There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Finding a manicure, a haircut, or a chicken sandwich on H Street NE is easy. Finding common ground over the street’s future is a lot harder.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
There was a time, back in the segregated days when Washington was fiercely divided along racial lines, when the Atlas Theater on H Street NE was a rare oasis that brought blacks and whites together.
It was the summer of 1951, and the Atlas, a 1938 art-moderne edifice anchoring a racially mixed neighborhood, was staging producer-director William Robbins’ production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s avant-garde play The Respectful Prostitute. French existentialism had come and plopped itself down in a neighborhood that already knew a thing or two about Being and Nothingness and an indifferent world.
In an era when downtown department stores were off-limits to black families, H Street was the main avenue where girls like Sharon Frenchtoday an H Street restaurateurdid all their shopping. It had been that way since the early 1900s. Stanley Carroll, who had just taken over his father’s barbershop next to the Atlas, remembers that “you could buy anything on H Street that you could get downtown.”
Whites did not welcome blacks downtown, but the Atlas pointedly chose not to return the insult. It converted from a movie house to a live theater in July 1951, offering “great plays of the past and present at low prices.” The Atlas, the pride of the H Street business district, distinctively broke from the segregated policies of the National Theatre downtown, which had gone under a few years before.
Yet the Atlas’ experiment in live theater was short-lived; it converted back to a movie house by the end of 1951. H Street’s glory days as a shopping mecca lasted only a little longer; creeping suburbanization and, ultimately, the destruction wrought during the 1968 riots in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. saw to that.
Today, H Street is poised uncomfortably at the precipice of Washington’s new racial chasm, less overt than the outright discrimination of old: the divide over gentrification. And the issue over what to do with the Atlas, shuttered since the early 1970s and now decrepit, is driving a wedge between many blacks and whites.
Sartre’s worldly prostitute would appreciate the conflict-filled new H Street story line: the wealth of Capitol Hill marches up steadily from the south toward the shopping strip, accompanying the return of prosperous white families to the District. They start to hanker for upscale improvements to the troubled street. Meanwhile, longtime residents north of H Street, many of them poor or working-class and most of them black, begin to fear economic displacement if the pace of change is too quick. Enter, stage left, a group of historic preservationists and arts mavens, many residing south of H Street, who want to revive live performances at the Atlas. They are faced, stage right, with wary neighborhood activists from north of H Street, who would rather see the Atlas converted to a roller rink for their kids.
“It’s like the war of the North and the South,” says Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6A member Gregory Ferrell, a black activist and entrepreneur who has cast his lot with the roller rink contingent. “It’s like the Civil War. There’s a big divide.”
Night on H Street begins about the time Willie Carswell rolls down the green shutters at the Men’s Fashion Center, as he’s been doing pretty much every workday since the ’68 riots. The padlock clicks shut as the sun starts its drop over the Hopscotch Bridge, which separates the tattered retail strip from downtown D.C.’s resurgent east end.
The District welfare office down the street has cleared out for the day. On the sidewalk, the hot dog and potato chip vendors roll away their movable feasts. But there’s hardly an exodus of street life. Teenage boys in droopy pants and girls in tight jeans and halters are hanging boisterously by the green neon lights outside Crown Fried Chicken. Family Liquors seems to be doing well with the sidewalk denizens looking for solace from a hot summer evening. Some of the nail salons are still open. And the metal cage door is still open at De Place, the purple-painted purveyor of “herbs, candles, juices, love”and New Black Panther politics. French’s Fine Southern Cuisine is winding down after a long day serving up specialties like pig’s feet and chitterlings. Across the street at the Ohio Restaurant, a few neighborhood regulars are just starting to drift into the dark lounge with the glass-block bar.
Between the Hopscotch Bridge and 14th Street NE, going retail concerns and professional services outnumber boarded-up buildings by about 200 to 75. Not exactly Georgetown. But then, it’s not Anacostia, either. There’s not a Banana Republic in sight, but where else in Washington could you find $500 ostrich cowboy boots, $40 fedora hats, and cheap Ghanaian takeout all on one eclectic block?
In his ever-present Redskins cap, Carswell might seem an unlikely fashion mogul, but he is a mainstay of H Street’s down-market shopping scene. His Men’s Fashion Center is the place to go on H Street for anything from work boots to a white, double-breasted Stacy Adams suit. And the gospel tunes issuing from the store’s loudspeakers are soothing. “I can’t complain about business,” says Carswell, who’s seen all the ups and downs. “The Lord’s been good. It could be better. It could be worse.”
