Georgetown University professor Ananya Chakravarti launched a community archiving initiative Nov. 8 to preserve the history of U Street NW, a Washington, D.C. neighborhood that was historically a cultural hub for black people in the District.
Chakravarti, who is a resident of the U Street corridor in Northwest D.C., launched the Remembering YoU initiative to both preserve U Street’s rich history and empower residents of gentrified communities to take ownership of their past, according to the initiative’s website. The project is sponsored by the Georgetown University Humanities Initiative, which promotes academic research in the humanities on campus, and HumanitiesDC, a D.C.-based nonprofit that funds public humanities programming. The initiative was first launched at the Community Archiving fair Nov. 8 to 9.
Chakravarti’s team, composed of Georgetown and Howard University undergraduate students, community members and history experts, will attempt to digitize U Street’s history for the project. The team plans to digitize photographs, information, audio and any other artifacts that might serve to connect modern U Street to its past.
The project’s mission to combat gentrification resonated with Sonali Mirpuri (COL ’20), a history research assistant for the project, who personally identified with the project’s goals.
“I am originally from a town outside of New Orleans, an area that is also a victim to rapid gentrification,” Mirpuri wrote in an email to The Hoya. “The aim and purpose of the project made me excited to get involved, as this is a topic I am grappling with in my own experience.”
U Street is also known as “Black Broadway” because it was a neighborhood where black people were free to own businesses during the first half of the 21st century when Jim Crow laws restricted their ability to own enterprises in other parts of D.C., according to The Washington Post.
When Chakravarti moved to the U Street neighborhood from Egypt four years ago, she was surprised to learn that the area currently has many chain restaurants and stores and only a few remaining black-owned businesses.
“I was amazed — especially because I work in Georgetown, a historic neighborhood where everything is so preserved — that what I saw on U Street was this unchecked erasure,” Chakravarti said in an interview with The Washington Post.
The Community Archiving fair on U Street, which Mirpuri helped organize, included performances, exhibits and events about the U Street corridor’s impact on history, art, music and science. The U Street restaurant Ben’s Chili Bowl served its iconic half-smoke sausage meal and hosted a walking tour of the neighborhood. Historical preservation initiatives at the event included a data visualization workshop led by HumanitiesDC and an audio booth for participants with a personal connection to the area to record their oral histories.
The project will use digital technologies such as augmented reality, a mobile app and QR codes to preserve the history of the neighborhood and aims to prevent further erasure of the area’s past, according to the project website.
“In communities vulnerable to gentrification, new digital technologies can democratize historical preservation and allow communities to retain control over the narratives shaping their own histories and neighborhoods,” the website reads.
The Community Archiving fair also gave participants the opportunity to participate in Remembering YoU’s initiative for digitization. Attendees were encouraged to bring in textual and visual artifacts relating to the history of the neighborhood that they wanted to be digitized.
The project features a creative use of technology to benefit an entire community, according to Miranda Liu (COL ’23), who is also a member of the project team.
“The project was extremely interesting to me because it was such a unique application of computer science,” Liu wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Not only would I be assisting in the creation of a digital archive, something I have never done before, and exploring new concepts, such as augmented reality, I would be helping out a whole community of people.”
Liu created posters hung around the U Street neighborhood with QR codes that allowed people to see different snapshots of the historical area. The QR codes were the initial step in creating a mobile app that Chakravarti’s team is developing to help visitors visualize U Street’s history, according to Liu.
While this weekend was a critical first step for the project, the initiative has more plans to engage with the social issues in the community, according to Mirpuri.
“This launch was just the first in a series of follow-ups to combat gentrification in the U St. neighborhood,” Mirpuri wrote. “This weekend hopefully demonstrated to the community how serious we are about tackling this issue and how we cannot face it without support from the community.”