Washington DC from murder capital to boomtown

A quarter of a century ago, Washington DC had a fearsome reputation for crack abuse and rampant gun violence – it was the “murder capital” of the US. But now, once-blighted neighbourhoods close to the centre of the capital are thriving.

When Ruben Castaneda moved to the US capital in 1989 to take up a job with the Washington Post, he was struck by how easy it was to score crack.

Days after arriving in the city, he was taken to S Street Northwest by a “strawberry” – a streetwalker who offered sex in return for drugs.

“The moment she stepped out of the car, the drug dealers ran across the street and surrounded her,” he recalls. “Coming from Los Angeles, I was a little taken aback by how casually all this went down.”

They were in the Shaw/U Street neighbourhood, less than two miles from the White House.

In the first half of the century this part of the city had been home to a flourishing African-American scene. Duke Ellington played in the jazz clubs, Howard University offered a groundbreaking course on civil rights, and black businesses and professional services supported a growing middle class.

Things began to go wrong in the 1950s as an “unintended consequence of desegregation”, says Jane Freundel Levey of the Historical Society of Washington DC.

As in other US cities, when black people were allowed to move to more desirable neighbourhoods, many of those who could afford it decided to leave.

Meanwhile, “white flight” to the suburbs was reinforced as families sought to avoid desegregated schools.

But it was the riots sparked by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968 that sent the area into a tailspin. Protesters firebombed and looted shops over several days, and troops were called in to restore order. Shaw emerged from the smoke with its civic and cultural heart hollowed out.

Aftermath of riots on 7th St NW, Washington DC, 1968
Image copyright AP

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