Carswell adds that he’s noticed some trends on the street lately. “There’s an increase in beauty salons,” he says. “We’re being bombarded with beauty salons. Once it was liquor stores; now it’s beauty salons.”
But these aren’t just any beauty salons. They’re signs of new black economic growth that has taken root on the strip. They’re places like Mayfield’s (“Po Boys”) Barber Shop and Kata African Hair Braiding, which cater to a distinctly north-of-H Street clientele. The patchwork of multicolored storefronts is testimony to the kind of ad hoc, grass-roots business development that exists in poor neighborhoods across the city.
But this poor neighborhood is on the brink of a major commercial renaissance. “The whole city is surging,” says real estate broker, writer, and former Capitol Hill resident Tony Mizzer. “H Street isn’t that far off.”
The resurgence of H Street is predicted every 10 years or so. But this time, the contrast between the forlorn business corridor and the gentrifying residential streets to the south is growing particularly acute. Recently, someone plunked down upward of $300,000 for a fully renovated 19th-century town house on G Street, within a block of the empty lots around the H Street Liquor Shoppe. Along with the Amoco Station across the street, the liquor store is one of the few occupied buildings on H Street’s 300 block, the corridor’s underdeveloped “gateway.” Such are the odd juxtapositions of a neighborhood going up-market in fits and starts.
With first-time home-buyers and two-income families pressing up from Capitol Hill, the average household income along the commercial corridor has crept above $68,000 annually, and the median property value is up to nearly $150,000. But, although a drop-off in violent crime has brought with it beautiful town-house restorations, H Street’s new neighbors have so far shown little inclination to visit.
Dusk merely accentuates the social chasm. Between the boarded-up buildings, some businesses continue to struggle on into the night. By the time Carswell heads home for the day, the thrift store next to French’s is shuttered, but cool, mellow rhythms continue to waft out of the freshly yellow-painted KC Express clothing store, which caters to the hiphop crowd and stays open late.
Another business that seems impervious to the time of day is the heroin trade at the corner of 7th and H. All day and all night, dealers, couriers, lookouts, and customers gather furtively and disperse. They’re so much a part of the landscape that they’re largely ignored by the people waiting for their buses and going about their business.
For Carswell, the mixed bounty on H Street signals that it’s time to “take it to the next level.” But he and other local business boosters are finding it hard to define what exactly the next step should be. “Right now,” notes Anwar Saleem, president of the H Street Merchants and Professional Association and owner of the Hair Rage International salon, “Capitol Hill shoppers go anywhere but H Street.”
The central meeting place on H Street is certainly no longer the Atlas. Nor is it the H Street Connection shopping center, a two-block intrusion of a strip mall between 8th and 10th Streets NE. And it’s certainly not the dark, forbidding interior of the Ohio Restaurant, where octogenarian owner Ethel Harper holds court on a lumpy corduroy easy chair parked under a window air-conditioner.
The place to meet and eat on H Street is French’s, located inside an ornately Gothic building on the 1300 block. Owner Sharon French has taken over the business from her parents, who opened the restaurant in 1987. Her dad, John French, was a regional vice president for McDonald’s, and his loyalty remains on display as part of French’s glory wall of famous patrons: McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc enjoys pride of place amid signed photos of Redskins cornerback Darrell Green, California Rep. Maxine Waters, singer Cherelle, M.C. Hammer, and former D.C. Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr.
Sharon French grew up along H Street. She went to Pierce Elementary School, a block south of H Street; it’s closed now, awaiting conversion to condominiums. “As a little girl, I remember the whole street. Every business was open,” she says. “Everything you needed was here.”
The 200 or so retailers and professional services along the H Street corridor are enough to sustain a critical mass at the restaurant, an enterprise that was just a family dream when French was growing up. These days, French’s peach cobbler is terrific, she seems to know every customer who walks in the door, and she loves to talk about life on H Streetwhich is why, on a Tuesday night in late July, the meeting of the newly revived H Street Festival Committee is convened at a table in the back of the place.
The festival, scheduled for Oct. 7, is to be a reprise of last fall’s celebration, the first after a long hiatus occasioned by the deteriorating business climate of the crime-prone ’80s and the crack-addled ’90s. A new spirit of optimism seems to be wafting over the strip. Breathing a little sigh of relief around one table next to the rumbling floor fans are French, Saleem, and Carswell. They’re upbeat, even if they’re the only H Street merchants who show up for this meeting.
