24 September 2017
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U Street: A Snapshot

When I was growing up in DC, U Street wasn’t cool, it was scary. Because it was scary, it was affordable. And because it was affordable, my father lived there, and so did I (every other weekend and on Wednesdays, anyway). Although it was rough, I didn’t mind at all – it was live! My Dad would pick me up from Capitol Hill (my more permanent home), and we’d ride the metro to the U Street station and amble over to 15th; with every walk, I’d encounter Polly’s.

Founded in the early 90s, Polly’s was a dingy, subterranean dive bar at 1342 U St., NW. My first memory of actually going there (rather than walking by and peering in) was at age 10. I went there for brunch with my mother and stepdad on a warm spring morning, enjoying the cast of harmless drunks, young bloods and fly girls walking by. No one was in a hurry. This was pre-Williams, pre-9/11, pre-revitalization en masse. DC was still DC to me, then.

Because of how things have changed, I rarely venture to the U-Street corridor and don’t even think of going there in the daytime. This past Saturday, however, I did the unthinkable: I walked along the strip between 13th and 14th to observe and was shocked to see that Polly’s is no more. Same body, different soul; it is now Desperados. I looked in to see barstools stacked on tall tables and was greeted by a small chalkboard abounding with errors (‘Monday is Bud Knight Bud-Light Budwiser [sic] 1.75’).

The area is now a mishmash of sleek new restaurants and older establishments on their last legs; there seems to be an unending battle of wills between developers and the existing establishment, however paltry. Tabaq, a hip bistro owned by Moroccan restaurateur Jamal Sahri (he is also the proprietor of Utopia and Soussi), is juxtaposed by Peking Express, a humble takeout joint. Its façade is chipping paint and littered by decipherless graffiti. Two digital signs announce the existence of an ATM; a splashy poster advertises Bubble Milk Tea. Rust-colored flower pots on either side of the entrance are blooming with dewy, anonymous annuals.

Reflecting this example of uneasy cohabitation, the area’s population seems to exist at odds. There are young women carrying yoga mats briskly walking along; older men quietly reminiscing; gaggles of yuppie couples excitedly headed to brunch; and mean-faced kids looking suspicious.

For each new business electric with expectation, there is – in response – a papered window and a storefront littered with cigarette butts. From within these papered exteriors, you can sometimes hear the sound of construction, but usually not. After an hour of looking around, I wonder: Where is the finish line? Who will be the victor? And who – most importantly, perhaps – is organizing the race?

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