Locating U

April 8, 2013—In her first documentary “Locating U,” aspiring filmmaker and alumna Kylé Pienaar (C’12) takes an ethnographic look at the history of U Street, a DC neighborhood with a vibrant Ethiopian population.

Born and raised in South Africa, Pienaar first came to the United States in 2008 to attend Georgetown, where she double majored in English and government and minored in film and media studies.

“I was interested in theater, and I liked the connection between theater and social justice. The film minor was about social justice, so I saw a creative outlet that was similar [to what I was doing with theater],” Pienaar said. “I also just loved watching movies, so I thought it would be really cool to be able to make them.”

After producing a few small and experimental films for assignments in the minor, Pienaar set out to create a capstone project that would satisfy her interest in documentaries and give her the chance to explore issues of culture and identity, two of her favorite topics.

She was prompted by the headline of a Huffington Post story to create a short film that investigated the cultural conflicts around U Street, which for decades has been populated by black Americans and later Ethiopians who disagree on how the area should be socially and economically developed.

“The headline was, ‘As black population declines, Little Ethiopia thrives,’” said Pienaar, who directed and produced the film. “I just thought [it was] interesting about what we assume ‘black’ means if when Little Ethiopia thrives, it doesn’t count. What does it mean for a historically African-American community if its flavor is somehow more Ethiopian?”

Through interviews with residents and store owners from both communities, Pienaar learned that Adams Morgan was once the popular neighborhood in Washington, DC, for Ethiopian immigrants and businesses. But in the 1980s, this first wave was forced to relocate as Adams Morgan began to gentrify.

“They got pressured to move to U Street, which was really struggling. It was during the crack boom, post-riots. The metro hadn’t opened there yet. It was not a great place to be,” Pienaar explained. “But [there] was cheap rent, and that’s where they could open up businesses.”

In the end, the migration of Ethiopian business from Adams Morgan to U Street may have been for the best. According to several people interviewed by Pienaar for the film, these stores were the first to succeed in the area, which attracted other enterprises that helped transform U Street back to a vibrant community.

But this move also caused conflict between black Americans and Ethiopians. In 2005, after years of flourishing in and around U Street, Ethiopian residents petitioned to have the name of the neighborhood changed to Little Ethiopia, which did not sit well with many black residents who did not culturally associate with the African country.

“A lot of change was happening in 2005. Rents were increasing. Older residents were being pushed out and having to move to the suburbs. There was anxiety that a neighborhood that had a strong black history was going to be lost to gentrification,” Pienaar said, referring to U Street’s earlier history as “Black Broadway,” a major cultural center. “I think that’s where the emotions and tension came from.”

In researching the film, Pienaar realized that the story of U Street is the story of countless neighborhoods in the United States and possibly around the world.

“The conflict actually ended up being between people who have always been around and new people who move in and are not aware of the history of the neighborhood they’re moving into,” Pienaar said.

“When change happens people get excited, but the price for change is loss. There are all those ‘Heritage Walk’ signs around DC, but someone saw their culture reduced to a tourist sign,” she continued.

Pienaar does not know how to change the tensions that arise from gentrification, but believes that “being self-aware is part of it. If businesses care, if consumers care, then maybe things can be different.”

—Brittany Coombs