By Marc Fisher
Tony Puesan felt very much the pioneer when he opened his jazz club on 14th Street NW in 1993. On an avenue of boarded-up storefronts, a desolate reminder of the devastation wrought by the city's 1968 race riots, the low rents were more than justified by the high crime rate. But Puesan saw a chance to bridge Washington's racial divide. And he did, attracting a satisfying blend of blacks, whites and others to hear live music.
Now Puesan's nightspot, the HR-57 Center for the Preservation of Jazz and Blues, has moved to H Street NE. Once again, the lure was finding the racial mix that the influx of whites has made increasingly rare along the 14th Street corridor. On H Street, Puesan is confident he can not only keep the District's jazz scene alive but also demonstrate that even as its demographics change, Washington still defines itself culturally and politically through its African-American heritage.
"When we first opened, the majority was African American," said Puesan. "But 15 years ago, the mix changed." The block that once housed HR-57, the Afro-American newspaper and a black-owned beauty salon is now home to a high-end audio showroom and a sleek, minimalist Thai eatery.
"Cities evolve, the affluent come in and people shift around," said Puesan, 49, who is black and grew up in Adams Morgan. "But this city's culture is still solidly African American, and that's not changing."
When new census data revealed last month that blacks are probably no longer a majority in Washington — a status they had held since shortly after World War II — some residents read that as confirmation that the District's black identity is slipping away. From politicians to talk-show callers, in diners and schoolyards, many Washingtonians — and especially black residents who have spent all their lives in the city — took the census numbers as proof that the District is turning into one more majority-white city.
But in politics, business, culture and sports, the public face of Washington is still largely African American, and there's considerable evidence that it may stay that way for a long time to come.
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