Posts Tagged ‘Shaw/Uptown neighborhood’

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Union Row

As with most large cities, there are a lot of alleys throughout D.C.  But some alleys are better than others, and they can vary as drastically as the neighborhoods of the city where they are located.  I often ride through alleys when I’m riding my bike.  But the alleys are usually there to simply to provide a narrow passageway between or behind buildings, or for off-street parking and storage space for trash cans.  But on this bike ride I happened upon an alley which had recently been renovated into some trendy living spaces.  And being able to imagine myself living there quickly made it one of my favorite alleys in the city.  Located at the corner of 14th Street and V Street (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s U Street corridor in the Shaw/Uptown neighborhood, the residences are known as The Warehouses at Union Row.

Union Row is a contemporary housing and business complex developed in 2007 by the P.N. Hoffman real estate development firm.  The Warehouses at Union Row were previously used for car storage, but were transformed into modern, industrial-looking three-level town homes that feature open floor plans with high ceilings and oversize windows to maximize natural light, and include private terraces on two sides of the home.  European kitchens with stainless appliances and granite countertops flow into spacious living and dining areas.  Additional amenities include a concierge, elevators, a courtyard, community meeting and party rooms, and off-street parking for cars (or bicycles).

The Warehouses at Union Row are within walking distance of the U Street Metro Station, and is conveniently located near a number of neighborhood cultural attractions.  These include the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum, the Howard and Lincoln Theaters, Meridian Hill Park, as well as some of the city’s best jazz clubs and dance halls, the 14th & U Streets Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings, and a wide variety of shops and restaurants, including Busboys and Poets across the street, and the iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl.

As I wrote earlier, I could easily imagine myself living in one of town homes that make up the Warehouses at Union Row.  However, for two reasons I am fairly certain that changing my address to Union Row will not be happening anytime soon.  First, there are no units available at the present time.  And the other reason is because units can sell in the half a million to million dollar range.  So absent winning the Powerball lottery, I think there are a lot of other alleys I could wind up living in before I become a resident of Union Row.

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Uprising Muffin Company

During these recent dog days of summer, when the temperatures have been reaching the mid to upper 90’s by early afternoon, I have been opting to go for my daily bike ride early in the morning rather than waiting for lunchtime. This deviation in my routine has allowed me to try out some breakfast spots that I had not been to before.  And one of these places has become one of my new favorite places – the Uprising Muffin Company – which is located at 1817 7th Street (MAP), just outside of the entrance to the Shaw/Howard U Metro station in northwest D.C.’s Shaw/Uptown neighborhood.

Uprising offers muffins on a rotating basis in almost three dozen different flavors. Every day they have some of the more commonly-found flavor selections, such as traditional Banana Walnut, Blueberry Streusel, and Chocolate Chip.  By the way, you don’t have to wait until autumn to enjoy their delicious Pumpkin muffins, because they also offer daily and on a year round basis.  Uprising also serves up some additional and unusual choices on a rotating basis throughout the week.  These include Maple Pancake, Snickerdoodle, Strawberries and Cream, and Piña Colada.  On top of that, they occasionally also offer seasonal selections, such as the delicious Peach Cobbler muffin that I sampled this morning.  There are just too many varieties for me to list. So I guess you’ll just have to check them out for yourself, either in person or on their website.

They also offer a couple of savory options, which are Uprising’s take on breakfast sandwiches. The Bacon, Egg and Cheese muffin and the Southwest Veggie muffin are available every day. But they are often available only in the morning because they sell out so quickly. Uprising also features made-to-order signature sandwiches and fresh salads, along with coffee and espresso drinks featuring coffee from the Stumptown Coffee Company, which is roasted in small batches for freshness.

Uprising was opened by Donnie Simpson, Jr., a former local radio industry employee and the son of the popular longtime WPGC radio host Donnie Simpson. And from the beginning it seemed to be an overnight success.  But Uprising was actually four years in the making by the first-time restaurateur.  And taking the time to make sure they would get it right is evident in the quality of their muffins and other offerings. Every muffin they make starts from scratch and always contain 10 ingredients or less, which are obtained locally whenever possible. And what does go into their muffins is almost as important as what doesn’t. What doesn’t go into Uprising muffins are preservatives, artificial colors, or anything the average customer can’t pronounce.

One of the best things about Uprising muffins aside from their deliciousness is their consistent freshness.  And you can be assured that they are always fresh because at the end of each day they take any unsold muffins and donated them to the less fortunate in the local community.  Then the next morning they make more muffins, which are always simple, fresh, delicious, and ready to join or maybe even replace cupcakes and doughnuts as a local pastry favorite.

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[Click on the photos above to view the full size versions]

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Marvin Gaye Mural

Change is sometimes good and sometimes bad, but it is always inevitable. And sometimes change has unintended consequences. One type of change that can have consequences that occurs here in D.C. is the construction of new buildings and the renovation of existing ones. An example of this was the mural of Marvin Gaye that was painted by prominent local artist Aniekan Udofia on the side of the building at 711 S Street in northwest D.C.’s Shaw/Uptown Neighborhood. Construction of an adjacent eight-story building next door to the mural resulted in the destruction and covering up of this piece of public art.

The mural of one of D.C.’s most beloved native sons was not up for very long, but it made quite an impact on the neighborhood.  Aniekan (the artist who usually goes by just his first name) knew when he undertook the original mural that it would eventually be covered up. So he used that as motivation to make it not just noticeable, but unforgettable.  And he succeeded. In fact, the mural became so well liked in such a short time that after its destruction, he was commissioned to create/recreate a new Marvin Gaye mural nearby in the neighborhood, next to the Hollywood Barbershop at 710 S Street (MAP). It was this replacement mural that was my destination for this lunchtime bike ride.

The replacement mural is similar in its bright, colorful composition, and possesses the same spirit as the original. But according Aniekan, it contains more “soul.” In fact, the artist suggested entitling it “The Soulful Return of Marvin Gaye.” I think many residents of the neighborhood are glad to see the reincarnated mural, as are fans of the artist like me.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

Martha's Table

Martha’s Table

Two years ago today The Washington Post published a very interesting and uplifting article about Patty Stonesifer, former Chief Executive Officer of The Gates Foundation, who had agreed to lead a local food pantry here in D.C. named Martha’s Table.  Patty, who had previously overseen The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s endowment of $39 billion and a staff of more than 500 for nearly a decade, chose to manage Martha’s Table’s comparably small $6 million budget, 81 paid employees, three vans and a thrift shop.

Martha’s Table is a well-regarded but decidedly local food pantry and family-services nonprofit organization. Beginning with humble roots in 1980, Martha’s Table was originally a place for children to receive free sandwiches and food after school. It gradually grew to address the additional needs of the community by finding solutions to poverty in the short and long term. They also address emergency needs with food and clothing programs and break the long cycle of poverty with education and family support services. The organization impacts over 1,100 people a day with its programs, including those for children and youths from ages 3 months to 22 years old, and their families.

Anyway, after reading the newpaper article, I decided to ride to Martha’s Table to check it out on this lunchtime bike ride.  Their main office and their thrift store are located at 2114 14th Street (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Shaw / Uptown neighborhood.  It is not very far from my office, so after riding there I had a some extra time before I had to be back at my office and decided to wander around a little on my way back.  As I was riding several blocks away I saw a commotion cause by a large number of people in a small alley. I paused to watch from a distance and, when it appeared to be benign, I rode down the alley to see what was going on.

I could barely believe the coincidence when I found out that the commotion was the result of food distribution of the Emergency Food Program of Martha’s Table. As I later found out from their web site, the last Thursday of every month is Pantry Day at Martha’s Table, when they offer emergency food to anyone.  The grocery bag give-away is held between noon and 1:00 pm only, and I just happened to be riding by when it was taking palce. As I stopped to watch what was going on, I noticed one of the volunteers because she looked oddly familiar. After watching for a little while it struck me that I recognized her from The Washington Post article.  It was Patty Stonesifer.  She was there, working on the front lines with the employee’s and volunteers, and handing out groceries to those in need.

It was near their closing time as I was standing around in the alley watching the activity when Patty noticed me dressed in several layers of old sweatshirts and sweatpants to brace myself against the cold during my ride.  I probably looked hungry too, since it was lunchtime and I hadn’t eaten yet.  So she thought I was there for some food but was too apprehensive to ask.  She came over to me and offered me a bag of groceries.  I declined but thanked her, and then I was able to talk with her for a few minutes.  I told her about my bike rides and how I had gone by their building on today’s ride because I had read about her in the newspaper.

She’s a very interesting woman, who is now leading a very worthwhile organization.  In addition to her previous position as the former chief executive of the largest philanthropic institution in the world, Patty has an impressive résumé. She was a senior vice president at Microsoft responsible for developing MSNBC, Encarta and Slate magazine. Patty was also asked by President Obama to chair the White House Council for Community Solutions, was the chairman of the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents, and sits on the Board of Directors for Amazon.com.

So with what would have been a lot of corner-office options to sift through, including a university presidency and the top jobs at a national charity and an international development agency, why did she chose a shift in scale comparable to the coach of an NFL football team deciding to coach high school football instead? After moving to D.C., Patty began exploring the city by foot and Metro, much like I do by bike. During these explorations she was astounded by the level and extent of poverty and hunger, especially among children that she saw. So the answer is simple – she saw a need and decided to do something about it. I think that’s a lesson from which we can all learn.

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The Howard Theater

The Howard Theater

The Howard Theatre, which is located at 620 T Street (MAP) in the U Street Corridor of northwest D.C.’s historic Shaw/Uptown neighborhood, is an entertainment venue with a storied history of highs and lows since opening over a century ago. And that is the reason I decided to make it my destination on this lunchtime outing.

The Howard originally had a capacity of more than 1,200, and featured orchestra and balcony seats and eight private boxes, with a lavishly decorated interior. And the theater’s original exterior matched its lavish interior, combining architectural elements of the Beaux-Arts, Italian Renaissance, and neoclassical styles. However, it lost its original ornate facade in 1941 when it was redone in the then-fashionable Streamline style. And it has been reduced in size over the years, currently being able to seat only half of its original capacity.

After its initial opening in 1910, The Howard became known for its variety of acts, including vaudeville performers, plays, and even circuses. However, despite its early success which lasted through the 1920’s, the Howard was forced to close down at the onset of the Great Depression in 1929.

The building became a church for a short time, but was was able to reopen a couple of years later under new management, and this time became a venue devoted to discovering and hiring only the best in black talent. Though The Howard did not discover, Duke Ellington, a native Washingtonian, it was responsible for launching many other careers, such as Ella Fitzgerald’s. The astounding success of The Howard resonated throughout the East Coast as it energized the debuts of other black owned theaters, such as The Apollo in Harlem, The Uptown in Philadelphia, and The Royal in Baltimore, or, what was known at the time as The “Chitlin’ Circuit.”

Over the next couple of decades, many notable Jazz performers headlined at The Howard, including Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters, Nat King Cole, “Moms” Mabley, and hometown favorite Duke Ellington, bringing along with them an unparalleled level of fame and prestige to The Howard. Other types of performers were intermittently mixed in with these acts during this time. These acts included performers like Danny Kaye, Abbott and Costello and Cesar Romero, as well as Pearl Bailey, who made her debut at the Howard.

Then in the 1950s and 60s, The Howard became a venue for rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues, including such artists as Sarah Vaughan, Sammy Davis, Jr., James Brown, Lena Horne, Lionel Hampton, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, and Marvin Gaye, to name but a few.

After the riots which followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, coupled with societal changes brought about by desegregation, brought about unrest and disturbances which served to debilitate the area, drive out many locals, and eventually cause degradation of the once vibrant neighborhood. This made it difficult for The Howard to attract patrons, and in 1970 it was forced to close down once again.

Many attempts were made to revive The Howard in the years that followed. One attempt occurred in 1975, and attracted many stars and received significant publicity, both from the audience and performers. Acts such as Redd Foxx and Melba Moore were among those featured at the reopening. Later in the decade, Go-Go bands played the venue, including the Godfather of Go-Go, Chuck Brown, another native Washingtonian, along with The Soul Searchers, also performed at The Howard. Despite this success, this run lasted only five years. The venue failed to regain its former glory or financial viability, and closed down once again in 1980.

Most recently the theater, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was reopened after a 32-year hiatus and a $29 million multi-year renovation project. After being listed by the D.C. Preservation League as one of its Most Endangered Places in the city in 2002, groundbreaking for extensive renovations of the theater was held a couple of years later, and The Howard finally reopened in 2012 with a grand re-opening gala and benefit concert hosted by Bill Cosby and Wanda Sykes.

Today the reopened theater honors the glory of the past while ushering in an exciting future. Through the addition of state-of-the-art acoustics, and video and recording capabilities, The Howard is able to retain the intimate feel of its classic space for traditional audiences, while expanding to include new digital-age audiences as well. It is open six days a week, year-round, with dining amenities

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[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

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Bohemian Caverns Jazz Club

On this bike ride I went by Bohemian Caverns, a legendary jazz club located in the U Street Corridor at the corner of 11th Street (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Shaw/Uptown neighborhood.

The club started out in 1926 as a small basement venue named Club Cavern, and was one of the spots where many prominent musicians of the day, including native Washingtonian Duke Ellington, came to relax after local shows to enjoy after-hours jazz.

In the 1950s, the club’s name was changed to Crystal Caverns and then to Bohemian Caverns, during which time it became the premier jazz venue in D.C., hosting such famous artists as Miles Davis, Shirley Horn, John Coltrane, and Ramsey Lewis.

During the late 1960’s business at the club began to decline, and as a result of the destruction of many nearby business during the riots that following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the club suffered additional financial difficulties and was ultimately forced to close its doors in September of 1968. Three decades later, as re-development of the U Street Corridor was underway, the club reopened and returned to its earlier prominence.

Bohemian Caverns is one of the few clubs from the 1920s to have survived, and despite some periods of shutdown, it remains one of the premier jazz hot spots of contemporary D.C.

Ben's Chili Bowl

Ben’s Chili Bowl

September’s end-of-the-month restaurant review is of Ben’s Chili Bowl. A D.C. landmark restaurant, it is located in northwest D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood, next to The Lincoln Theatre, in an historic building at 1213 U Street (MAP).  Built in 1910, the building originally housed the city’s first silent movie house, named The Minnehaha Theater. Later, Harry Beckley, one of D.C.’s first Black police detectives, converted it into a pool hall.  A family-run business, Ben’s Chili Bowl was originally opened by Ben Ali, a Trinidadian-born immigrant who had studied dentistry at nearby Howard University, and his fiancee, Virginian-born Virginia Rollins. They were married seven weeks after opening the restaurant.  Today it is run by their sons, Kamal and Nizam.

From the unrest of the late 1960’s race riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the tough economic times in the 1970’s and 1980’s that resulted from the destruction of much of the neighborhood’s businesses during the riots, and finally to the revitalization and gentrification of the U Street Corridor beginning in the 1990’s, Ben’s has survived and seen it all. Over 50 years later, Ben’s remains as it has always been, right down to the red booths and bar stools and Formica counters, which are the original ones from when the restaurant first opened. Even Ben’s large neon “Home of the Famous Chili Dog” hearkens back to an earlier time.

