January 2, 2011

My Journey Through Time: A Brief History of Shaw

My name is Makia Smith and I am a California native who spent this past semester interning at Bread for the City. While attending American University this fall through a student-exchange program, I was encouraged to learn and write about a community in DC. Given the location of Bread for the City’s Northwest Center (where I worked), I decided to delve into the history of the Shaw neighborhood.

The real story of Shaw begins just after the Civil War, when the neighborhood became a magnet for a wide range of new residents: whites, blacks, professionals, skilled and unskilled laborers. It was a destination, a place to establish roots. Many are familiar with Shaw’s most famous resident during its heyday: Duke Ellington.

In the 1960’s, the neighborhood began to change with crime on the rise in its formerly safe streets. Suddenly, Shaw was deemed a place to leave, and most of those who could, did. This downturn culminated in the riots of 1968, which completely devastated the social and economic well-being of the community for decades to come. By the end of the 60's, it was obvious that what had once exemplified the dignity and pride of the African American community was in heavy decline.

Throughout the 1970’s, Shaw had transformed into a poor community with high poverty and unemployment. In the 1980’s, new residents moved in on the hopes that the new Metrorail system would be followed shortly thereafter by a revitalization of the neighborhood. That didn’t happen. Instead, the neighborhood was forced to endure a new wave of crime that followed the explosion of the crack cocaine epidemic on the streets of DC. By the end of the 80’s, things were looking pretty bleak.

In 1991, Bread for the City and the Zacchaeus Free Medical Clinic moved into the neighborhood at the organization’s current home of 1525 Seventh Street. By 1995, the two entities merged under the single heading of Bread for the City. Willette Branch, a three-year veteran of BFC’s staff and long-time Shaw resident, believes that Bread for the City is a major boon to the community. She notes that, while pride often serves as a barrier to those who need help, Bread for the City is exceptional at helping individuals maintain their dignity while receiving the safety net services that they are desperately in need of.

Sekou “Koe” Murphy, Chief Financial Officer at Bread for the City, lived in Shaw while attending Howard University. He liked the neighborhood so much he eventually bought a home here. In short, he saw potential in the community. But at the same time, he also acknowledged the necessity of affordable housing in the community. Without it, many current residents would not be able to afford to live in Shaw, let alone anywhere else in DC—which is one of the costliest places to live in the United States.

Now that my time here at Bread for the City has come to an end, it has proved a fascinating experience to explore the history of this neighborhood where I’ve spent my last three months—its highs, its lows, and where it stands now. Given the encroachment of development (including the planned razing of the Kelsey Gardens apartments across the street from my office to make way for a condo complex), one wonders what changes lie in store for Shaw in the coming years. Likewise, one wonders if it will succeed in retaining its cultural ties as one of the nation’s most vibrant African American communities in the post-Civil War era. Only time will tell.

For more information about the history of the Shaw neighborhood, please check out our friends at Shaw Main Streets.

Photo of Broadway Theater (1949)—current home of Bread for the City’s expanded new facility—courtesy of the Wymer Photograph Collection, The Historical Society of Washington, DC/City Museum

No comments: