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Tours highlight heritage

Shaw, Capitol Hill featured on new walking tours

(Published April 7, 2003)


Staff Writer

Ice is a memory. Cherry blossoms are in full bloom. Restaurants are dusting off outdoor furniture. It’s that time of year again for the D.C. tourism industry to kick into full gear.

And in a collective bid to bring tourists to the city amid the official kick-off of springtime activities, the D.C. Heritage Tourism Coalition is doing its part.

The coalition -- motivated in part by a stalled economy -- aims to enthuse visitors with historical guided tours of the District, one of which they hope will reveal a "hidden" part of the city buried in the past of the U Street-Shaw neighborhood in Northwest Washington.

Working jointly with Manna Community Development Corp. and the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage, the coalition recently announced "Before Harlem, There Was U Street," a guided walking tour highlighting historical relics throughout the U Street-Shaw neighborhood.

"After you’ve marveled at the Cherry blossoms and the [Washington] monument, we invite you to step off the [National] Mall and experience D.C. in a way you’d never be able to from a tour bus," said Gloria Robinson, program manager of community organizing with Manna.

The historical neighborhood outlined by the coalition composes an area lying roughly between Ninth Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW and R Street and Florida Avenue NW.

The 14 points of historical interest on the U Street tour include The Lincoln Theater -- appearing today as it did in 1922, complete with busy, Victorian-style wallpaper -- and the Bohemian Cavern -- in its heyday a popular jazz club billing such entertainers as John Coltrane and Miles Davis.

Tourists also may explore the African-American Civil War Memorial -- one of a kind in the country and located near the entrance of the U Street-African-American Civil War Memorial-Cardozo Metrorail station at U and 10th streets NW.

The coalition will offer two other guided tours, "Capital Neighbors: A Walk About Capitol Hill," a walking tour, and "Civil War Washington: Soldiers and Citizens," a bus tour. Both walking tours will run through the summer, while the bus tours will be held on limited dates in July and August.

The tours were announced at the Thurgood Marshall Center at 1816 12th Street NW, once the country’s oldest African-American YMCA, established in 1853 and closing in 1982. Restored to resemble its appearance in the early 20th century, it now houses various community organizations offering civic support to the U Street-Shaw neighborhood.

The Capitol Hill tour will feature the city’s 19th-century Victorian architecture and historical anecdotes about Capitol Hill, while the Civil War bus tour will carry tourists through areas of the city integral to the Union Army’s victory in the conflict and follow President Abraham Lincoln’s years in office.

The coalition’s new tours come at a time of national economic downturn and as fewer visitors are opting to trek to Washington, a trend that has beleaguered the local tourism industry since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

And in a sign that this trend may continue or worsen, the White House announced April 4 that attendance at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll will be scaled back because of security concerns.

The event has in the past drawn up to 40,000 people, including many tourists, to Washington. This year, only 12,000 tickets will be distributed to military members and their families in observance of the war in Iraq.

"These are hard times we’re in right now," said Kathryn S. Smith, executive director of the coalition. She added, however, "Washington’s been in bad times before, and we’ve gotten through them."

This is "a time for us to redouble our energies," D.C. City Councilman Jim Graham, D-Ward 1, said, adding that the tours will "open the doors to history."

"There’s no better example of this than where we are right now," Graham said, referring to the restored Thurgood Marshall Center. "We’re here out of appreciation for all of that. And it’s a very rich appreciation indeed."

U Street tour guide John C. "Butch" Snipes, who grew up in Shaw and is often called the "Mayor of U Street" because of his familiarity with the neighborhood, said he was eager to uncover and share the District’s "hidden" history.

"We want to give them the spirit of Shaw, the spirit of U Street," Snipes said. "As you take the tour, you’ll see that a lot is going on in the District that you didn’t know about."

Snipes underscored the importance of accurately telling the story of the neighborhood’s history because it will inform future generations of varying ethnic backgrounds.

"The world needs to know what happened with U Street," he said.

Wearing a baseball hat saying "It’s A D.C. Thang," Snipes asserted that "if you don’t know your history, you have no idea who you are.

"I’m well aware of who I am," he said.

More information about the tours is available by visiting or calling 202-828-WALK.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator