Amazing Photos of U Street from 1991

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Photos courtesy of Laura

“Dear PoPville,

When I moved my wife and two-year-old to 13th and T, across the street from the Whitelaw Hotel (the Whitelaw’s much-faded neon sign is still in my garage, no reasonable offer refused) U Street was a trench underneath which a subway line was allegedly being built. In one of the pictures, there’s a sign listing the businesses still open, I think it’s optimistic — I think we were down to Ben’s, Leon’s shoe repair and maybe a beauty shop. The street was so desolate, even the drug dealers and the homeless didn’t hang there, and you almost felt safer there than in the populated parts of the neighborhood, even though my father was once slapped in the face by a stranger because “all white men are faggots.”

Needless to say, my parents, and my in-laws thought we were crazy, and it did take a lot of squinting and gin to see something other than continued, inexorable decline peppered with random violence and some of the ugliest hookers in the history of the world’s oldest profession.

I have to go cranky old geezer for a moment on some of the PoP complaints about today’s Columbia Heghts, Petworth, Eckington, etc. Kids these days have it so easy. ;) It’s not just that the whole hipster economy springs up much faster in gentrifying neighborhoods today than they did back then — and then, as now, I’d rather have a cool bar within walking distance than a grocery store. It’s that real change seemed so much less inevitable then than it does today — we lost money on our house when we moved to Denver for two years — and there were a lot of long “holy shit, what have we done?” nights.

But, what the hell. We bought a real house for $200k, so there’s that. And had seven rich years with a diverse cast of characters, watching a fascinating and unique transformation, of which we claim some small part. (I missed living on the edge, but when I suggested Columbia Heights when we moved back from Denver in 1999, my wife announced “we’ve done our time” and so we moved to Mt. Pleasant instead).

One day early on, a friend and I went out to take some shots of the neighborhood (it’s too bad we didn’t have Pablo and PoP’s cadre of camera talent around back then to document the decline and nascent rebirth of U Street), and a couple of days ago she stumbled across these shots and passed them along for your perusal.

Irving (nee “T”) Streete.”

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More photos after the jump.

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45 Comment

  • Please tell me that’s you [Irving] wearing a cape in that last photo!

  • What a dump it used to be!

  • I remember walking down U St in 1991 after taking the GRE at Howard. I don’t know what I was thinking. It was deserted in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. The street was torn up and everything but Ben’s was abandoned. That U Street would ever be any better seemed like a joke at the time.

  • A J. Peterman (remember J. Peterman?) duster, actually.

  • David Garber

    I’m always really encouraged seeing photos like this because it gives me hope for the neighborhoods that still look like this now.

  • Wow. That is incredible. I love this city.

  • Awful to see all the charm and bustle of this once-thriving neighborhood in 1991 replaced with tapas bars for spoiled Booz contractors and their trust funds.

  • How big is the Whitelaw’s old neon sign anyhow?

  • “How big is the Whitelaw’s old neon sign anyhow?”

    Maybe 8 feet wide and six feet high.

  • Truly amazing.

  • MPinDC

    I remember U St and Columbia Heights in the “before” pictures – what a transformation!

  • saf

    We just left Mt Pleasant at that point for Petworth (bought here in 1990.)

    I remember those days on U Street. We had been living in Shaw before Mt P, and were looking at houses in Shaw because they were so much cheaper than Mt P, and we still couldn’t afford it.

    You’d look at all that stuff that had been, and wonder if it would be again.

  • Do you have pics of the Whitelaw before it was restored? I do but don’t have a scanner. I think I now know Irving Streete’ s secret identity since I lived on your block in 1991 and still live there today.

  • i moved to the dc area in 1995. the u st area had already changed a bit from 1991, it appears. i would walk thru the area to meet someone in farragut north, and stop at that used book/record (?) store that was in a basement, and coppi’s was a restaurant we would go to before the 930 Club.

  • i should say, i walked from howard to farragut north area, to meet my partner. i worked at howard.

  • That’s actually David Hasselhoff in the last picture.

  • Uh, oh — my secret identity in danger. How will I do my suprhero work unmolested now? : )
    .
    I used to have pictures of the Whitelaw with no roof and the sumac trees growing on the upper floor but an not sure where they are.

  • Yeah, this building of the subway station was the turning point. U Street from the mid-90s on was a far cry from this scene. Andulisian Dog, Republic Gardens, Soul Brothers Pizza, kaffa, Bar Nun, State of the Union, U-topia, the flea market…

  • They didn’t call it the “New U” just a few years after these photos, for nothing.

  • i moved here in 1995. that was bad enough. i’m glad i didn’t come here earlier.
    i really envy the 20 somethings moving here now, what a better place it is!
    i’m glad they don’t have to deal with the crap that we dealt with then.

    • brookland_rez

      Well, I’m thankful to everyone that was here back then and laid the groundwork for today. I came here as a 20-something in 2004. U St was fine at that point, but I think about all the changes elsewhere since then. Columbia Hts, near SE by the stadium, H St, lots of transformation. At this point it seems almost inevitable that the entire city will eventually be cleaned up, just a matter of time.

