No dreams on H Street

Sam Smith

IT’S STRANGE HOW SOMETIMES it’s the little stories that get you. For example, this morning, April 4, I read Paul Schwartzman’s article in the Washington Post metro section about Capitol Hill’s H Street strip:

“Bernard Gibson had a simple wish: to open a Cluck-U Chicken in the H Street neighborhood where his grandparents have lived for decades. Bound and determined, he held two jobs to squirrel away the cash: He owned a carwash and worked as a mechanic for the city. Last year, after selling the carwash, he got a permit for a sit-down restaurant and opened his dream. ‘Best Buffalo Wingers in the World,’ declares the bright purple awning on H Street, between the Family Dollar store and the check-cashing outlet. But in the age-old way that one person’s dream is another’s bedevilment, the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission said not so fast: H Street in Northeast Washington is a strip trying to shed its bedraggled past and become a gleaming urban paradise.

“Cluck-U is not a sit-down restaurant, the [advisory neighborhood commission] argued. It’s a fast-food joint, just like McDonald’s and Burger King, and, under zoning laws, neighbors should have had a say before it opened. Because they never got that chance, the ANC wants Cluck-U’s permit stripped, an appeal it will make at a hearing today, as the struggle over H Street’s future heats up. . .

“ANC Chairman Joseph Fengler said the commission’s opposition is all about getting a fair, uniform interpretation of the zoning code. But some merchants and longtime residents see it as a war on black Washington. The ANC, which became majority white in 2002, wants to push ‘the African-Americans from the corridor,” said Clifton Humphries, owner of the H Street Martini Lounge, who is black. “They’re trying to steer what comes down here. They want an upscale environment, where they are comfortable around their own'”. . .

“Ravaged by the 1968 riots, H Street — a strip stretching from Third Street to Bladensburg Road — is still largely defined by boarded-up storefronts, tattered carryout joints and discount stores, by weekend street preachers and panhandlers loitering on corners. But on the western end, just past Union Station, the developer who helped remake Logan Circle is building Senate Square, a 480-unit condominium complex. At the eastern end, the Atlas Performing Arts Center opened last year with a dance school, near the H Street Playhouse and Humphries’s sleek new bar, where the orange-tinged “Dean Martini” costs $10. . .” .

I put down the paper and drove my car to Distads’s – about the best repair place in DC, grabbed a free cup of coffee after discussing our mutual maritime pasts with mechanical maestro Mark, walked to my bank and then to Sizzler, the Korean buffet which offers discounts to cops and firefighters so sometimes you’ll find a couple of ambulances or a hook and ladder double parked outside. Along the way I counted what some might consider fast food places in what most consider the better part of Capitol Hill. There were about a half dozen including Starbucks, a fast food place for young whites.

It wasn’t a new story. It’s happening all over urban America. It was happening on Capitol Hill when I lived here in the 1960s. But at least the displacers were a little quieter back then, not as openly boastful and aggressive about the righteousness and bounty of their presence.

One of the reasons we moved back to Capitol Hill after years in more homogenous Northwest Washington was the pleasure of being around people who weren’t all like you. And it’s not just a matter of ethnicity. Although the Hill is still more biracial than most of DC, blocks near the Capitol were always white or mixed going back to the 19th century. But in our first five years back on the Hill our one block has included a former woman astronaut, two old cab drivers who remember when our house sold for $7,000, Trent Lott’s best man, a carpenter, a physicist, a Baptist preacher born again from the legal profession, a former dean of the mostly black University of DC Law School, a gynecologist with her office in the basement, and a hermit lady whose vines covered her entire house and who we never saw before she died. At how many block parties in America do you find a physicist and a born-again preacher discussing eternities with civility if not resolution?

But the recapture of American cities by the white gentry doesn’t leave much room for that sort of thing. There are little problems like soaring property values.

For example, Eighth Street SE, a block away from Distad’s, was long one of those places progress didn’t think was worth messing with. As was true for H Street, they even ran out of fire engines by the time it burned in the 1968 riots leaving the Marines from the barracks at the south end to send sentries to guard the laundry through which their dirty uniforms flowed.

The street offered 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; 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 was one of the few urban strips where you could 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. And so 8th Street 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.

Eighth Street will become a tree and bench lined paragon of new urban style; one of those places where progress comes in only one flavor. 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. Payless Shoes has already been replaced by Paymore Coffee, a.k.a. Starbucks, where you can drink your latte grande and be grateful that 8th Street is becoming just like everywhere else.

