Friday, May 27, 2011

U Street Businesses Old and New Honored

Video of the Discussion is Available on HCTV

Last week, on May 18th, the Humanities Council organized its first Washington, DC Great Streets event. The program honors historic businesses along Washington's storied commercial corridors and newcomers adding their own unique contributions. The inaugural event was called Celebrating U Street, and Nizam Ali of Ben's Chili Bowl, Richard Lee of Lee's Flower and Card Shop, and Suman Sorg of Sorg Architects comprised the panel of honorees. The group discussed the changes that have taken place along the U Street corridor in recent years, and reflected on old memories. The discussion was moderated by author Blair E. Ruble, whose recent book, Washington's U Street: a Biography, explores the impact of change and population movement with an approachable, biographical style.

Dr. Ruble confessed that his impetus for writing the book came from grating discussions with people from outside the Washington area who persistently referred to the capital as “not a real city.” Ruble's historical research and interviews with longtime residents clearly disprove this myth, and his work is replicable for most of Washington's neighborhoods, many of which rival the greater U Street area in the depth and richness of their collective memory and culture. 

Both Lee and Ali recalled a U Street that was very much a village in a small southern town. The families who owned businesses in the area were often interconnected, and they interacted with the public on a very personal level. The Industrial Bank, like Ben's and Lee's has been a fixture in the community for many years. Nizam's mother, a teller at the bank, met her husband in the area before they founded their now-iconic restaurant, and Richard Lee fondly recalled Ms. Ali allowing him to come to the front of the line as a small boy making deposits for his parents' shop. While the area has seen much change, both good and bad, Lee believes that the new residents' interest in attending community events has kept some of the close-knit character of the neighborhood intact. Sorg believes that the area would benefit from urban improvements that would encourage more foot traffic and more individual interactions between neighbors. Her firm is also responsible for many of the architectural preservation projects in the area.

The discussion and presentation of awards can be viewed on HCTV, the Humanities Council's Youtube Channel. The well-preserved culture of DC's neighborhoods, coupled with its residents long-term collective memory seem to suggest that the Humanities Council will have no trouble continuing the Washington, DC Great Streets program along other major commercial corridors across the city. Does your neighborhood have an eclectic mix of businesses, both new and old, along its great streets? Mt. Pleasant, MLK, Georgia Ave, M Street, 12th Street NE, Minnesota Ave. Let us know where we should hold the next discussion!

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