Known as Shaw, the neighborhood radiating from U Street was named for Robert Gould Shaw, the commander of the 54th Massachusetts, featured in the film Glory. The Union Army's military encampments here became a stop for freedmen heading north; some stayed. By the 1920s, D.C. had one of the U.S.'s largest black populations and became a center of African-American culture. Surpassed only by its successor, Harlem, in nationwide notoriety, the U Street corridor served as its heart and was dubbed "Black Broadway." Duke Ellington, Thurgood Marshall, and Langston Hughes lived and worked here, and today the street continues a tradition of arts and music, adding hip boutiques, coffeehouses and cafés to its neighborhood résumé.
Start your walk at (1) the intersection of U and 16th Streets. The Beaux Arts edifices radiating outward—including The Balfour, second on the left along 16th Street heading north—were among the turn-of-the-century city's best addresses. (2) Meridian Hill Park, two blocks north on 16th Street, contains a unique 13-story-long cascading waterfall. Today, a collection of street musicians frequently offers open-air performances here.
Continue along U Street to (3) the intersection with 14th Street, a corner which saw massive riots in 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Turn left on 14th and walk a half block to cop a squat at coffeehouse, café, and independent art and film venue (4) Busboys and Poets, named for Langston Hughes, who worked as a busboy at the nearby Wardman Park Hotel.
Return to U Street and continue to where U and 13th meet, which marks the beginning of "Black Broadway." Duke Ellington was born here; Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and Pearl Bailey played in its clubs. (5) The Lincoln Theatre, on the left, now hosts theater, dance, and comedy shows.
Just next door, (6) Ben's Chili Bowl has been serving locals half-smokes ("other than jazz music, D.C.'s best contribution to the cultural world."—George Stone, columnist Washington Flyer) and chili fries since 1958, and continues to count Bill Cosby as a regular when he's in town. Cross to the right side of U Street to reach the (7) True Reformer Building, built in 1902 by John Anderson Lankford, D.C.'s first registered black architect. The building now sports a mural of Duke Ellington and is home to the African American Civil War Museum. On the right down 12th Street, the (8) Thurgood Marshall Center formerly housed the country's first full-service YMCA for blacks; Joe Louis and Langston Hughes were regulars and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall developed strategies for the Brown v. Board of Education case here.
Return to U Street and continue to the intersection with 11th. On the left is (9) Bohemian Cavern, a club dating from 1926 where John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, and Miles Davis played. Continue along U Street to its intersection with 10th for your final stop. On the right is the (10) African American Civil War Memorial, bearing the words by Frederick Douglass, "Better even to die free than to live slaves."
2014 Traveler Photo Contest
See all the winning images from the 2014 Traveler Photo Contest.