If you live in DC, you’ve probably noticed these cream colored signs full of black and white photographs around town…I always peer out of the corner of my eye and I can’t even count how many mental notes I’ve made to myself to come back and read what they actually say. I mean, if there is a sign, it probably means there is something important there. Growing up, when I was traveling with my parents, they were the kind to read EVERY sign…every sign, every “vista point here”. But when you live somewhere somehow your daily routine takes over and you stop noticing things like that.
When I found out that the Embassy Chef Challenge sponsors Cultural Tourism DC, I looked them up and guess what? That’s right, they’re the people behind the signs (amongst other things). So I finally decided to get with the program and do one of these self guided walks – and I didn’t have to go far. I found the first one less than a block away from our place. Diplo-tot in the ergo, and camera in hand, we took advantage of all the extra sunlight with daylight savings and did the U Street Heritage Trail.
And in short one evening, I learned a TON about the neighborhood. Like the Church down the street (pictured above and in the around town graphic) has actually been around since the Civil War. And all this time I just noticed them for their inspirational signs about that week’s sermon.
Homes of notable residents are marked – Duke Ellington is the obvious choice, but there were so many more artists that lived here as well, such as the first African-American opera singer. There is all sorts of information about everything that made this neighborhood thriving, like the schools that were among the best back in the day. A bit of shame now given the state of DC education, but a good reminder that it doesn’t have to be that way.
The Thurgood Marshall Center is just down the street as well. The building, which recently had it’s lobby restored to the original, was the first YMCA for African-American’s. Doesn’t seem like such a big deal now I think to our generation that is growing up largely without the YMCA as an “institution” but not only did the community fund, build and own their building at the cost of $100,000 at the time, it was also one of the only places for visitors and parents to stay while visiting family at Howard University. Now the building houses all sorts of offices and organizations. But with generally so much growth and new builds in the neighborhood, which I think bring a lot of good things with it, it makes you realize that there is a lot of history to preserve and watch out for.
I was pretty familiar with the African American Civil War memorial, which you find coming just out of the metro stop – but until the walk, I honestly had no idea that there was a full museum that goes with it as well.
It wasn’t just museums and artists here either…and while our neighborhood has certainly had ups and downs, a lot of businesses have weathered everything that came their way. The Industrial Bank is actually the oldest African-American bank in the US, and it’s still there, with plenty of signage on the outside to give you a sense of history.
And finally, as we wrapped up on U Street, we finally made a visit what can be considered as the institution of the neighborhood. Believe it or not, I had never been to Ben’s Chili Bowl (even though President Obama made it his first stop in town). I had made some attempts back when U Street was considered more of a frontier, but even then, the weekend evening lines were not for the faint hearted and I never made it in. But this Monday evening, while pretty hopping, it was nothing we couldn’t contend with. So diplo-tot and I saddled up to the counter, on the old-school red glitter stools, and ordered all the classics, just like DC residents have been doing since 1958. And that’s a piece of history worth tasting.