Today’s post is written by Sheika Reid, a DC native and the Manager of our U Street Main Street program.
Mayor Marion Barry is such a controversial name. Many know him from the myriad headlines that covered newspapers across the country. But when I was four years old, I thought he was genuinely my friend. When he would dash in and out of my parent’s real estate office on U Street, he was one of the only adults who would stop to play with me and my toys that my parents tucked away in their conference room.
They had a vision: to help those who felt the dream of homeownership was out of reach in the nation’s capital become homeowners. They worked closely with Marion Barry on their vision of revitalizing U Street and bringing back the once vibrant corridor known as ‘The Black Broadway.’ I’ll save the story of The Black Broadway for another blog post, but I want you to know that U Street was not always the corridor you know and love today. In ’94, several buildings were burned down and vacant. Many left abandoned out of fear of the inner-city caused by the riots following the death of Martin Luther King in 1968. 14th Street became known as ‘The Track’ because of its nefarious activity. However, fast forward to our ‘family business.’ By this time, Mayor Marion Barry was seeking his third term in office. My parents were big fans of his efforts to support small businesses and revitalize the city, so they allowed him to use the first floor of their office building for his campaign office.
For many DC natives, Mayor Marion Barry gave us our first jobs through the DC Summer Youth employment program. Like many former members of the Civil Rights Movement and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Mayor Marion Barry turned his activism into meaningful impacts in the community that he served. You have to understand that DC had some SERIOUS crime problems well into the early 1990s. He always said, “the best answer to crime is a job,” which is why he listened to a group of earnest community leaders who wanted to bring economic revitalization to the U Street corridor to address the crime problem in the area. This advocacy resulted in the Reeves Center, the building to house many of DC’s government agencies, to be placed at the intersection of U and 14th Streets.
Many property owners and commercial real estate agents realized that this would be the perfect opportunity to open businesses. So we saw an influx of economic activity on the U Street corridor, hair salons, barbershops, real estate offices, restaurants, you name it. My parents hired several youths on U Street and gave many their first job through the Mayor Marion Barry Summer Youth Employment Program.
Eventually, my parents sold the building where the City First Bank is now and moved to the office space, which used to be above Ben’s Next Door. I have vivid memories of sneaking into Ben’s Chili Bowl and someone giving me a chili cheese half-smoke with mustard and onions. I remember when my dad would step out for “a meeting” and come back smelling like a chili cheese half-smoke. But most of all, I remember genuinely believing that the Mayor of the Nation’s Capital was my friend when I was a little girl.
U Street Main Street is a part of the District Bridges family. Each of our six programs provides critical technical assistance to business owners and help them compete for grants. We bridge our residents, community leaders, and business owners who make our communities the places we know and love. Help us continue doing our work by chipping in $10, $100, $1,000 at districtbridges.org/donate.