U Street area sees collision between new and old
December 2, 2010 9 Comments
An influx of new residents has caused tensions in the historically black neighborhood.
By Joseph Hornig
Cheers echo down the sidewalks of U and Ninth streets on a Saturday afternoon. The rowdiness is coming from inside Nellie’s Sports Bar, which is packed with large groups of chatty men and women huddled around tables drinking beer while intently watching the college football games being shown on large flat-screen TVs.
Nellie’s, known as a gay sports bar, draws in people from not just the surrounding neighborhood, but all over the District. Ryan Portell, a resident of Glover Park, frequently makes the trek to Nellie’s.
“Nellie’s promotes itself as more of a neighborhood bar than just a gay bar, which attracts a really diverse crowd,” Portell said. “It has a really relaxed atmosphere and provides a welcome reprieve from the more expensive and upscale gay establishments in the area.”
In fewer than four years, Nellie’s, at 900 U Street NW, has become a mainstay in D.C.’s gay community. One reason is that there has been a migration of gay residents into the Shaw/U Street area. Not only has this prompted a wave of urban renewal in the neighborhood, but it has also caused tensions between new residents — many of whom are gay, young urban professionals — and the working class neighbors who are the longtimers in the neighborhood.
These conflicts also tend to divide along racial lines, residents say.
The story of urban renewal and gentrification in D.C. has to do with the evolution and integration of white gays moving into black neighborhoods, said Wesley Combs, president and co-founder of Witeck-Combs Communications, a marketing firm that develops strategies for companies to reach out to GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) consumers.
“White gays are buying houses in areas like LeDroit Park because they can afford it, but I don’t know if black people are always comfortable with white people moving in,” he said. “African-Americans may perceive that whites think they can take advantage of black people because they are stereotypically poor.”
Brian Galm, a former doorman at MOVA lounge on P street, said that Nellie’s location is surrounded by the new “gayborhood.”
“For 15 years [D.C.’s ‘gayborhood’] was Dupont Circle,” Galm said. “Then it moved to Logan Circle and now it’s in the Shaw-U Street area. Fifteen years ago Dupont was a s— hole; then the gays gentrified it.”
After a Whole Foods supermarket opened at 1440 P St. in December 2000, condominiums were built and remodeled to meet a growing demand for housing, much of which was coming from the gay community.
But Nellie’s is the standout, featuring universally appealing weekly events, such as poker night on Mondays, drag bingo on Tuesdays, trivia night on Wednesdays and Ping Pong Madness every fourth Thursday.
Galm explains that Nellie’s benefits from being less high-end and more down-to-earth than other gay bars and lounges.
“At MOVA, they sell $14 martinis,” Galm said. “Does Nellie’s even have martinis?”
Customers say that engaging events, coupled with a rooftop deck and cheap happy hour specials, result in a relaxed, fun atmosphere that can be enjoyed everyone, not just gay clientele.
The affect, though, has gone beyond the neighborhood.
“When Nellie’s opened, none of what you see now used to be there,” Combs said. “The migration of the gay community spurred the development of all the restaurants and businesses that are there now.”
For some, there are clear positives for the new-look neighborhood. Deborah Alton, who just recently moved to the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA on Rhode Island Avenue, is happy with the current state of the neighborhood.
“All I care about is not having to hear gunshots and police sirens,” Alton said. “That’s all I heard when I lived in Southeast. I’ve only been here two weeks, but it seems quiet. No one’s selling drugs outside my building at 3 in the morning.”
The change, though, has been rapid, and rising rents have forced many long-timers out. While that theme has played out in neighborhoods all over the District, one of the most visceral protests sits in the same neighborhood as Nellie’s, at the corner of R and Seventh streets. It’s what activists call “Tent City,” organized on top of public-owned Parcel 42. The fenced lot is littered with tents and teepees made of wood and black plastic as a protest against former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, who promised to build affordable housing there.
However, new voices in the community may not be as interested in affordable housing.
“For some neighbors, lower income equals crime,” Combs said. “Everyone likes the idea of affordable housing, just as long as it’s not in their neighborhood.”
Affordable housing is just one of the areas of contention as residents grapple with a central question: whose neighborhood is it?