City Desk

Are U Street NW Restaurants “Swagger-Jacking?” Maybe, but Our Conversation Needs to Go Deeper

Are establishments like The Brixton and Busboys & Poets guilty of "swagger-jacking?" That's what Stephen A. Crockett Jr. accuses them of today on The Root D.C.—and along the way connects their allegedly pilfered vibes to broader changes in the District:

It’s an inappropriate tradition of sorts that has rent increasing, black folks moving further out — sometimes by choice, sometimes not — while a faux black ethos remains.

In a six-block stretch, we have Brixton, Busboys and Poets, Eatonville, Patty Boom Boom, Blackbyrd and Marvin. All are based on some facet of black history, some memory of blackness that feels artificially done and palatable. Does it matter that the owners aren’t black? Maybe. Does it matter that these places slid in around the time that black folks slid out? Maybe. Indeed, some might argue that these hip spots are actually preserving black culture, not stealing it.

The news peg is presumably The Brixton, the latest Hilton brothers joint on U Street NW. It's a British-style pub that serves mushy peas and, in the vein of every single other Hilton endeavor, aims to transport its patrons to a magical land of sophisticated chill. The Brixton jacks far less Parliament-echoing swagger than the style and affectations of a country with its own long, painful history of cultural imperialism. But I digress.

The not-very-compelling target of The Brixton aside, Crockett's displeasure with the whitewashing of the city he grew up in is—if a frequently mined topic—valid. D.C. is growing, and the people who make up that growth are mostly white, mostly well-educated, and mostly take up residence—at a barstool or in a condominium—in center-city neighborhoods like the U Street NW corridor. And while his pulling-apart of the cultural appropriation of black cool reminds me of the introductory-level critical theory class I took in college, Crockett's concern with an industry that profits on the names of Marvin Gaye and Langston Hughes should be taken seriously.

But Crockett's piece doesn't dig much deeper—or at the very least, the shifting demographic landscape he presents isn't quite complete. He ignores D.C.'s significant non-black minority population, playing into the fallacy that people here are only black or white. (Or only older, black, and poor or younger, white, and affluent.) And what of the fact that the 9th and U streets NW building occupied by The Brixton, the target of Crockett's ire, was vacant and decrepit for years?

Crockett doesn't even answer his own question: Is no black ethos worse than faux black ethos?

Either way, Crockett is right about the ickiness exuded by many of the establishments on U Street. But a discussion of "swagger-jacking"—or whatever you call it—deserves a lot more nuance.

I'm white. Until very recently, I lived three blocks away from Eatonville, Busboys & Poets, Blackbyrd, The Gibson, and Marvin. I've  spent money at all of those places. But when I'm confronted by a menu of upscale soul food that includes a) gluten-free options and b) Zora Neale Hurston quotes, I am forced to think about What the Hell It All Means.

I don't have an answer to the faux-versus-no question. And like Crockett, I'm more skeptical than appreciative of the skin-deep tokenizing of African-American cultural signifiers. Still, the city wants the tax base that an affluent, educated population brings, and that affluent, educated population is interested in moving to dense, public transit-accessible urban areas where it can be catered to by bourgie bars and weekend farmers markets. Aside from evacuating everyone from U Street, or Bloomingdale, or H Street, there's no way to stop the upscaling. What will Crockett say if Andy Shallal opens a Busboys & Poets in Anacostia?

"At the very least, it's good that we're talking about this," I told myself while scanning Crockett's piece for the 20th time. Is it, though? Crockett's just saying what we already know: D.C. isn't what it used to be.

Now what?

Photo by Daquella manera, used under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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  • Kathy8

    Huh?? I am dumbfounded by the attempt to make some sort of racial controversy out of this. Does Stephen Crockett understand anything about the roots of people who aren't black in this country? Not everything that he thinks is some sort of "black thing" being appropriated had its roots solely with black folks. Can we all try to understand one another better, rather than being so f***ing worried about what skin color should be identified with traditions that cut across racial and ethnic lines?

  • just sayin’

    I avoid Hilton-owned establishments because they're all fake, not just fake black.

