The Greater U Street Historic District is a Victorian-era neighborhood, developed largely between 1862 and 1900. The area consists of a coherent group of row houses constructed overwhelmingly by speculative builders and real estate developers along streets established by the L'Enfant Plan. The neighborhood's rapid development was in response to the city's strong demand for housing following the Civil War, the growth of the Federal government in the late 19th century, and the expansion of Washington's economy and population.
Development was made possible by the laying of streetcar tracks along 14th and 7th Streets by the Washington and Georgetown Railroad Company in 1862. The new streetcar technology opened up this vast area for residential development, making it convenient for the first time for government employees and others to commute downtown to work and shop. By the end of the 19th century, the transportation corridors along 14th and 7th Streets had developed as neighborhood-based commercial areas. Most of the historic district's brick Victorian-era architecture remains intact along its residential streets and commercial corridors.
The historic district is also significant as the center of Washington's African American community between c.1900 and 1948. While always racially and socio-economically diverse, the area was predominately home to middle class white residents until the turn of the century. As Washington became increasingly segregated, the neighborhood emerged as a "city within a city" for Washington's African American residents. U Street became the city's most important concentration of businesses, entertainment facilities, as well as fraternal and religious institutions owned and operated by African Americans. The surrounding neighborhood became home to many of the city's leading African American citizens.
This second phase of development is most tangibly evident along U Street, and its immediately adjacent blocks where buildings of significant stature and architectural expression were built by and for the African American community. While the area remained an important commercial and cultural center for the African American community through the 1960s, the neighborhood began to change in character after racially restrictive real estate covenants were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Shelley v. Kraemer, thus allowing African Americans access to more housing options throughout Washington.
During the April 1968 turmoil following Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, Ben's Chili Bowl was given special permission to stay open after curfew to provide food and shelter for those attempting to keep the peace.
Ben's Chili Bowl, a contributing building in the Greater U Street Historic District, is is still a highly sought-after dining destination.