Magazine article The American Conservative

U Turn

Magazine article The American Conservative

U Turn

Article excerpt

I walked up to U Street from Howard, trading the college-student detritus of broken ballpoints and shattered brown bottles of domestic beer for the hipster scurf of cigarette butts. I wove through a neighborhood of narrow streets and row houses, red brick alternating with sherbet colors, passing through a low-rent patch of flea markets and island-themed takeouts. And then, without warning or boundary, I was in a hot little clutch of boutiques and restaurants. The "New U" is at least a decade old now, but it still startles me.

I always remember U Street the way it was in the '90s: a narrow spine of punk clubs and fast-food joints, dive bars and speakeasies, surrounded by abandoned hulks and haunted by men who slept on other people's steps. Some of the buildings burnt out in the King riots had never been fixed. Plants poked their flat, fringed leaves through the windows, with a tropical air of casual disregard for human projects. U Street was like a tiny outpost on a strange planet, where travelers huddled together against the hostile expanse of the past.

But I--so protected, so desperately pursuing unsafety--was happy there. I was in high school; I was still on the Left; all my friends were still friends with one another. When I think about 11th grade, it seems always sunny--a whole year made of ice cream and glitter. The next year there would be cheap teenage tragedies like breakups and two real disasters that won't be made right in this life. But for that year, I was happy.

U Street was changing. There were already a couple of shops that were like thrift stores, only too expensive for us; we learned to call these "vintage." There were already ritual complaints about gentrification. There were already a few storefronts with sleek aerodynamic space-age fonts.

But inside the clubs, everything was still dark, cheap, and sincere. Politics was our sex and vice versa; in an intimate corner two husky-voiced teens with dyed hair would blush at each other and fumble for words as they tried to explain their beliefs about corporations. Onstage even the most crass displays seemed to glow with the romance of political dissent: "In her kiss, I taste the revolution!" We went to shows at the Beehive Collective--yes, they called it that on purpose--where the communards silkscreened their logo onto men's dress shirts for the citoyennes to wear. …

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