When Winnifred Lee and William P. Lee opened their flower shop on U Street NW in 1945, the neighborhood was “like a hub for African American businesses,” according to the couple’s granddaughter Stacie Lee Banks. At the time, Jim Crow laws restricted black people from entering many downtown shops less than two miles away, explains Banks.
In 1968, the couple purchased the property at 1026 U Street NW, where Banks currently runs Lee’s Flower and Card Shop with her sister Kristie Lee. They lease the space from their father, who owns the building and passed the shop’s baton to his daughters in 2012.
Ben Ali and Virginia Ali put down roots in the U Street corridor in 1958 when they opened Ben’s Chili Bowl at 1213 U Street NW. “When we met, fell in love, and wanted to be married, he wanted to be self-employed,” Mrs. Ali says. Mr. Ali, who came to the U.S. from Trinidad, had been working his way through college in restaurants and had become a maître d’ “at one of the big restaurants downtown,” Mrs. Ali says. “‘I don’t know anything about the restaurant business, but I’m willing to learn,’” she thought at the time.
Lee’s Flower and Card Shop and Ben’s Chili Bowl are two of few black-owned businesses to survive after the 1968 uprising in response to the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In the two decades that followed, Banks and Mrs. Ali recall a neighborhood overrun by drugs, causing some of their middle-class African American clientele to desert the District for its suburbs.
In the late ’80s and into the early ’90s, the D.C. government facilitated a series of large-scale developments such as the Franklin D Reeves Municipal Center on U Street NW, Green Line Metro stations, and the MCI Center and the Walter E. Washington Convention Center downtown. Making the area more appealing to new residents, these projects contributed to what has made U Street and Shaw two of D.C.’s most gentrified neighborhoods today, according to Derek Hyra, author of Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City.
As crime rates began to decrease in the ’90s and early 2000s, groups such as Cultural Tourism DC began what Hyra calls “black branding” with offerings such as the African American Heritage Trail. WMATA began selling properties near Metro stations that were redeveloped into high-end residential properties such as the Ellington apartments, named after African American jazz composer Duke Ellington, at 1301 U Street NW. The proliferation of jobs throughout the D.C. region after the recession prompted white millennials, who had already begun entering the city in years prior, to come in droves, according to Hyra’s research.
By 2010, the African American population in the Shaw and U Street neighborhoods had decreased to 30 percent from 80 percent in 1980. Across the city, more than 20,000 black residents were displaced between 2000 and 2013, per a report from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.
As the area’s racial demographics changed in the ’90s, more black retail businesses opened up in Shaw. But like their predecessors on U Street NW, few have survived.
When James Stokes joined the business team at the Gospel Spreading Church of God at 2030 Georgia Avenue NW, the church had already owned several properties in D.C. including the four-story brick building that sits at 2002 Georgia Avenue NW. “We found out that Florida Avenue and Georgia Avenue was one of the busiest intersections in this area,” says Stokes, who happens to be this editor’s great uncle. In 1995, the church opened the Gospel Spreading Bible Bookstore on the ground floor of the building. “There was a need for that type of business in the area because bookstores had moved away and it was difficult for people to get to them because we didn’t have the type of bus service that we have today,” says Stokes, who was most concerned about seniors and other churches in the area who needed the store’s offerings.
Diagonal from the bookstore, Donald Campbell opened Central Communications—better known as the Metro PCS store—at 1915 7th Street NW in 1995. The store has become famous for blaring go-go music that rocks the corner of Florida Avenue and 7th Street. Earlier this year, Campbell was thrust into the limelight after a resident of a nearby luxury apartment building tried to kill the corner’s signature vibe.
After the person made a complaint, T-Mobile, which owns Metro PCS, ordered Campbell to cut the music. Shortly thereafter, a viral tweet and #DontMuteDC hashtag made the store the center of local, and even international news stories examining gentrification in Shaw. “In four days, we had 86,000 people sign a petition—and that was very big.” Oftentimes in situations like this, “the big guy crumbles the small guy,” Campbell says, referring to his store as the underdog. But this time, “the community stood up for the culture” and that go-go beat returned to the street.
Campbell isn’t the only longtime business owner in Shaw who relies on the strength of the community. Wanda Henderson opened her hair salon in the U Street corridor in 1997 and moved to Shaw, at 1851 7th St. NW, in 2003. A year later, she was told that the property was being redeveloped and she had to leave. “7th and T street has had its challenges, but it’s always been a great location to make money. We always had so many clients,” Henderson says. “Change is good as long as we’re all included. And I didn’t want to be excluded from my space.”
Henderson negotiated a deal with the developer that allowed her to move in 2010 and reopen her shop, Wanda’s on 7th, in the new building five years later. “I really wanted to be here—my community is here,” she says. “A lot of young people in the community admire me and like the fact that the presence of what was old is still new. Ms. Wanda was here, she left, she came back, she’s doin’ great business. There’s a lot to teach your children, your college students—being a resource for your community.”
Cuttin’ Up Barber Shop at 750 N St NW is one of the last black-owned barbershops in Shaw. Though owner Anthony (Stoney) Quindlen has had to navigate a changing clientele and contend with sharp increases in rent since opening this location in 1996, he says that his shop has thrived as a safe place for the community. “We continue to do the same and be ourselves,” he says. “Everybody likes to talk about current events, sports, politics, concerts, social media, and celebrities. A lot of people come to hear that [because] they don’t hear it at home or at their jobs. So they come here once a week to get all the current events until they come back again.”
The few black business owners whose shops still inhabit Shaw and U Street storefronts have had a front-row seat to the impacts of gentrification, in a myriad of ways. “It’s not just a change in one class of people who are wealthy moving out the poor class of people, but in the United States and in Shaw, it’s racialized,” says Dominic Moulden, the resource organizer at ONE DC, an advocacy organization based in Shaw. “There’s a cultural and political displacement aspect. It’s about power and space and place.”
In the following series of questions, the aforementioned business owners share, in their own words, stories of survival in one of D.C.’s most heavily gentrified areas and how they navigate serving a changing clientele in a neighborhood that once mostly looked like them. —Christina Sturdivant Sani
Interviews by Amanda Michelle Gomez, Mitch Ryals, Emma Sarappo, Christina Sturdivant Sani, Elizabeth Tuten, and Ayomi Wolff.
Describe the neighborhood at the time you opened—the businesses that were around and the people who frequented them.
Virginia Ali (Ben’s Chili Bowl): We found an architect, a contractor, an electrician, a plumber, and a cabinet maker within a few blocks of here because this had been a historically segregated African American community, so these were all black businesses that we were able to take care of building our Chili Bowl. [When Ben’s opened in 1958], it was a very vibrant, busy community. And the Chili Bowl was popular quite early. Because of the vitality in the community, we were open until 3 o’clock in the morning and 4 on Friday and Saturday nights.
James Stokes (Bible Bookstore): The first day we opened, on a Saturday in 1995, the bookstore was successful. We could see the potential that it would have so we started reaching out to people and churches in the community—especially to elderly people, most of whom could not drive. There were a lot of businesses in the area at the time—the drug store, Popeyes. We did not see a lot of walking traffic, especially in the early part of the night, so we decided our hours would be 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. on Saturday. That worked out quite well.
How has the neighborhood, and your clientele, changed over time? When did you first see signs of gentrification?
Stacie Lee Banks (Lee’s Flower and Card Shop): It’s been ebbs and flows. During the ’40s, it was like a great economic corridor. Then with the riots from 1968, it went down to like a drug infested area [through] the ’80s. Then the Metro construction lasted about five or six years, that kind of completely closed down the street. And it was kind of desolate then.
In the 1990s, there were not a lot of shops, not a lot of restaurants. And these condos weren’t here. But when Metro opened, more shops, condos, and luxury apartments came—it has become more of a vibrant area.
But with gentrification and all of that, it’s kind of bittersweet because it’s very vibrant now. We’re not complaining about anything, but the dislocation of people … that’s hard to swallow.
Virginia Ali (Ben’s Chili Bowl): The big change came in 1968 when the riots occurred. On that April 4th evening in 1968 when Dr. King was shot, someone rushed into our front door and said, “Dr. King has been shot!”
We couldn’t accept it, didn’t believe it. Someone else comes in, then someone else with the same story and finally we find a transistor radio and they’re playing hymns. We realized Dr. King has died. People were coming in tears, crying, sobbing, very upset. And I guess time went on and sadness turned to frustration and frustration turned to anger and the uprising began.
