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Washington, DC Neighborhood Rejoices in Obama Election, Looks to Future


On the day President-elect Barack Obama made history, spontaneous celebrations broke out in a Washington, D.C. neighborhood that had one been torn apart by racial tensions and rioting. The riots exploded onto U Street 40 years ago on the night civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. VOA's Chris Simkins went back to U Street and found a neighborhood that had emerged from its troubled past to again become a symbol on election night.

Thousands jammed Washington, D.C.'s U Street corridor to celebrate Barack Obama's election night victory.

People of all races shared in the historic moment, as the Illinois Senator became the first African American to win the presidency. It was an especially poignant time in history for this once segregated black neighborhood.

"This is a solid example of the evolution of race relations," said Sterling Tucker, a civil rights activist.

Civil rights activist and former city leader Sterling Tucker sees U Street as a real life example of the progress Barack Obama's election symbolizes. He says he is amazed at how far U Street has come. Tucker was here in April of 1968 during four days of race riots sparked by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Twelve people were killed citywide. Nearly every business on U Street was looted and set on fire.

"All up and down this area and all the street around here were kind of in flames," Tucker said. "The street died and not much was here many business tried to remain but struggled."

U Street was in ruin. Many who lived here and owned businesses moved away to peaceful crime-free neighborhoods, an exodus that left behind decades of decay.

"This was a neighborhood that people were trying to get out of, rapidly trying to get out of. But there were people who saw a future here," Tucker stated.

More than 40 years after race riots devastated this neighborhood U Street has evolved into a thriving residential, social and cultural center in Washington, D.C. Some in this community also say it is a shining example of how America has evolved racially since the 1960s.

Today, U Street is a racially-mixed neighborhood. The changes have been driven by steady economic development since the subway came here 17 years ago. There are new upscale condos and apartments next to trendy boutiques and restaurants.

Nizam Ben Ali's parents opened Ben's Chili Bowl 50 years ago. The popular restaurant, was one of only a few businesses that remained open after the riots. Nizam says they never gave up on the neighborhood believing development along U Street would bring positive changes.

"It has brought this wonderful mix of people, this racially diverse mix of people," Ali said. "Of different social economic statuses to U Street. Like a rebirth if you will. "

U Street's transformation has been a blessing for 74-year-old Donald Betts. Ponytail, as he's known by his customers, has struggled to keep his shoe repair shop open during some of the darkest days in this area. Now he says business is good.

"My cliental used to be all black," he said. "But now I have a lot of whites coming in customers and it is nice."

As the U Street transformation continues, many here believe the future is bright. Others look to the prominent mural of Barack Obama with the word "progress" as a symbol of change for this historic neighborhood.

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