  • Jane

    ^^^ This, this, a thousand times this. They make establishments with all the cultural ethnicity of the Epcot Center.

  • Er

    The French fries they serve aren't even French ! And that fake gin is the worst.

    I'm pretty sure Ben Ali built ben's, not Crockett. Or are all black people supppsed to claim all things done by black people as their own?

  • JM

    And of course Bloomingdale, Columbia Heights, and U Street were white neighborhoods to start with. But of course we're only supposed to highlight DC's African-American heritage...

  • Taahira

    When was U street a white neighborhood?

    & even if those areas did start out as white neighborhoods, they didn't gain the historical and cultural significance they have until black people were there.

  • CRodousakis

    JM - It's pretty apparent that you have never looked up the history of U St and Bloomingdale.

  • AfterMath

    I think Crockett brings up an important issue in this changing city, especially with the story about the stop light. I think its asking a lot for him to answer all the questions you pose. I think the point of the story was to shine light on an issue, one that especially comes up in conversations among dc residents all the time, of all economic backgrounds. This wansn't a PhD dissertation, its an opinion piece.

  • RS

    JM - But of course we're only supposed to highlight DC's African-American heritage...

    Supposed to? That's what's being done! The W. Post story was about the problem with the USE of African American heritage at these establishments that are NOT owned by African Americans: Marvin (Gaye), Eatonville (Zora Neale Hurston), Busboys and Poets (Langston Hughes)....

  • Seriously?

    And Georgetown used to be a Black neighborhood so whats your point JM?

    And Kathy I think that Black people understand full well the roots of non black people in the United States, just as they understand their own. And what history tells us about the the roots of "non-black" people (I am assuming you mean White people) is that since the beginning of this great nation they have been encroaching on Ethinic peoples spaces. See the Navajo, Choctow, the Hopi. Its just that in this case instead of the entire island of Manhattan, you have the neighborhood of Shaw, and instead of shipping the existing population off to a Reservation, they go to P.G. County. How is not a racial controversy when not only have they succeeded in depleting the city's population they are now chipping away at the city government. See Kwame Brown, See Harry Thompson, Jr. Like Mr. Crockett also said in his article (which you should read) is that this was that U Street was not invented once the Ellington was built on U Street, it was a neighborhood before, and it as gentrification cycles go it will be much the same neighborhood once the veneer rubs off the new construction.

    You cannot be so deluded to think that people, especially native Washingtonians, should not be offended by the displacement of people and exploitation in their city. The truth is like Mr. Crockett said before the city is not what it used to be, and its still taking getting used to.

  • JM

    JM - It's pretty apparent that you have never looked up the history of U St and Bloomingdale.

    Wrong. Actually I used to live in Bloomingdale, and much of that neighborhood was white until the 1940's. 2nd Street and "Howard Town" in north Ledroit Park were exceptions.

    " & even if those areas did start out as white neighborhoods, they didn't gain the historical and cultural significance they have until black people were there. "

    This is the height of selective memory (and arguably racist). The white folks who used to live in these neighborhoods didn't have their own culture, families, histories...???

    I certainly have no problem celebrating the cultural significance of DC to African-Americans, but you re-write history if you think that DC hasn't undergone demographic changes for it's entire history. In other words, one population leaving and another "taking over" is nothing new, and it will happen again and again.

  • name

    Black people lost DC when they sat around and let it go to sh** over 30 years of uninterrupted and unchallenged rule. Instead of taking care of the houses and maintaining businesses, they got their city jobs and fled to the suburbs. Guess what? Everyone made their choice and you can't take it back now that someone else wants to fix it up.

    You f---ed up. Now you lost it. Welcome to America, where when you don't take care of your business, someone else eats your lunch. Maybe you'll get another chance in 30 years.

    Until then, enjoy the suburbs, losers.

  • capitol hill

    @name you are completely right.

  • Ella Marie

    @name while you have a good point, the "enjoy the suburbs, losers" comment was completely unnecessary... Surely you wouldn't say that to someones face (especially considering your writing under the name 'name')

    There are still plenty of black people in DC, well educated blacks, some who have owned multiple homes for years. Some who graduated college in this city not even 10 years ago, and own in areas like U and Bloomingdale. If people like yourself and the author of the original post weren't so angry about life, maybe life itself would be a little easier for those of us who actually want to enjoy it.

  • Just Me

    The part of the story I take issue with are the statements that Mr. Crockett put in about "the forcing of or slipping out of black folks in the last decade" as a factual conclusion by Mr. Crockett.

    Black folks started slipping out of U Street in the late 50's and 60's with desegregation, 60's and 70's drug activity saw more people leave, and then metro construction in the 80's and 90's did the job of getting rid of most of the businesses with less than 10% of the U Street businesses surviving that construction.

    The regrowth period of the last decade did see the influx of a wide range of new businesses, many of them black owned(far more gained than lost), however there also was a large wave of businesses that were owned by whites and immagrants, primarily from Africa that changed the character of the area, as they targeted the people with income moving back into the city as customers.

    The other fact not mentioned is that the landlords of many of these buildings are black, including the majority of the buildings the Hilton brothers occupy, where they worked closely with the owner to develop the buildings into successful locations. So are the landlors selling out because they are leasing to businesses that are playing off the cultural icons of their past? Or should they have kept the properties vacant or underutilized?

    The bottom line is that there would be an equal or louder outcry if the businesses and buildings coming into the area did not recognize the history and context of the neighborhood they moved into, and the article was only a surface level look at what is really go on in the community.

  • topryder1

    The most important topic that is only brushed over, is that of blacks in DC being poor people. It come across more often that you think, all you have to do is go into one of the snarky restaurants and be mindful of how you are is as if you are bringing dog poop in with you.

    My neighbors are the same they have been for the more than three decades I have lived in my house. I don't remember one of them who has not traveled to Europe, Africa, South America and Asia. Yet, somehow it is so easy for the new white people to assume that because they bought a house in your neighborhood, that they are improving things. I think not.

  • Frank Lee Mahdear

    I'm unconvinced that authenticity is all that important or meaningful. Why, in the end, should we care if something is authentic or not, especially when the stuff that is held up as authentic was itself cobbled together fairly recently from disparate sources. Yeah, I'm talking about Ben's half-smokes.

    And if authenticity is being used as a proxy for FUBU separatism, as I suspect it is in this case, then screw that and the horse it rode in on.

  • SwaggerJackingIsSoScary!

    The piece on The Root is hilarious. Is it swagger jacking for a non-Austrian to play Mozart or is it ok as long as the performer has white skin? In a world where swagger jacking is a legimate complaint against an individual, I'd expect a black business owner to be mocked for opening a red tablecloth Italian restaurant. Who the fuck wants to live in that world?

  • the obvious

    "This is the height of selective memory (and arguably racist). The white folks who used to live in these neighborhoods didn't have their own culture, families, histories...??? "

    @JM If their contributions were so significant, you'd be able to name at least one.

  • chris lee

    @JM If their contributions were so significant, you'd be able to name at least one.
    ..umm..the rule of law, the federal gov't, embassy row, sanitation and public utilitie..on and on..

  • Andrew

    @ name -- love it. Dead on.

  • addctd2badideas

    Something no one seems to cover is that this type of trend is indicative of the fact there's no segregation anymore. If U Street were still a Blacks-only place, this wouldn't be an issue. But progress happened, for better or for worse. Black communities worked towards it for a generation and unfortunately for many, they failed to live up to the idea of responsibility of maintaining a community, expecting others to pick up their trash and fix their riot-damaged neighborhood.

    Both my mother's and father's family moved out of Tacoma and Petworth (respectively) in the late 50's because the neighborhoods were becoming dangerous and trash-strewn and the houses were losing their property value. They moved to Silver Spring most of my family is still there. Now, new generations of suburb-dwellers are coming back.

    I think it's sad that Black culture will be sidelined to a degree with the influx of new and upwardly mobile residents in the city... but homogeneity creates nothing but stagnation, especially when it had degraded as much as U Street did by the late 90's. You can point the finger at poor community organization, or the blight of urban poverty, but I can't imagine that the neighborhood would look anything close to what it does at current if it remained just a "Black" neighborhood.