The uprising progressed to the point that the mayor had to put on a curfew to keep people off the streets. Ben’s Chili Bowl was the only place allowed to remain open during three nights of curfew—that provided a place for first responders, police officers, city officials, and even activists to come in, have something to eat, and maybe have a discussion about what we could do to stop the violence.
It was a scary time. I know what tear gas smells like. I know what it’s like when you hear glass shattering and see smoke going. When that was over, many of the businesses did not reopen. Middle-class African Americans began to move away. Heroin moved in.
There was a time when they were making black films and that kept business for us. It kept the theaters open. [When segregation ended], you could go downtown and we lost a lot of residents to that time. We became a serious ghetto and went downhill for 20 years with the promise of something being done—the building of a subway system which they didn’t even consider construction until 1988, 20 years later.
When they did finally decide, research showed that in this immediate vicinity, we had three black-owned businesses—Industrial Bank, Lee’s Flower Shop, and Ben’s. Most other places just could not hold on. Marion Barry came into power and decided to build a municipal building that brought many people back into the neighborhood. Since then, property taxes have gone up and it’s been outrageous.
James Stokes (Bible Bookstore): We saw some of the small businesses in the area closing up [in the early 2000s]. It didn’t hurt our business because we gathered all the churches in the area and started advertising over the radio. We found that our advertisements were far reaching and started drawing customers from all parts of Maryland and as far away as Manassas.
The big things that happened were the development of condominiums and homeowners selling their homes to Caucasians. The next thing you know, there was the Hispanic population moving in.
So all of a sudden, we started seeing a complete change in the area around U Street that was mostly African American-owned businesses. We started seeing businesses owned by Caucasians and some Hispanic.
After new businesses started coming in and the clientele changed over, some businesses were not getting the support that they needed to maintain themselves. [The developments were] good for the District because they were still getting their taxes and perhaps their tax base increased, but what hurts is to see people who were there all their lives running their businesses all of a sudden go out. I had a lot of concerns about that.
Within the four blocks around the bookstore, we have all new restaurants and clubs. Only a few black-owned restaurants are still here.
Stoney Quindlen (Cuttin’ Up Barbershop): When this was basically an all African American neighborhood, we had a lot of hustler clientele. Then when they were building the convention center, it diminished from hustlers to construction workers. Then once the convention center opened, we started moving more into business clientele and young men with higher education. And it just started to transform from then on out. Now we have a diverse clientele.
Wanda Henderson (Wanda’s on 7th): It’s never a good thing to move a family out. This is where they’re from. It’s a hardship. I mean where they gonna go? Even if they get vouchers, where are you going to get a two bedroom or three bedroom apartment to accomodate a family? And usually it’s the mother, daughters, and the son.
[As far as my business], we have the same clientele and a whole new clientele. We have a lot of millennials who move to D.C. from around the world—we have almost every nationality here. We have a lot of Howard students and a lot of them have questions about business and how I got started and made it through because we were not a million dollar business when we started. We had to be very creative in funding and personal monies to make it work.
How close is the business community in Shaw?
Virginia Ali (Ben’s Chili Bowl): There’s good communication. I’m not involved as much anymore, but people looked out for each other.
Stacie Lee Banks (Lee’s Flower and Card Shop): I know some of the founders of businesses and a lot of them come here to get flowers for their businesses. I’ve been working in my family business since I was 12—some are people who I grew up with. Ben’s Chili Bowl, Kamal Ali. Doyle Mitchell from Industrial Bank—my grandparents were his godparents. Sunyatta at Calabash, Wanda’s hair salon—those are the old faithfuls that I’ve known for years. I know some of the new businesses as well.
James Stokes (Bible Bookstore): Maybe about three years ago, I had a stroke and that limited my mobility. Before that time, I had begun to visit some of the new businesses and a lot of the owners were not there. So we couldn’t really get a good relationship going because of that.
As a property owner, how have you weathered increases in taxes?
Stacie Lee Banks (Lee’s Flower and Card Shop): The cost of doing business in the city is very expensive. And so I would imagine that if you’re not established, it would be hard to sustain a business.
