Eighth Street

Sam Smith, 2005 – Eighth Street SE is one of those places progress didn’t think was worth messing with. They even ran out of fire engines by the time it burned in the 1968 riots leaving the Marines from the barracks to send some sentries to guard the laundry through which their dirty uniforms flowed. A Sunday or two after the riots, three ministers held a sunrise service out on the street, but not much has happened since.

Thirty-five years later it offers little but utility – a headquarters and laundry for the Marines; a Popeye’s; overflow space for the Shakespeare Theater; a Seven-Eleven and a Subway, the sina qua non of urban survival; one of Capitol Hill’s two hardware stores; a dollar emporium; video stores, a fire station, and some restaurants that were looking for cheap space. It’s one of the few urban strips where you’ll find homeless, yuppies, gays, Marines, firefighters, and Shakespearian actors all enjoying the same space.

The secret of such places is their non-discovery and 8th Street was too close to the already found and desiccated to last. It is, after all, the holy jihad of planners to root out such heresies and turn them to the path of progress. Having already done their work in downtown, where the last of the quirky and the human have been exorcised, they are now turning towards our neighborhoods, promising the infidels there that no block shall remain unplanned. They even have over a hundred places picked out for monuments. And no one will ask the good citizens of Brookland whether they really need a statue of Robert Dole on a horse.

They have already discovered 8th Street, which is now being spruced up as part of Main Street, a campaign to cleanse America of urban greasy spoons, seedy emporiums with seedy customers, and places of scruffy usefulness. My neighbors seem to welcome it. I have gently tried to suggest that they should welcome instead being one of the few hoods in America with two hardware stores, but in this land only resurrection ranks ahead of progress.

It is absolutely predictable what will happen. Eighth Street will become a tree and bench lined paragon of new urban style; in fact you may even get confused and think you’re in downtown Alexandria or Warrenton, for progress comes in only one flavor these days. The rents will rise to meet the charm and the scruffy and the seedy and greasy will not be able to pay the rents and will be gone. In its place will come antiseptic, clerical urbanity.

It is already happening even as the street is torn up for the greater glory of God and revitalization. Payless Shoes will soon be replaced by Paymore Coffee, a.k.a. Starbucks, where you can drink your latte grande and be grateful that 8th Street will soon be just like everywhere else.

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