The Wandering Writer: A Tour Through Washington, DC’s U Street Neighborhood With NPR’s Steve Inskeep

“I wanted you to meet me here because when I think about this neighborhood – the story of how it is now – it begins here,” Steve Inskeep says. “In 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated and a lot of cities and neighborhoods burned, including this one. One of my neighbors was around at that time and he told me that the riot began here, that there was an office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference right along here. A huge crowd gathered outside and someone threw an object through a drugstore window and the riots started.”

We’re standing on a loud corner at the intersection of 14th and U Street in front of the glass and brick Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center, where Inskeep is occasionally interrupted by horns and conversations and one very polite panhandler. He tells me how, after the destruction, a lot of the buildings were empty for decades. Then this government center opened and brought jobs with it.

“Restaurants started to re-open,” he says. “People started to renovate houses.” He gestures towards the construction cranes punctuating the cloudy day as he notes how rapidly the neighborhood continues to change.

I’m listening to his words, soaking up the fascinating history lesson, but it’s also impossible not to be just a little distracted by his voice. Inskeep’s well-known tenor has been seeping out of my radio every morning for over a decade. I cannot help but be briefly disoriented by the physical reality of this surprisingly tall man in khaki pants who accompanies the typically disembodied voice.When I ask Inskeep to hold a tape recorder while we walk and talk, he happily obliges, joking that he’s “held a mic once or twice before.” Whenever I ask a question, he deftly shifts the device over my way, making me feel, though not at all uncomfortably, like I’m the one being interviewed.

We amble east on U Street and Inskeep tells me about how different his neighborhood was 12 years ago when he first moved in. With the help of a first-time home buyer’s program, he and his wife scraped together the money to purchase a fixer-upper.

“It has the original cast iron steps, stained glass windows and wood floors,” he says. “Everything else had to be redone. The plumbing had to be redone from the street in. But that’s what we could afford. So we fixed it up ever so slightly and got ourselves in there. We fixed it up some more after we had our first daughter. Actually there are several guys in the basement right now…”

Back then the area was full of vacant lots and buildings.

“Even the businesses that were open would have boarded up windows like they had been boarded up since the ’60s. It looked like a dead zone even if it wasn’t,” he says.

Now the neighborhood, like his home, is in a state of constant renovation.

We pass a gigantic apartment building called The Ellington, named after the jazz legend who grew up here, then stop to admire Lincoln Theater, built in 1922. Inskeep speaks highly of the shows offered here, from films to live performances. As with his other local favorites, he seems equally as passionate about the space as its history. He draws my attention to the venue’s loving restoration as we peek inside at the gold-leaf infused décor.

Our next stop is neighborhood institution Ben’s Chili Bowl, opened in the 1950s. Theirs is a story of endurance.

“It is said to be the only business to survive the catastrophe of this neighborhood after the ’60s and into the ’80s,” Inskeep says. “Even after they started building the metro in here – ripping up business – these guys stayed open.”

Bill Cosby, who attended nearby Howard University, might be called the patron saint of Ben’s. For years, a sign listing folks allowed to eat for free contained only his name. Then, before his inauguration, President Obama showed up. And just like that the list doubled in size. A colorful mural coats one side of the building, Bill and Barack grinning at each other like old friends.

Inskeep points out another favorite food spot across the street: Ulah.

“My wife and I have lunch there all the time,” he says. “It’s a good neighborhood restaurant with a great variety of people.”

Inskeep clearly thrives in diverse urban environments like D.C., telling me: “everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve been excited by the cities that I’ve been to.” He offers Kandahar, Baghdad, Cairo, and Karachi as examples.

From abroad we find our conversational way to Hoboken, N.J. We’ve both resided there and I catch myself telling him about how the PATH train is finally up and running again today post Hurricane Sandy, quickly realizing, but not before the words are out of my mouth, that I’m repeating news I heard directly from him at 5:30 that very morning. Still he listens patiently, only the faintest hint of an amused smile, as I regurgitate his morning report.

As we round the corner back to 14th Street, he points out Home Rule, a trendy house wares supplier that was the only upscale store on the block when he moved in. It’s been around for 14 years and was the first place opened after the riots. Now the stretch is lined with trendy new shops: an oaky wine store, a brightly lit veterinarian, a clothing boutique calling out like a Siren to my wallet.

There are few places we don’t have time to see together but that Inskeep thinks are an important part of the neighborhood fabric. He urges me to walk down 13th Street to Logan Circle to see the “spectacular Victorian homes that were mostly vacant 10 or 12 years ago.” Recently they’ve been split into multi-million dollar units.

Later I’ll do just that, then head north up a hill, as he suggests, to take in Cordozo High School, a looming Gothic building under renovation like everything else around here. It’s mid-afternoon by then and the majority of those I pass off the beaten U Street path are construction workers meandering home in groups, guys peeling off one at a time down side streets or at bus stops.

Over lunch, Inskeep mentions the amazing variety of people that exist together in this area. First, this was an overwhelmingly black neighborhood. Then came an influx of Hispanics, followed by white homebuyers. There was gentrification. Bars and restaurants blossomed. There are constant conflicts over what this neighborhood stands for, Inskeep tells me.

“Is it a black neighborhood? A white neighborhood? A diverse area? An entertainment district? A residential area? Is it upscale? Is it downscale? It’s ended up being all of those things in the years that we’ve been here.”

No matter what larger generalizations one might be tempted to make about this area – like any – it’s apparent that Inskeep remains focused on the personal details of the place, just like he does in his journalism. “You don’t want to be abstract,” he tells me. “You want to be specific. You want to tell stories.”

And he’s told me some fascinating ones about this neighborhood over the last few hours – not to mention regaled me with tales about Hurricane Katrina, Charleton Heston, Cairo, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the state of journalism, and, of course, about himself.

At the end of our afternoon, I thank Inskeep for his time – and then I blurt out the kind of favor only a true NPR nerd would ask.

“Would you record the ‘Morning Edition’ intro with me?”

“You want to do what?” he asks, and I cannot tell if he is appalled or amused or somewhere in between. Whatever his feelings regarding the request, he’s game. But not before cautioning: “The sound quality will be terrible.”

And so the last audio recordings from that day are not those of an unflappable journalist collecting material for a story but rather of a giddy fan:

“I’m Steve Inskeep…” he says.

“I’m Rachel Friedman…” I say.

“And you’re listening to ‘Morning Edition’ from NPR news.”

Eat your heart out, Renee Montagne.

About the Wandering Writer:
Steve Inskeep is host of NPR’s “Morning Edition,” the most widely heard radio news program in the United States. He co-hosts the program with Renee Montagne. Inskeep is the author of “Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi,” published in 2011 by The Penguin Press, a story of ordinary, often heroic people and their struggles to build one of the world’s great megacities. In addition, Inskeep has written for publications including The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal.

[Photo Credits: NPR 2003, Debbie Accame; Rachel Friedman]