegregation, many of the elites moved on and U Street entered decades of decline, suffered rioting in 1968, but has seen an initially fitful resurgence that has recently taken hold. Blair A. Ruble, a jazz aficionado, prominent urbanist, and longtime resident of Washington, D.C., is uniquely equipped to undertake the history of this culturally important area. His work is a rare instance of original research told in an engaging and compelling voice.


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This book traces the history of the U Street neighborhood in Washington, D.C., from its Civil War–era origins to its recent gentrification. Home throughout the years to important scholars, entertainers, and political figures, as well as to historically prominent African American institutions, Washington’s U Street neighborhood is a critical zone of contact between black and This book traces the history of the U Street neighborhood in Washington, D.C., from its Civil War–era origins to its recent gentrification. Home throughout the years to important scholars, entertainers, and political figures, as well as to historically prominent African American institutions, Washington’s U Street neighborhood is a critical zone of contact between black and white America. Howard University and the Howard Theater are both located there; Duke Ellington grew up in the neighborhood; and diplomat Ralph Bunche, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and medical researcher Charles Drew were all members of the community. This robustly diverse neighborhood included residents of different races and economic classes when it arose during the Civil War. Jim Crow laws came to the District after the Compromise of 1877, and segregation followed in the mid-1880s. Over the next century, U Street emerged as an energetic center of African American life in Washington. The mid-twentieth-century rise of cultural and educational institutions brought with it the establishment of African American middle and elite classes, ironically fostering biases within the black community. Later, with residential desegregation, many of the elites moved on and U Street entered decades of decline, suffered rioting in 1968, but has seen an initially fitful resurgence that has recently taken hold. Blair A. Ruble, a jazz aficionado, prominent urbanist, and longtime resident of Washington, D.C., is uniquely equipped to undertake the history of this culturally important area. His work is a rare instance of original research told in an engaging and compelling voice.

30 review for Washington's U Street: A Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Melody Schreiber

    What so excited me about this book was its originality. No one has undertaken such a comprehensive examination of this undeniably important neighborhood. U Street has been Washington’s vibrant center for many decades, and Ruble’s detailed account of the neighborhood, from before the Civil War to today, puts its modern issues in context. Blair Ruble begins by framing the U Street area as a “contact zone”—a place where cultures and peoples exist side by side. Whether black or white, southern or nort What so excited me about this book was its originality. No one has undertaken such a comprehensive examination of this undeniably important neighborhood. U Street has been Washington’s vibrant center for many decades, and Ruble’s detailed account of the neighborhood, from before the Civil War to today, puts its modern issues in context. Blair Ruble begins by framing the U Street area as a “contact zone”—a place where cultures and peoples exist side by side. Whether black or white, southern or northern, professional or scholarly, residents in the neighborhood have interacted with each other with very few clashes for decades. U Street has bred activists, politicians, scholars, educators, athletes, musicians, and dancers, among others; and it calls such famous figures as Duke Ellington and Ralph Bunche sons. Ruble explores the significance of cultural institutions and historical events, such as the founding of the NAACP, Jim Crow and segregation, the civil rights movement, and the establishment of U Street as “black Broadway.” Washington’s U Street demonstrates the exceptional ability of the area’s many different residents not just to coexist but also to build a strong identity and unique culture. For a more detailed review, head over to http://melodyandwords.com/2010/11/04/...

  2. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

    Nice collection of the history and stories around U Street. I enjoyed the recent history over the past 25 years. Good to see discussion of the role Busboys & Poets has played (pp 297- 299).

  3. 4 out of 5

    Kaitlin Oujo

    As a resident of the neighborhood for ~8 years, I’ve long been meaning to learn more about the neighborhood’s history. This book was the perfect way to do so- I think most local are generally familiar with the “Black Broadway” past and are generally aware of the changes and gentrification issues over the past several years but this book really opened my eyes the nuance of that history.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Emily

    "...gentrification is different from 'normal change' in the rapidity of divergence from the past, and in the scope of the transformation that takes place. All aspects of neighborhood life are affected in a compressed time period. As a consequence, the underlying community organization substructure fragments before most residents and outsiders can recognize the impact of gentrification. This is precisely what happened in the U Street neighborhood." "Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal put it well "...gentrification is different from 'normal change' in the rapidity of divergence from the past, and in the scope of the transformation that takes place. All aspects of neighborhood life are affected in a compressed time period. As a consequence, the underlying community organization substructure fragments before most residents and outsiders can recognize the impact of gentrification. This is precisely what happened in the U Street neighborhood." "Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal put it well when lamenting the homogenization threatening the area in 2008. 'In the rush to create this instant renaissance,' he cautioned readers of a neighborhood newspaper, 'we're really tripping over ourselves at the cost of losing our local flavor.'"

  5. 4 out of 5

    Mary Diegert

    I have read about half of this book so far. It requires a little more concentration than the historical fiction books I've been reading, but there is a lot of very interesting information here about black history post-civil war. It's fascinating to see the progression from slavery to the intellectuals who shaped Howard University into a leading voice for civil rights, along with the scores of other black leaders who lived and worked in DC. Doug and I recently visited DC and stayed on T Street an I have read about half of this book so far. It requires a little more concentration than the historical fiction books I've been reading, but there is a lot of very interesting information here about black history post-civil war. It's fascinating to see the progression from slavery to the intellectuals who shaped Howard University into a leading voice for civil rights, along with the scores of other black leaders who lived and worked in DC. Doug and I recently visited DC and stayed on T Street and visited our son Paul who lives right up by Howard - living history! I'm taking this off of my currently reading list because I probably won't get back to it for a long time.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Brian

    Lots of really interesting history but presented through repetitive, dry writing. The stories of the people in old DC are very compelling but not here. It's interesting, this is almost the only book by the author that isnt' about Soviet cities. Not sure where the impetus came from to write about DC's famed U Street. Might be a good reference but there are probably better 'biographies' of the city. Lots of really interesting history but presented through repetitive, dry writing. The stories of the people in old DC are very compelling but not here. It's interesting, this is almost the only book by the author that isnt' about Soviet cities. Not sure where the impetus came from to write about DC's famed U Street. Might be a good reference but there are probably better 'biographies' of the city.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Thomas

    This was the first book on Washington history I've ever read and I hence learned a lot from it. It's essential reading for those who are new to DC and particularly U Street. Ruble is sometimes clumsily overlays the story of U Street with his theme of "zones of contact" and "cracks in the sidewalk," but his doing so doesn't distract from the broader story. And what a story it is. Great reading. This was the first book on Washington history I've ever read and I hence learned a lot from it. It's essential reading for those who are new to DC and particularly U Street. Ruble is sometimes clumsily overlays the story of U Street with his theme of "zones of contact" and "cracks in the sidewalk," but his doing so doesn't distract from the broader story. And what a story it is. Great reading.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jackie

    Very dense book about the U Street neighborhood. I enjoyed many of the stories, especially in the mid to late chapters of the book. However, overall I found it hard to immerse myself in the book, as it read like a text book at times.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Susie

    school books took over my life

  10. 5 out of 5

    Alex Lopez

  11. 4 out of 5

    Chris Perry

  12. 4 out of 5

    Dan Winston

  13. 5 out of 5

    Morgan

  14. 5 out of 5

    DanO

  15. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Gilmore

  16. 4 out of 5

    Adam C.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Eric

  18. 5 out of 5

    Barbara

  19. 4 out of 5

    Olivia Dougherty

  20. 4 out of 5

    Robert Starner

  21. 4 out of 5

    Maya Brennan

  22. 4 out of 5

    Broadsnark

  23. 4 out of 5

    Kathy

  24. 5 out of 5

    Faith

  25. 4 out of 5

    Clinton Parks

  26. 4 out of 5

    Max Sullivan

  27. 4 out of 5

    Jessica Hopson

  28. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca Brenner Graham

  29. 4 out of 5

    Dave Price

  30. 5 out of 5

    Emma

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