  • Amazing pictures and story. Thanks!

  • Thank you Irving Street!

    • and we were almost neighbors! I moved into the walk up on the corner of 13th & T in 2001. The neighborhood has blown up since then, I can’t imagine what it was like 10 years before that.

  • hey what instragram filter is that? love it!!

    (kidding)

    What amazing history – I admit, as someone who moved here in 2009, it’s nearly impossible for me to imagine this. Really makes you wonder what the city will look like in another 20 years. I know a lot of people bemoan the loss of character and history but I do think that, of all the gentrifying/gentrified neighborhoods in the country, DC has done better than most at preserving some history. U Street does not *feel* overly precious or developed… a far cry from places like Navy Yard, for example.

  • Yeah but they have to deal with steep competition for housing and astronomical rents.

  • I remember it well. I moved onto Willard St in 1991. For context, U St was completely torn up from approx 7th to 15th streets for the Metro construction. The U St station opened in 1991 as a Yellow line station. It took a while to rebuild the street and reestablish the displaced businesses.

  • Please can I come see the sign?

  • I’ve got you beat on this neighborhood by 10 years!! Cool pictures though!

  • Remember this post next time someone looking for housing says 9th St is “too ghetto.” I moved to this neighborhood in ’91 also. I helped organize a community event in Anacostia in 1995. Anacostia was nicer.

  • would love to see what it looked like in the 20s… this street has had many many MANY lives… and will continue to do so… ebbs and flows, it’s a pendulum.

  • Great pictures! I started working at 14th and U in 1992, shortly after the Metro opened. I remember how thrilled we were when the Rite Aid went in (where the KFC/Taco Bell was), replacing an empty lot. I continue to freak out that the exciting new development from 1993 is now torn down for exciting new development in 2013. But I guess that shows I’m old.

    • brookland_rez

      That’s why I don’t mind stuff like what got built at Rhode Island Ave station. It’s not ideal, but it’s something. In an area that has nothing.

      Maybe in 20 years they’ll be tearing the Rhode Island development down and put in something better.

  • Wait, do people really say 9th St is too ghetto? I lived on 9th and S from 2006-2011 and it was somewhat “rough around the edges” till about 2008 when new bars and restaurants started coming to the area. Now it’s completely unrecognizable from what it was even when I was first living there. If people think that’s ghetto, they seriously don’t know what the word means.

  • We lived at 13 & T beginning in 2000. These photos are excellent. It’s amazing to see what the neighborhood has turned into.

  • I see a lot you have moved into the area in the last 10 to 20 years but I been in the neighborhood since 1964
    (beat that). I have see the pre metro days and the atmosphere of the night life. I have memories when the movie Shaft came out the lines for the Lincoln Theater were around the corner. I had three movies houses to go to, the Republic , Lincoln , The Booker T. Ben’s Chili bowl was always open ( you could get a pimp sandwich anytime) Dukes shoe shine was at the corner of 13th and U . Danced many nights at the Casbah . I remembered if you stood on the south side of U street you got a cheaper cab fair (old zone system). Duron paints at 12 & U you could get some cheap paint and do many projects. Life was good on U street before and after the riots . Then Metro………….

  • 1964 @The NeighborHood Reporter now that is History!

  • Er, a “pimp sandwich”? Do tell.

  • Man, they were ugly hookers at the Whitelaw, weren’t they?

  • Did some ask about a Pimp Sandwich ???? What that really means is that Pimps after a long night out “working” would stop by and get something to eat and getting a “hotdog” at Ben’s Chili bowl was the place to get something to eat at 3 0’clock in the morning. thus the name “Pimp sandwich” back in the day nothing else was open after midnight.

  • I’d actually be seriously interested in the sign. My wife and I have been living on the 1300 block of T Street for the past 8 years and it’s been a trip to watch things change (though we’re probably moving east before too long). Irving, if you’re willing to part with it, please send me an email – Sam [dot] Sherwood [at] gmail

  • During this time we lived at 15th and S NW. No wonder we never walked east. 14th St & east was practically a no go zone back then!

  • I remember around the first Obama election, 2008, I went over to U street NW to meet someone and was flabergasted of the change and “all the white people” I saw. :) I live in Eckington, basically grew up there past not far from Mckinley Technoligy school and am a Dc native. The changes are just crazy. Growing up, blacks always talked about the “whites” coming back. My neighborhood right off of rhode Island ave and intergrating like mad. But I’m happy if the neighborhoods are changing for the better.

  • I moved to the hood from Capitol Hill in 1979 ‘though I recall driving up 14th St after the ’68 riots (crazy college student) to see the smoking embers with armed National Guards on every corner. The city was under curfew. I never imagined that I’d be living in this neighborhood that was famous then for prostitutes and drugs. We never walked east past 15th St. in ’79. Reeves Center, Metro, Studio Theater were key to redevelopment ‘though it was a long slog. To think our biggest complaint now is parking!

  • … and people keep complaining that recent development is hurting the city… right…

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