Residents of the historically black Georgia Avenue-Shaw District neighborhood fight to hold on to their community
Residents of the historically black Georgia Avenue-Shaw District neighborhood fight to hold on to their community: Sankofa Café remains an anchor as clientele changes
By Mimi Brown
Georgia Avenue-Shaw District has long been considered one of the premier historically black areas of Washington, D.C., but now, residents say, gentrification is threatening to take over and destroy a century’s worth of history and culture.
Georgia Avenue residents say they are not going without a fight. They’ve formed the Georgia Avenue Community Development Task Force. The main goal of the task force is to ensure the community is informed and has a strong voice in the revitalization process.
“We are looking at major redevelopments. It is really hard to keep them from coming, but I think there are a lot of things that the residents can do to make sure the new development that is coming is equitable for everyone,” says Sylvia Robinson, co-founder of the Georgia Avenue Development Task Force.
The community’s history dates back to the 1860s when freed slaves came from Virginia looking for work and settled in an encampment on Fifth Street and W Street Northwest, north of Florida Avenue. The encampment later became known as Howard Town after Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, who was at the time head of the Freedman’s Bureau.
Out of Howard Town came Howard University and The National Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children, now known as the Emergence Community of the Art Collective. The area became known as the best location to start a black business; it was known for its entertainment, education and the overall black movement.
However, the 1968 riots in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination changed the face of the area and caused a lot of devastation, not just on Georgia Avenue, but all over the city. The city began plans to rebuild various neighborhoods, including H Street and 14th Street.
“Georgia Avenue has always been the last frontier, for a lot of reasons,” Robinson says, “It didn’t have the city-owned land parcels, like some of the other areas. Plus the university is here, and it owns a lot of property.”
Robinson says developers also overlooked Georgia Avenue, because it wasn’t conducive to major redevelopment like malls and shopping centers. But now that the other areas are pretty much done, Georgia Avenue becomes the next target.
“There are about six to eight major development projects coming along Georgia Avenue, Robinson says. “There is the big Shaw Metro development pan, Howard University has the Howard Town Center coming, and it’s also redeveloping its strip of land at Bryant Street, and there are a host of condominium projects.”
The task force was formed in December of 2009, and meets twice a week. Its members say they strive to be proactive.
“Rather than follow the city around and catch up with their meetings, we tell them what we want to see, what we are going to fight for.” Robinson says.
Residents say the process has been transparent so far. At any given meeting, residents are likely to run into city officials, community leaders, even developers. The open meetings prompt progressive dialogue from officials, and in turn the community is informed and has a strong voice in the renovation process, which is the overall goal of the task force.
“It’s still a very unique community,” Robinson says. “We have a lot of relationships here, entrenched small businesses are the heart of this community, it is very much a strong black community, full of history and culture, and we’re just trying to preserve that.”
Local businesses like Sankofa Cafe and Bookstore say the threat of gentrification won’t scare off their patrons. In fact, it’s bringing them a different set of clientele. Sankofa is a staple in the Howard University community. It is located in the heart of the community across from Howard University on Fairmont Street and Georgia Avenue.
“Our customers are changing a bit, yes, but about 60 percent of our business comes from Howard University students,” says Tensae Berhanu, owner of Sankofa Cafe.
“Black people will always need a place they can go and learn about themselves,” Berhanu says, “We do that through the selling of our books, films and art.”
The following major projects are planned for the stretch of Georgia Avenue between New Hampshire and S St:
- 7th and S: The Progression Project over the Shaw Metro and will extend north for most of the block. The United Negro College fund will be the primary tenant. It will contain 94,000 SF of office space and 180 – 200 residential rental units.
- 7th and T: The Howard Theater reconstruction is planned to complete by 2011.
- 7th and V: The Howard Town Center project with 440 apart- ment units, a Fresh Grocer and other retail.
- Georgia and Barry: Restructuring of the Wonder Plaza facility with uses that will benefit students and the community.
- Georgia and Hobart: 2910 Georgia Avenue, will become a 5 story plus, 22 unit, market rate condominium project.
- Georgia and Columbia: The old Bruce Monroe School is now a temporary park. An RFP was released for long termuse as a school combined with other uses.
- Georgia and Lamont: The Heights – 69 sustainable, mixed-use affordable (at 60% to 80% AMI), rental housing development with 10,000 SF of ground floor retail.
- Georgia and Newton: The Park Morton Redevelopment on Georgia Avenue, consisting of 83 affordable apartment units in a 7 story building. Georgia Avenue, consisting of 83 affordable apartment units in a 7 story building.