One thing my grandmother told us is make sure you pay your taxes above anything else. With the onslaught of business, we’ve been able to sustain it and pay them without any trepidation. But if they keep increasing, we may have issues.
James Stokes (Bible Bookstore): When we started seeing our real estate taxes going up every year, I got into a tussle with [the D.C. tax office]. We fought for an exemption because our church down the street was using this building for church services and ministry business which made us qualified for a real estate tax exemption. We had a hard time getting it but by being consistent, we were able to get that through and that allowed us to be able to let other businesses come into this building at a very low rent. And we did not increase their rents so that they could survive. It was all about helping the other African American businesses in the area.
As someone who does not own your property, how much has your rent increased? How have you been able to keep up with the rising costs?
Stoney Quindlen (Cuttin’ Up Barbershop): It’s increased drastically but it’s manageable because we got the clientele that can afford the prices that we set. Now if we had the old prices, we would have never been able to survive.
Wanda Henderson (Wanda’s on 7th): We make a profit, but our rent is three times as much as it was. So I have to make personal adjustments before I can really look at my profit. My profit is my business and making sure there’s work. It’s important to me and my community that I stay here. And sometimes it’s not about the money that you make but how you can sustain your community and make a difference in helping people move up in the community by talking to them.
We can ask much more for our haircuts, but we don’t. We try to remember the community we had before.
Have you had to make any changes in your business model over the years to cater to the new clientele?
Donald Campbell (Metro PCS): We do well with phone repairs and everybody buys accessories and runs out of chargers. But it’s not as busy as it once was despite the increase in people in the neighborhood.
We were extremely busy years ago. We went from selling tapes to CDs. Now we’re trying to provide a streaming service.
I’ve been collecting go-go since 1980 so I have over 30,000 CDs from different bands. So we are trying to put together a streaming platform so that people from other areas who are curious about go-go can actually listen to it from their phone, their computer—making it available to everybody in the world.
Stacie Lee Banks (Lee’s Flower and Card Shop): Because of the increase of people living in the apartments and condos, there’s a bigger customer base to be had. People don’t have to travel very far to get here, or they’ll come here on the way home on the Metro. So there’s a lot more walk-ins now. Before, our business was mostly call-in, phone-in. And that was able to sustain us all those years.
[Because of] the heavier foot traffic, we stay open later and we open on Sunday. We also opened a little gift shop within our shop called Cross Pollination where we have local D.C.-made products [such as] candles, cards, and body products.
And we recently renovated and instituted different promotions like a flower power happy hour on Fridays, which the City Paper voted the best non-alcoholic happy hour. So we feel confident that we have a nice shop.
Virginia Ali (Ben’s Chili Bowl): We had three sons who we sent off to prestigious universities, and all of them decided to do Ben’s as a career—they expanded the menu. People have always loved hot dogs, but now you’ve got the turkey dog, the beef dog, the veggie dog, all kinds of dogs.
Now, the half-smoke is the number one item on the menu. I think it’s a lot of nostalgia and it tastes so good. We have to keep up with the taste buds of our young folks. Perhaps we’ll have to bring on some seaweed and avocado. But we will always have our delicious half-smokes and chili dogs.
Considering all of the changes in the neighborhood and your business, how has your shop been able to survive all these years?
Stacie Lee Banks (Lee’s Flower and Card Shop): [My grandparents] originally opened at 918 U Street in 1945. In about 1968, they purchased this building—that’s been one of the great legacies that they left us. I can’t stress the fact of owning your building. To me, it’s been the most important part of how we’re able to be here still. We pay rent, we pay my dad, it’s nothing compared to what we would have to pay market rate.
James Stokes (Bible Bookstore): We had offers coming in to buy the building where the bookstore is and we were getting all kinds of offers to give our church land in Maryland if we sold that building. As the treasurer for the church organization, I took a stand that we were not moving out of the area and we were going to continue the bookstore and church here.
We were the oldest church on George Avenue and that was our beginning. There was no need of us moving and we were not going to allow our church building to be turned into a nightclub. We were serving people mostly in D.C. and Maryland and as long as they were satisfied coming to D.C., it was important for us to be here. And some of the churches that did move to Maryland did not survive. That’s how we’re still here.