Much of the talk at French’s tonight is about progress, price-gouging at last year’s festival, and what can be done to spruce up H Street. Inevitably, comparisons are made to the glory days, when Washington had not only the Atlas, but the Beverly, the Langston, the Plymouth, the Princess, and the Senator movie theaters. In part, that’s because Capitol Hill resident Adele Robey, a leading proponent of the proposal to convert the Atlas into a fine-arts center, is here to pitch that plan, which she insists will spur development along the whole shopping strip.
“It will be difficult,” someone says.
“It’s always difficult on H Street,” French replies.
LaVerne Law has seen a thing or two. A fourth-generation Washingtonian and a grandmother, she knows that change is coming to H Street, no matter how painful it may be for some of the older businesses hereor for some of her neighbors. For now, however, the signs of changethe flower boxes, the freshly painted wrought-iron gates, the renovated row houses with the new Saabs and Land Rovers parked out frontare still a few blocks south of her corner, 13th and I. Which means that higher prices, rents, and taxes are still a few blocks away as well.
“I’m not afraid of gentrification,” says Law, who lives in a town-house condominium on her clerical salary. “We just want it so you don’t have to move out some old lady who’s been here for 80 years.
“I don’t care what color they are,” Law continues. “You can have all the colors in the crayon box, as long as it’s a level playing field. If you want a $300,000 house, you need to go back to Capitol Hill. Because people here can’t afford that.”
Law is one of the more outspoken residents of her largely African-American I Street community, a place dubbed “Gilligan’s Island” by locals because they sometimes feel marooned on uncharted territory, not officially recognized by the city as a distinct neighborhood. The city may not have located it, but drug dealers certainly have: Law’s street is home to a notorious open-air drug market.
Law readily acknowledges H Street’s shortcomings as a commercial corridor. “There are 50 ways to get a chicken sandwich, 125 ways to get your hair done, and any number of ways to do your nails. But you can’t find a decent wedding gift on H Street,” she says. “You go down H Street, and you see one building painted pink, then another one red, then yellow, then bright blue. You don’t see that down on Pennsylvania Avenue. We’ve got to change that.”
But those earth-tone retailers on Pennsylvania Avenuelike the Starbucks Law would like to see instead of the Bank of America’s automated teller center at 10th and Hstill seem to be scared of the neighborhood. Eventually, Law figures, the rising average incomes on the south side of the corridor will draw swankier storesand when they do, Law knows it will be curtains for some of the liquor stores, carryouts, and manicure places that paint palm trees on your nails. And for Law and her friends, like Mozella Boyd-Johnson, who have tired of the trash in the streets and the weeds in the parking lots, that will be just fine. Up to a point.
That’s because Law and Boyd-Johnson, who both work for the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development, remain determined to keep H Street for the people who live along it nowmeaning they are resolved to pull off a gentrification balancing act that has eluded neighborhoods such as Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan.
“Now that there’s a new bloom amidst us, we want to play a part in it,” says Boyd-Johnson. That means holding on to the small clothing boutiques and thrift shops that sell inexpensive furniture and secondhand dinner sets. It means putting new things into the neighborhood for the kids hanging out on the street corners playing double Dutch, opening fire hydrants, or falling prey to drugs. And it means fighting the Capitol Hill arts group that wants to take over the Atlas Theater.
To Law and her neighbors, the Atlas, at 1313-1331 H St., remains the mother of all empty buildings on the corridor. Some Near Northeast community activists, including Law, are coalescing around the proposal to build a roller rink in the structure. It would include arcade rooms, a concession stand, and possibly even reading rooms. “This project is good for the neighborhood, will revitalize the corridor and give the residents, especially the youth, a viable, safe and sanitary place to go for activities,” according to one flier that’s being passed around the community.
“We need something going on here for the kids,” Law says. She and other roller rink supporters are reluctant to talk about the financial backing for the project, though there is reportedly interest by a company called United Skates of America.
The roller rink proposal is the first for-profit initiative to come to the Atlas since a brief flirtation with a disco in the ’70s. The theater and an adjoining storefront were purchased by the nonprofit H Street Community Development Corp. (CDC) in 1986. But they have remained empty since.
The last interlude of hope for the theaterand, by extension, H Streetoccurred on Martin Luther King Day 1993, during the heady days of the Clinton inauguration. Inspired by the new administration’s notions of a national youth service, about 500 kids of all races descended on the theater with the idea of turning it into a “leadership training center” for young people.
Then-D.C. Council Chairman John Wilson encouraged the CDC to work with the kids, but nobody ever came up with the project’s $700,000 cost. Three months later, Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy returned to find little else inside the theater besides stray cats, dirty syringes, and discarded national service pledge cards “strewn about the floor.”
