'Oral Histories / Oral Futures' is a site-specific project staged during Funk Parade 2016. Six phone booths will be placed throughout the U Street neighborhood (see map below). Each phone contains stories of U Street's past and future, intended to be heard amid the cultural and built environment of U Street.
Phone booth sculptures by Alex Braden present these stories in audio format. The booths provide shelter and escape; an opportunity to look back and to look within; the opportunity to learn more about its history, imagine its future, and reflect on its present. Histories were curated by Seshat Walker from the DC Public Library's oral history project. Futures were created by artist Erik Moe as part of the project 'Future Cartographic Society,' drawing from conversations, walks and observations in the neighborhood.
Share your history / Share your future
After listening to one or more booths, participants are encouraged to call the numbers below from their own phones and leave a message for the past or the future.
Leave a message for the past:
Leave a message for the future:
MAP of the PHONE BOOTHS
Locations of booths are marked on map by yellow stars. Booths will be placed for Funk Parade May 7, 2016.
Oral Histories / Oral Futures was created as a site-specific audio storytelling work. Much of the fun is in discovering the six phone booths scattered along U Street during Funk Parade, where you can hear and imagine these stories in the actual spaces these stories unfold in.
We have provided the full text of the stories below for the benefit of the deaf and hard of hearing; for those unable to join us while the installation is on view; and for reflection, conversation and sharing beyond the festival weekend.
If you are able to seek out and listen to or read these stories in person amid Funk Parade on U Street, we highly encourage you to do so before scrolling further the stories below!
PHONE BOOTH #1
RUSTY HASSAN, JAZZ'S 'IN CROWD'
HASSAN: A real highlight for me was going to the Bohemian Caverns. The Bohemian Caverns was located at 11th and U. It has been completely refurbished and it is going very strong now. There was a long period of time when the building was vacant. Here’s a club that started in the late 20s maybe '28 or '29 known as the Crystal Caverns for many years.
My roommate at the time, Toby Mason, was a student at George Washington University and we'd seen an ad in the paper that Ramsey Lewis was going to play there. So we said, 'okay let’s check this out.' So, we pull up to the club and there’s this big truck outside with all this recording equipment. And they were actually recording Ramsey Lewis’s performance that week, so we wanted to catch the show. And one of the tunes Ramsey was playing was actually a rhythm and blues hit the year before called, I’m In With the In Crowd. It was a vocal hit, but he’s doing an instrumental interpretation, and the audience was clapping underneath his performance. So, Ramsey does a whole set of jazz and jazz-oriented pieces of course throughout the set. Red Holden, L.D. Young were the musicians—part of that famous trio at that time. And later that summer, I start hearing this recording on the radio. I go down to Caldor's and Woolworth's or whatever and it’s released as an album. And there I am in the background on, The In Crowd.
RETRO FEELINGS FOR THAT OLD TIME MARS POP
Q: When did you first hear Mars Pop?
A: Well, I came to D.C. for school. I was studying to be a raincloud traffic controller. I would come to U Street on the weekends and I just fell in love with the music. Not just Mars Pop, but all kinds of sounds. Baroque Drone. Neo-Android Go-go. Teleportation Jams. All of it.
Q: Did you ever see Yoko K. perform?
A: Once. Towards the end of her career she played a show at a spot called Chameleon Caverns, which unfortunately just recently closed. The show was sold out, but I knew one of the techs who created the air and cloud effects for Yoko’s jams. She got me in as an understudy even though nothing I knew about controlling rain clouds had anything to do with the kind of atmospheric effects you’d do in a dance hall. I was terrified I’d have everyone soaking wet if they asked me to step in.
Q: So it started with the atmospherics?
A: I suppose, but it is hard to divorce it from the music. It’s all connected. That was the beautiful thing about Mars Pop coming on the scene. In the 22nd Century we were coming out of such a dark time with the oceans rising and all the turmoil that created. The creative movements that were coming back from the Mars colony were really an antidote to all that. The colonists needed to have this positive integration of life, art and work if they were going to survive. It was optimistic in a really aggressive way that had a profound effect here on Earth.
Q: Some people credit Mars Pop with bringing peace to the planet.
A: I can believe it. We had to see ourselves struggle together on another planet to envision it here on Earth. The attitude in the music brought that vision to way more people than speeches from diplomats ever could.
*Special thanks to Yoko Sen for providing the voice of the raincloud traffic controller, and for creating the character of 'Yoko K.'