Stoney Quindlen (Cuttin’ Up Barbershop): This barbershop is a community for people who live in the neighborhood. We saw the community grow. We support these little boys in football, basketball—we cheer for them at their sporting events. So they help us sustain throughout the time.
And we always try to do good work. We got a motto: We don’t do it for the money, we do it for the love. And that’s always [what] kept us.
Wanda Henderson (Wanda’s on 7th): I pray every day ’cause it takes that. You have to sit down and think [about] strategies you’re going to do to make it. And for me, I’ve been in the business for so long that I can scale back some of my personal earnings to make sure my business works. Whatever I have to do to take from my personal [profit], I put it into my business because I believe in it.
What’s your vision for this neighborhood in the future? How can the D.C. government, other business owners, or the community ensure that longtime businesses like yours and new black-owned businesses thrive in this neighborhood?
Wanda Henderson (Wanda’s on 7th): [The D.C. government] has grants that have helped me with things like marketing, lights for my signs, and things that will increase my bottom line and keep the business open. And they’re constantly reaching back to me to see how I’m doing, so they work very well with that.
That’s for me. I’m trying to think of other black businesses in the area. But whatever nationality they are, you still want to make sure that everyone is covered and everyone stays in the community because we all can work together.
Stoney Quindlen (Cuttin’ Up Barbershop): Go to the owner and ask how you can help. I needed help and I had to go to my father to get me through some of them hard times. He’s a carpenter by trade and he helped me build out. We did everything by hand. Painted everything. Hung drywall. We had to have the license contractors for critical stuff like plumbing and electrical but he did basic stuff and helped buy the materials to save us some money.
Stacie Lee Banks (Lee’s Flower and Card Shop): Well, I would say if the community supports the businesses, they’ll be able to stay around. I look at Ooh’s and Aah’s across the street—they’re supported by everybody. Ben’s Chili Bowl is supported by everybody. Some businesses? I don’t know. I was in touch with Sankofa Books—it’s a black-owned bookstore and they cater to African Americans … so I don’t know.
Virginia Ali (Ben’s Chili Bowl): Affordable housing—right now there is no affordable housing in this entire city. And property taxes should be lower for people who have been around for so long and made an impact like Ben’s. If you’ve been there for 50 years, something should be done to help.
James Stokes (Bible Bookstore): I would like to see the development of more affordable housing so that people with low and moderate incomes will be able to live in the area. I think that’s very important to have that balance.
I don’t want to see this area go back to being all one nationality. We came through that in the early years. I don’t want to see all African American, Caucasians, or Hispanics. I want to see a balance so we can all work together and get along together. From time to time, we see a few Caucasian people come into our church. It’s going to take some time but I think it’s going to balance itself out.
Donald Campbell (Metro PCS): People can’t move to a particular city and say ‘I don’t want that particular culture.’ You either got to embrace it and listen to it or keep it moving. You have to respect whatever area you go to.
When you move to Nashville, you can’t say stop playing country music. You move to New Orleans, you can’t say I don’t want jazz. D.C. is go-go. That’s what we grew up on, that’s we know. People have to understand that [because] I’m going to keep the music alive.
Shaw/U Street Gentrification over the past 30 years, according to Derek Hyra, author of Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City:
1986: Opening of the Reeves Center at 14th and U streets NW
1991: Opening of the Green Line Metro stops in Shaw and along U Street NW
1990s: Initial influx of upper-income newcomers to Logan Circle area
1990s:The nonprofit and for-profit company rehabilitation of the neighborhood’s single family housing stock
1990s: The redevelopment of East Downtown and Chinatown with federal and local government and private sector funds, and the eventual northward expansion of the downtown area
1990-2000s: Decreasing crime rates in the community
1996-2000s: The black branding of the community by certain nonprofits, real estate developers, and restaurateurs
2000s: The sale and redevelopment of WMATA owned properties near the community Metro stops
2000s: Movement of young, white Millennials to the neighborhood
2003: The opening of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center
2004: The release of the D.C. government’s Duke [Ellington] small area community plan
2009-2013: The Great Recession recovery and the proliferation of jobs throughout the D.C. area, when other U.S. cities were losing jobs
2014: 14th Street NW becomes the city’s restaurant row with several high-income, mixed-use, and multi-family rental buildings