Hometown DC

Guest post by Blair A. Ruble

I just returned from the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library where I spoke about my history of U Street with veteran jazz broadcaster Rusty Hassan, currently of DC’s WPFW. A very diverse group of about 40 showed up on a rainy afternoon in the middle of the week to hear our talk about local DC history. I was struck again, as I have been at any number of community discussions of my book, at how different “hometown DC” is from Washington’s image in the country.

First of all, it turns out that there are folks living in DC who can trace their roots in the city back several generations. This is a very real city in every sense of the word and not just an architectural stage set for posturing politicians. Second, like much of our society at the moment, people are caught between pride and foreboding. In the specific reality of today’s DC, many longtime city residents, black and white, wealthy and poor, are concerned that something of the city’s personality is being lost in the face of a rapid influx of new residents. Yet, from what I can tell from my talks, at least some of the newcomers are arriving precisely because they understand the city has a long and distinguished history in which they too can take pride. Finally, I am reminded of how important institutions such as the Library are to communities, as they provide meeting places where seemingly aimless contacts can provide creative sparks which enrich everyone. Every great city needs such places, which seem to be fewer and farther between.

Writing about a neighborhood such as U Street opened up insights into broad questions about large subjects—how do cities bring different communities together, how do humans adapt to discrimination in ways to preserve dignity—as well as into the nature of a city which I have come to call home.

Blair A. Ruble is the director of the Kennan Institute and the Comparative Urban Studies Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. He is the author of 6 books and editor or coeditor of another 20. His most recent book is Washington’s U Street: A Biography.

(The views expressed in this guest post belong to the author and in no way reflect the official opinion of the JHU Press.)