Walking the remaining half mile home I was reminded that a couple of blocks away was Montmartre, one of the best restaurants in town, that shared its restroom with the adjoining Ben and Jerry’s. Sometimes the hook and ladder would truck pull up in front as the crew went inside for their triple scoop cones.

Sharing is what cities that work are about. The gated minds of today’s gentry don’t understand it. They think they are bringing culture, taste and value by their presence when they’re really just making the place duller. Homogenization in the name of beautification. And other people have to pay the price. Not just in evictions but by having their own culture, their own values, their own tastes declared unacceptable and inappropriate. It’s one of the places that anger and hate come from.

I know something about anger and hate on H Street. In the 1960s I started a neighborhood newspaper that attempted to serve both the black and white parts of the community. To do so we had to rename the hood. We called it Capitol East so it included not just the white part known as the Hill but places like H Street as well.

In late 1967 I came up with the idea of pulling together the various leaders of Capitol East into an informal leadership council with the possibility of forming a major neighborhood coalition. Fourteen people attended the first meeting: 7 white and 7 black. But it didn’t have much of a chance.

In February 1968, I wrote in the Capitol East Gazette:

“As contrary as the thought is to our national self-image, it is entirely possible that we are giving up the struggle to solve the deepest problems of our cities. . . National Guard troops are undergoing special training. Hotlines are being established. Armored trucks are being purchased. Police riot equipment is being beefed up. . . . Ramsey Clark, the Attorney General, was probably correct when he told a group of police chiefs and city officials recently that the nation’s power to deal with urban riots is increasing faster ‘than the underlying layers of frustration that cause them.'”

On the evening of April 4, 1968, I was up on T Street at the mayor’s house with a group of anti-freeway protesters, when word came of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. We went home as the police cars poured by filled with shotgun-armed and helmeted police.

The next morning things were quiet enough that we went about our business as usual. But I came home that afternoon from the office to find a slow stream of people walking down the street with liberated articles: hangers full of clothes, a naugahyde hassock, a television set. Somewhere in our neighborhood a woman walked off with a case of whiskey from a liquor store. When she got home she realized she didn’t have any soda to go with it. She went back and was arrested as she tried to liberate her chaser.

There were only a few whites living in the block; but I felt little tension or hostility. I mainly noted the black smoke drifting down from H Street, four blocks away. My wife was out back working in our foot-wide strip of garden, listening to reports of looting and arson on a portable radio as a black fog settled in. We decided to go up on the roof for a better look. H Street was burning. Others areas had gone first and the radio reported a lack of fire equipment to deal with the situation a few blocks to the north. I tried to count the fires but they congealed under the curtain of smoke.

We decided to pack just in case. For about ten minutes we gathered an instinctive selection of nostalgic items, favorite photos, the non-valuable but irreplaceable. Then we looked at what we had done and laughed. Like loyal children of our generation, we settled down in our smoky living room to watch on television what was happening to us.

At six-thirty the next morning, a white friend rang our doorbell. He wasn’t in trouble; he just wanted company on a tour of the area. We got into his car and drove to H, Seventh and 14th Streets. As I looked at the smoldering carcass of Washington and observed the troops marching down the street past storefronts that no longer had any brakes, I thought, so this is what war is like. As we drove past a gutted store on 14th Street it suddenly reignited itself and flames leaped towards the pavement.

For a year and a half of running a neighborhood newspaper, I had observed, and tried to report, a part of the community seething with emotions much of the other part refused to recognize. Now it was worse than even I had thought and anger, frustration, and helplessness washed up on my mind’s shore.

The riot did more than $3 million worth of property damage. In the vicinity of H Street and some 124 commercial establishments and 52 homes were damaged. Another 21 businesses were damaged on or near 8th street.

At the time of the riot nearly 25% of the labor force in Capitol East was either unemployed, earning less than $3000 a year or employed only part-time. Over half of all adults living in the east part of the neighborhood had eight years or less of schooling. Over a quarter of the housing units in this same area were listed by the census as dilapidated or deteriorating.

Now, here it is April 4 again. Thirty-eight years since the one you can’t forget. During most of those years no one did anything much to help H Street. You could still find the charred wood on some of the buildings. It was like during the riots: all the equipment was someplace else.

Then a few years ago, white America decided it wanted the cities back again. H Street leaped from despair to displacement without ever stopping for a dream. Now you can’t even install the car part you just bought in the Auto Zone’s parking lot without someone calling the cops. Someone who doesn’t understand that the city isn’t only theirs. Someone who doesn’t understand that there are people with as much right as they to live near H Street but who would rather go to Cluck-U Chicken than Starbucks. Someone who doesn’t understand that what you don’t do with decency, you pay for in anger.

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