PHONE BOOTH #2
GROOMINGS FOR THE SOUL
Q: You are a cosmotologist. And you said you worked with James Brown. Tell me about that! How did that take place?
BUTLER-TRUESDALE: That was interesting. There was a gentleman who did processing named 'Square John' in a barbershop called 7th and T Barbershop. He also worked for Old Man Dean in Dean's Barber Shop. And James Brown and all the entertainers went to Square to get their hair done.
I used to do hair at Perot Beauty School. That was the school where I learned to do hair. People like Tina Turner, Gladys Knight, all of the stars. Patty Labelle, all those girls. They didn’t have a lot of money. They didn’t make a lot of money at the time. So they would come into Perot Beauty School to get their hair done. The Raelettes. They all came in to get hair done, manicure and a facial.
So, in doing that, people began to talk about this little girl who could hair and she did hair pretty good. And so they would come back looking for me. But Square knew that I was a good cosmetologist and James was looking for someone to travel on the road to do a comb-out. And he wanted Square to go. And Square said no. So, he said why don’t you check with James and he’s looking for someone to go with him. So, I said, "well okay" and I checked with him. I talked with my mom about it. She said, "well yeah, okay, just be careful," and so the rest is history.
Q: And you went on the road with James Brown?
BUTLER-TRUESDALE: I stayed out with him for two years. It was exciting. I also went on the road with Ray Charles, because I did the Raelettes hair. It was exciting. I’ll say that much. But thank God I had a lot of training from parents, from church, and uncles and aunts that I didn’t get involved in a lot of things. I really was just there to just do the work. I did my work and I went back to the hotel. So, I didn’t get involved with a lot of destruction that a lot of women get involved in when they’re out on the road. And that was truly a blessing. Because I was out there and I was young. And it was fun. And I’m a true believer in God. And God protected me. Because I’m here, I’m 74, and I’m in pretty good shape. And that was—I was 23 or 24. I wasn’t a bad looking girl. You know, I was kind of, you know, doing what I do.
IF THERE WERE ILLICIT TELEPORTATION
Q: When did you first come to U Street?
A: So I first came to D.C. to play a “teleport jam” — maybe 30 years ago?
And, you know the original idea of teleport jams was that you didn’t HAVE to stick around.
You’d play with some random cats from all over the globe for 20 minutes and then shuffle the deck.
Teleport to some other club in some other part of the world, where you might — by luck of the draw — find yourself jamming with a legend you’ve idolized your whole life, OR some upstart kid with skills that blow your mind away.
You could teleport to four or five clubs like this in one night and still sleep in your own bed in your own time zone back home.
Q: Right, and so where was “back home” at that time, and how did you end up staying here in D.C.
A: Hahah. Well, home was Dakar, where I grew up, in the West of United Africa. I played there for years.
Eventually, I got to know the techno-xylophonist Mosi Sidibé — who of course played in some of the first teleport jams.
He told me about U Street, told me I had to teleport with him to his next jam there.
So I did and eventually that D.C. “vibe” took hold of me.
Q: Were you at all hesitant to teleport?
A: Oh, it scared the crap out of me!
Any sane person is gonna be a lot more than *hesitant* when it comes to transporter beams. I’d been told all the teleport hubs were shut down when I was a kid. Too many people scrambled in the beams. Tragic stuff. So they were shut down.
Q: But not in the music scene.
A: That right. Not in the music scene, and especially not here on U Street. D.C. had so many top notch scientists. People who’d run transporter beams for the Peace department. And they loved the music. They knew it could be done safely. So they set up transporter beams backstage here and in about a dozen other clubs around the world. Totally unregulated. So, this alliance between the best scientists and the best musicians all over the world emerged to keep the “teleport jams” going.
So yeah, tonight it’ll probably be: Mexico City, Hong Kong, Paris, and back home to U Street.
*Special thanks to Monica Jahan Bose for providing the voice of the musician.
PHONE BOOTH #3
COLBERT BERNARD RUFFIN,
MY FATHER, THE "TRUE REFORMER"
RUFFIN: My father was a police official. He joined the Metropolitan Police force in 1940 and he became a corporal in 1952. They often hailed him as the first colored corporal, according to a newspaper clipping I have. They created the rank of corporal in April of 1952. He was the only black in that class. He was the first colored corporal. He was not the first officer of color that had a rank above private. In fact, I think there were lieutenants, maybe. I don’t think there were captains, but he certainly was not the first. However, maybe at the time he was on the force he may have been the highest ranking officer of color…
But he was a celebrity in that community around U Street. He was in charge from 1947—the year I was born—to 1959, of the black Boys Club, Division 1 and 2. There were four Boys Clubs in that division. Their headquarters were at the True Redeemer Building at 12th and U, and then there was a club in Southwest, and one in Anacostia, and one on 3rd Street in Northwest. But he supervised all of them, and he also supervised Camp Number 2 in Scotland, Maryland.