Locals and tourists, as well as celebrities including Bill Cosby, Chris Tucker and Bono, and politicians such as President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, have flocked to Ben’s Chili Bowl for decades for its rich history, friendly atmosphere and delicious food.  A sign at the restaurant, however, notifies patrons that only Mr. Cosby and the Obama family eat for free.

The menu at Ben’s includes the traditional hot dogs and hamburgers and fries, as well as more recently added healthier choices such as turkey dogs and vegetarian burgers. But I must confess that I have not tried any of these offerings. It seems almost wrong to go to Ben’s and not have what they are most famous for.

Ben’s namesake chili is still made according to the original recipe, and comes complete with chunks of ground beef, green peppers and onions, and is filled with spices to tantalize your taste buds. The chili is available by the bowl, as well as how I prefer it – as a condiment for the hot dogs, French fries, and just about anything else on the menu. But my recommendation is to try “Bill Cosby’s Original Chili Half-smoke.” Originally made famous by Ben’s in 1958 and a favorite of Mr. Cosby’s since the early 1960s, it is a mouth-watering and juicy half-pork and half-beef smoked sausage, topped with their spicy chili, on a warm steamed bun. It is considered not only Ben’s, but D.C.’s signature dish.

Recently, Ben’s Chili Bowl has also expanded by opening a new restaurant and bar called Ben’s Next Door, in addition to outposts at Nationals Park and FedEx Field, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, and across the river in Rosslyn neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia. And although the food is the same, there is something about the original location that makes everything just a little bit better.  But don’t take my word for it.  You don’t even have to believe the prestigious James Beard Foundation, which named Ben’s one of the “down-home eateries that have carved out a special place on the American culinary landscape.”  I recommend that you stop by and try it for yourself.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

Duke Ellington's "Encore"

Duke Ellington’s “Encore”

On this bike ride I rode to Ellington Plaza in the Shaw/Uptown neighborhood’s “U Street corridor” in northwest D.C., to see a statue entitled “Encore.”  Located in front of The Howard Theatre at Florida Avenue and T Street (MAP), the 20-foot stainless steel statue on a granite base depicts Edward Kennedy Ellington, better known as “Duke” Ellington, who was a native Washingtonian.  It was created by sculptor Zachary Oxman, also a D.C. native, who was commissioned to complete the piece by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.  The statue depicts Ellington sitting on a giant treble clef while playing a curved piano.  The site where the statue is located was chosen because Ellington spent his childhood and the early years of his career in the neighborhood.

Ellington got his nickname when childhood friends noticed that “his casual, offhand manner, his easy grace, and his dapper dress gave him the bearing of a young nobleman.” and then began calling him Duke.  Ellington credited his friend Edgar McEntree for the moniker, stating, “I think he felt that in order for me to be eligible for his constant companionship, I should have a title. So he called me Duke.”  The title stayed with him for the rest of his life.

It was not until his teen years, when he began hanging out at Frank’s Billiards next door to the Howard Theater, that Duke Ellington really focused on a musical career that would eventually lead to him being considered one of the best  American composers, pianists and jazz orchestras bandleaders of all time.

In New York, jazz musicians were in demand and by 1923 The Duke moved to Harlem, and formed his first band, the Washingtonians.  Once his career took off, he not only played local venues including the Cotton Club and Carnegie Hall, but toured and played internationally, including Europe, South America and Australia.  But even after achieving success and national recognition through recordings, radio broadcasts, and film appearances, Ellington continued to return many times to D.C. to perform.  One of his most important trips was to give a boost to the re-opening of the Howard Theater that had fallen on hard times in the late 1920s.  At the Howard, beginning on September 29, 1931, Ellington was the top headliner and played to standing-room-only audiences for an entire week.  It was this commitment and dedication to the neighborhood and the Howard Theater that makes it an ideal location for this fitting tribute.

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