Georgetown Professor Launches Remembering YoU, a Community Archiving Initiative to Preserve Historic U-Street Neighborhood

Hand-drawn map of Ellington’s Washington by Franz Jantzen highlighting prominent U Street locations included in the “Remembering U Street: A Pictorial Reminiscence” book from the 1994 U Street Festival by Henry Whitehead et al. Courtesy of George Washington University’s Special Collections.
Hand-drawn map of Ellington’s Washington by Franz Jantzen highlighting prominent U Street locations included in the “Remembering U Street: A Pictorial Reminiscence” book from the 1994 U Street Festival by Henry Whitehead et al. Courtesy of George Washington University’s Special Collections.

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November 6, 2019 – Department of History Professor Ananya Chakravarti is working to preserve the rich history of one of Washington’s most culturally vibrant neighborhoods. She and Georgetown Professor Maurice Jackson have worked with students and various community partners to launch “Remembering YoU: A U Street Community Archiving Initiative” November 8 and 9 in the U Street neighborhood.

A Rapidly Changing Neighborhood

Denzel Washington with Virginia Ali at Ben's Chili Bowl
Denzel Washington with Virginia Ali at Ben’s Chili Bowl

Until the mid-twentieth century, U-Street was referred to as “Black Broadway.” It was a treasure trove of jazz and blues performers, and home to businesses owned by black individuals. The famous restaurant, Ben’s Chili Bowl was opened by Ben and Virginia Ali in 1958. It was a safe haven for members of the LGBTQ community, and a new home for Ethiopian immigrants.

Today, the neighborhood and its history are rapidly being erased due to gentrification. Chain restaurants and stores are driving out mom and pop shops that have stood for generations, and residents who have called this area home for decades are being pushed out due to rising rent prices. Chakravarti is looking to rectify that.

Ananya Chakkravarthy, for Sunday Magazine

An inhabitant of U-Street since 2015, Chakravarti started the initiative, “Remembering YoU” to bring awareness to the erasure that is occurring in this community and assist in its preservation by developing a digital archive that will simultaneously save its history and inspire its residents to develop their own narrative for their neighborhood.

Uplifting the Past

There are two goals of the initiative. The first is the Remembering YoU mobile app that will allow any visitors to the area to view geo-tagged material such as historical images and landmarks. Chakravarti hopes that this app will not only give visitors a deeper appreciation of the history of U-Street, but will also encourage the residents to reclaim part of their community that has been lost through the telling of their stories.

Duke's Shoe Repair
Duke’s Shoe Repair

“It is imperative that we begin to preserve this fast-vanishing historical data, particularly the oral histories of community elders,” says Chakravarti.

As part of a long-term solution, Chakravarti will collaborate with computer scientists to build a robust digital archive to preserve the history of this community that does not leave the history of this community itself vulnerable to “digital gentrification,” where only scholars and professional historians end up benefiting from the availability of this information.

Given the vulnerability of many communities with ties to the neighborhood to surveillance and data exploitation in the digital economy, the archive will balance the need to democratize access to historical information and to keep the data of vulnerable communities secure.

Chakravarti hopes that this archive will launch by the year 2023.

Remembering YoU Debut

The launch of the initiative will begin on Friday, November 8 and continue through Saturday, November 9. This two day series contains 15 different events that vary greatly in their content and structure. Attendees can go on a tour of the African-American Civil War Museum, listen to a jazz performance, or play trivia at Ben’s Chili Bowl. All events are free and open to the public: 

“This two-day event will bring us all together to celebrate the culture and history of our beloved neighborhood, to discuss how best to combat the erasure of this history in the face of rapid gentrification, and to begin to preserve it through community-driven archiving,” Chakravarti says. “In addition, we hope it will be a chance for people to connect and create new solidarities in thinking about how to protect neighborhoods, communities and their history, not just in DC but elsewhere.”

Partipants in Elks Parade
Partipants in Elks Parade

As more cities and neighborhoods become gentrified, it is more important than ever to preserve the residents that built these communities and give them life.

“Gentrification is often cast as a ‘local’ problem, which only isolates the community under threat,” says Chakravarti. “It is a problem that affects many urban communities not only within the United States, but outside it too. As a historian, fighting the historical erasures that accompany and facilitate gentrification is part of how I see the work of history in helping protect such communities.” 

Chakravarti and her team are working to make this a protection a reality.

Team Effort

This project is sponsored by the Georgetown University Humanities Initiative and HumanitiesDC. Chakravarti has worked closely with faculty member Maurice Jackson, first chair of the DC Commission on African American Affairs and special advisor on DC Affairs to Georgetown University President John DeGioia.

She has also collaborated with Saaret Yoseph, a native Washingtonian filmmaker and Georgetown students Chau Le (C’21), Sonali Mirpuri (C’20), and Alandro Valdez (C’21), and Howard University student Venus Amadi (H’22).

“[They] have done phenomenal work in not only supporting this project logistically but through original archival research,” Chakravarit says. “None of this would have been possible without them.”

– Shelby Roller

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