LATE NIGHT CAMPFIRES
In the middle of the night like this there always has tended to be a bit of a lull on U Street.
Three, four in the morning.
Most evening activity has come to an end: concerts, get togethers.
And the daybreak enthusiasts haven’t come out to start their sunrise rituals, prayers, workouts, morning dance parties.
I’ve always liked being out here at this hour.
Very calm. Anyone who cares to can come out and sit under the stars and relax or talk.
I remember a lot of nights like this.
Nights I spent staring up between the buildings at the big magnolia tree in the crossroads. 13th and U.
For some reason in my memories there always seems to be a full moon above that old tree — but of course that couldn’t be.
Even tonight It’s almost pitch black out here. All we have is a sliver of moon — and the amplified starlight from the light-pollution reversal satellites.
These round benches here have always been my usual spot.
Did you know they are carved in below the old street level?
They were designed so you can see a cross-section of old D.C.’s asphalt and concrete as you step down.
In the cold months, there is a nice sort of geo-thermal fire that keep the conversation circles comfortable.
Almost want a bit of heat tonight even.
But, I’m sure in a minute or two, the robot tea carts will come down the pathways to check on us. It’s nice, a little something hot and soothing as you contemplate the darkness. If you like, the cart usually offers a bit of warm bread, too.
Out here on nights like this, I often run in to old friends from my days in Howard’s Asteroid Corps. Quite a few of us have stayed in the area.
But even if I don’t see old friends, it’s always easy to make new ones on U street, and the stillness of the hour is just fine by me.
There are a few bird chirps in the distance. Might be getting near time to head home.
*Special thanks to Boris Willis for providing the voice of the Elder.
PHONE BOOTH #4
A SMOOTH TICKET TO THE STARS
SMOOTH: See, we used to hang outside the Howard Theater. Me and a group of other guys, you know, waiting to see the stars. By that time, I knew all the songs. I knew Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington. I saw them all. I knew of them before. They were much older. They were legends. And I knew what legends were. Because—you know—they were so great. I used to hang around just to see them when they came out.
Then rock and roll came in. Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Bobby Darin. “Splish Splash, I Was Taking A Bath,” that was one of my favorites.
We didn’t have the money. I didn’t have the money to go in. It was strict back then if you hung around. Police were at the side doors and so forth. We snuck into the side doors a couple of times. Mainly, I’d see them at the side door like when somebody come out we can see them on stage. See James Brown or whoever. We might sneak in.
When stars come to town. They would come to town on a Friday. A new show would come on a Friday. Chuck Jackson, Baby Washington, The Marvelettes, Brooke Bettman, Dinah Washington, or whoever. All the stars on one big show. So I would hang around and get there Friday and see the new acts come to town. A lot of the acts that came to town had hit records and they were kids and away from home. Groups like The Barbettes, sing "1-2-3 look at Mr Lee." These are rock and roll classics. I grew up with these.
They would come to the Howard, but they were green. They were kids coming to the strange town. They didn’t know anybody. So what we would do was make ourselves present to them. If they needed clothes taken to the cleaners, or needed something from the carryout, or something to eat, that was my ticket to be able to be accepted.
THE DANCE FLOOR
Q: So what’s your job here?
A: I’m a municipal D.J.. But technically, I’m also classified as a Park Service ranger
Q: Oh, because this is a protected monument?
A: Exactly. Officially, the U.N. Calls it “The Planetary Bombastic Shake Your Thing Historic Florida Avenue Dance Floor of Grace Sanctuary and Monument.” But everyone just calls it ‘the dance floor.’
Q: Yes! And can you describe what we’re looking at?
A: Sure. All right. So, right now we are in this sort of balcony slash D.J. Booth. And if you look up, we’re under this leaf-shaped translucent marble overhang. There is one attached to each of the four corners of the old street intersection. And these leaf overhangs fold out like they are right now at the hottest times of day in order to provide shade, and also protection from the rain. Below us, there’s the famous light-up dance floor. There are a couple of trees — Bald Cypress — growing towards the middle of everything. And of course there are the famous loudspeakers that started it all, which you can probably hear. That’s my job. And so right now I’m playing some retro-industrial go-go.
Q: Right and so, tell the story of the loudspeakers.
A: So, as far back as the records go there has always been music at this spot. Back to the times before world peace. Before sea level rise. Back to the times when D.C. wasn’t even an American state. Practically to the horse and buggy days.
A: Something like that. And so at first there was just one loudspeaker here, started out in an old fashioned telephone shop. The guys just wanted to keep people happy. It’s hard to picture now, but this was a really congested intersection in the days of privately piloted surface cars. So, this telephone shop played dance music to mitigate the stress of the traffic and pollution. Soon, the other corners added loudspeakers and they’d take turns playing all kinds of D.C. music. Eventually, as cars fell out of favor the dancing and the music remained — and grew! Nowadays, we play it all. There are rousing spiritual gatherings here most mornings. Sky dancing throw-downs. Mars Pop. Old classical music, too. You know: hip-hop, punk, jazz.
Q: Beautiful. Thanks so much.
A: Of course. Look over there. You see this a lot, you see this a lot. A couple of joggers coming through. Sure enough, they can’t help but break stride and dance!
*Special thanks to Jady Dyer for providing the voice of the municipal DJ / Forest Service Ranger
PHONE BOOTH #5
SMITH-CLARK: My earliest memories of going out on U Street was to go to the theater after doing my housework with my older sister. We would get permission and maybe 25 or 30 cents from my dad and mother, so that we could go the theater. It was, I think, a 1 o'clock performance that we went to, and we we walked all the way down the hill to U Street.
We would go to the movies. And if we were fortunate, we'd have money left over, and we would turn toward the east on U Street, after the movie, and go to a little store called Kinu Kuni—which was run by Japanese-Americans—and buy the most delicious steamed hot dogs with steamed rolls, and chopped onions, and mustard, and we thought that was a real treat in those days.
Q: So how old were you when you were doing this?
SMITH-CLARK: Well let’s see, I was with my older sister who was by that time, was in junior high school, and I'm two years behind her. So, I would say I was somewhere around 12—11 or 12—when we started walking down. I also remember in the winters, my father would take us on a huge family sled down the 13th Street hill. We would start at the corner where Cardozo High School stands today. In those days, it was called Central High School. And we would ride down the hill sometimes, well part of the way, and then we would walk the rest of the way. But it was great fun and very good exercise.
RUNNING FROM HISTORY, RUNNING TO HISTORY
Q: Hi. Are you Jane? How was the workout?
JANE: [SLIGHTLY OUT OF BREATH] Hi. Good. Hang on. Let me just dismiss my trainer.
[QUICK DIGITAL NOISES ARE HEARD]
ANDROID TRAINER: Nice work out. Good bye. Do not forget to cool down.
JANE: [STILL BREATHING HARD] Jog with me while I cool down? Just from here to the Dance Floor at 7th Street.
Q: [RELUCTANTLY BEGINS JOGGING] All right. So how long have you been working out with androids here on the U Street trails?
JANE: Oh, forever. I grew up around here. I’m actually the third-generation in my family born in D.C..
Q: [BREATHING HARDER] Climate migration?
JANE: That’s right —
[ASIDE] Watch out for these kids climbing down from the trees —
[CONTINUES BETWEEN BREATHS. INTERRUPTIONS LESS FREQUENT AS STORY CONTINUES] My great-grandparents were climate refugees from coastal Florida. A town that couldn’t be saved from the oceans’ rise. They lived in temporary housing camps in North Carolina for a time. When humanity finally got its act together and made some decisions about rebuilding, they wound up here in D.C..
Huge construction projects were going on everywhere all of a sudden, and my great-grandmother wound up managing crews that built much of the Great Chesapeake Sea Wall. I was pretty young when she died, but that work grew in to the family tradition that I’m part of today.
Q: Oh really? What’s the connection?
JANE: [ASIDE] We can slow the pace here. We’re almost to 7th. Almost to the Dance Floor.
[MUSIC CAN BE HEARD FADING IN SLOWLY OVER THE REST OF DIALOGUE]
[CONTINUES] A lot of people don’t remember that there was a long time when these buildings looked nothing like they do now. I mean, when times were tough during the climate crisis, beauty and historic preservation just weren’t high priorities. And it makes sense. We just needed housing that was weatherproof. And we needed it fast and cheap. So that was the kind of work my family did for many years.
Q: And now?
JANE: Well, part of why I like running here is that our company’s droid’s have done a lot to beautify U Street. There is so much history here. We just passed some of our droids, actually. They’re working on that apartment block where Astronaut Nelson lived as a kid. 13th and U? We took down that horrible faux Mars rock and are re-fabricating the original 2016 facade molecule by molecule.
Q: So interesting. Thanks for sharing.
JANE: Sure thing. But hang on, now that we’re at the Dance Floor Monument you’re going to have to show a few of your moves.
*Special thanks to Tracy Miller for providing the voice of Jane the Engineer, and the Android Trainer.
PHONE BOOTH #6
JAMES A. BENNETT,
U, THE STREET TO BE
BENNETT: Well, long before high school, U Street was a part of my family, because it was part of life that essentially—if you’re really going anywhere special it was going to be U Street. Whether it was going to the movies like the LIncoln Theater or the Republic Theater. Or whether it was having a bite to eat somewhere. It was going to be U Street. Or, if it was just as a kid hanging out. Like I said, I come from a family of eleven brothers and sisters. So, it was impossible not to see them on U Street. And it was impossible to not see them, when they understood I had a curfew and they didn’t, so U Street was always a part of my family’s life. My mother and father would go out to U Street.
Q: Where would they go?
BENNETT: My mother and father used to go to a place called Evelyn's, which was on 13th and U Street. And, in fact it was right down the street from Ben’s Chili Bowl—although Ben’s wasn’t there at the time—and they went to a number of other places. They’d also go to the movies. The movies were what people were doing then. They would go out see a show, stop off and have a drink. The other place my mother and father would go to is the Dunbar Hotel. The Dunbar had—apart from having rooms that were party rooms, that you could have cabarets in—they had a club called the 2011 club.
Q: And that was at 15th and U?
BENNETT: Yeah. So, they—along with the rest of my family—would go to 2011 club. They would go to a cabaret there. They went to a cabaret at Masonic Temple. And they went to other events at the Masonic Temple. But, wherever they went, U Street played a very very important part.
ASTRONAUT NELSON’S CHILI BOWL
Q: So, where are we?
A: Astronaut Nelson’s! Astronaut Nelson’s Chili Bowl!
Q: And when did you first come here?
A: Well, I was pretty young when it first opened, and my parents were suspicious of space food. So I would sort of sneak in here alone, after ball practice. Honestly, it was because I was obsessed with the Mars colony – like everyone was in those days. So, at first I just hung out to get noticed by Commander Nelson. So, not too long after that she offered me a job. I started out bussing plates for the dish robots right alongside her.
Q: So what was Commander Nelson like in person? She grew up here on U Street, right?
A: That’s right. She did. She grew up here, and you’d never guess she was the hero that saved the Mars Colony. All those years in space, the parades, autographs, people telling her to run for office. After seeing it all, she just wanted to come home and nourish something local.
And she didn’t really talk about Mars much. I mean, she was nice about it. Hugged kids who’d ask her, but she always said, “Focus on the first planet — You live on THIS planet.”
You asked about where she lived? So, she grew up in that old apartment block at 13th Street. Southwest corner I guess it is. The last time I walked past, the city had it blocked off. Supposedly, they’re trying to restore the original look from the 2000s. I’m not sure I care for that look, but I’ll wait and see. Seems to me the history is in the evidence of living. The living is what has transformed the place.
Actually — in a way — that old building’s start did inspire the food we serve here. See, there is an antique hologram in the lobby of that building where you can see what U Street looked like in those days. The green lawn and pathways we have out front here? They were full of cars and trucks in those days. Too dangerous for kids. There were a lot of businesses advertising alcohol and catering to — I’d guess — young people working for the American government.
But in the middle of it all was this brightly-lit diner. It happened to specialize in dishes that used some of the same plant species Commander Nelson grew on Mars: kidney beans, potatoes, peppers. It was perfect. And it might have been one of the only foods from that era that wasn’t completely toxic. So that was the inspiration for the “chili bowl.” And the rest is history.
*Special thanks to Russell Selavy for providing the voice of the Chef at Astronaut Nelson's.
SHARE YOUR HISTORY / SHARE YOUR FUTURE
After listening to one or more booths, participants are encouraged to call the numbers below from their own phones and leave a message for the past or the future.
Leave a message for the past:
Leave a message for the future:
Support for Oral Histories / Oral Futures provided by the DC Office of Planning.