Today, the Atlas’ only connection to legitimate entertainment is the posters pasted to its doors advertising spectacles such as the “King of the Ring Trinidad vs. Thiam” super-welterweight championship on HBO. The posters compete for attention with graffiti by Cool “Disco” Dan and others.
In a sign of renewed cross-cultural interest in the theaterand H StreetAdele Robey’s newly formed group, the Atlas Theater Project, has come forward in the last year with a $3.25 million pitch to develop the theater into a “community-based theater and arts education space.” It would have a performance area, an art-display space, dance studios, classrooms, even a coffee shop. Organizers, including the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, the Charter Theatre, Quest: Arts for Everyone, Paradigm Players, and the Theater Alliance, see it as an arts incubator for the local community.
Robey, who is white, is one of the most enthusiastic boosters of the Atlas Theater Project. She is also the graphic designer for the Voice of the Hill, a newspaper that covers mainly the Capitol Hill neighborhoods south of H Street. She says she launched into the project with high hopes but soon ran into the Great H Street Divide. “We were at times, and continue to be, incredibly naive,” she says during an interview in the carriage-house office of her Lincoln Park town house.
Given H Street’s history and visibility, it’s hardly surprising that it should become the fault line separating recreation-minded community activists in Near Northeast from arts patrons on Capitol Hill. It’s also not surprising that this cultural battle has a racial dimension. It doesn’t help that Ward 6 D.C. Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, with a power base among the Hill’s white, gentrified elite, has come down squarely against the roller-rink proposal, because she believes it would be a magnet for juvenile delinquency and crime. “In other jurisdictions, skating rinks have proved to be problems in terms of the crowds they attract,” Ambrose says.
This view has not gone over well north of H Street. “It’s time to stop treating the African-American community like it doesn’t count for anything,” says ANC Commissioner Ferrell. “Until they stop opposing what we want to do, we’re going to oppose what they want to do. That’s how it works.”
While not dismissing the theater project out of hand, several other African-American members of ANC 6A have expressed little interest in an idea that seems imported from outside their community and too narrowly focused on the arts. “I’m on the side of what the community wants,” says Commissioner Wanda Harris. “And what we’re trying to get is a recreation center around here, a place where young people can socialize and stay out of harm’s way.” Capitol Hill, she adds, “doesn’t have anything to do with H Street.”
Commissioner Daniel Pernell says he actually likes the theater project and has encouraged Robey and others to work more closely with the ANC. But the theater dispute, he adds, is only a symptom of greater tensions: “I’m not racist, but you’ve got all these white people living south of H Street telling us what we should have on H Streetbut none of them shop on H Street.”
The rap that the arts center plan is being pushed by an elite, all-white group is not entirely true. Many groups involved in the theater project, including the Black Women Playwrights’ Group, the D.C. Youth Orchestra, the African Continuum Theatre Company, and the Eastern High School Choir, are paragons of diversity. But this is H Street, and the racial component is hard to ignore. “A lot of people are suffering here because of petty politics,” Robey says. “And in some small, tiny measure, I’m finding out what it’s like to be judged by the color of my skin.”
H Street’s political land mines are hidden everywhere. Despite initial interest on the part of the H Street CDC and countless neighborhood meetingsmost of them staged south of the strip, but a few held on the north side as wellthe Atlas Theater Project seems to have bogged down in the Byzantine politics of the CDC and its executive director, William J. Barrow III.
By Robey’s account, the project’s negotiations with Barrow to buy or lease the building from the CDC have twisted around in increasingly acrimonious circles, with not much definite emerging except for a take-it-or-leave-it asking price last March of $1.25 million. That’s a problem for the arts center advocates, because they have barely begun fundraising. Robey, thinking she was bringing a welcome revitalization project to the CDC, expected a warmer reception. What she got instead, she says, was a lot of noncommittal talk from Barrow.
Part of the cool response, no doubt, had to do with the lack of dollars on the table. But part of it probably also stemmed from a bid by some arts center supporters to designate the Atlas a historic building, thereby limiting Barrow’s other redevelopment options. The nomination was written by architect T. David Bell, who lives on G Street NE, a block south of H, and currently serves as president of the D.C. Preservation League. Barrow, Bell acknowledges, “took it as a hostile act.”
Preservationists, however, thought that they had to make haste, given the speed with which Barrow had four 1870s-era buildings bulldozed at H and 8th Streets last summer. Piled in the rubble was the former Coco Club, a popular black nightclub of the 1950s, as well as a black-history mural created to restore hope in the neighborhood after the 1984 gang rape and murder of Catherine Fuller, a 48-year-old mother of six. Fuller’s murder helped spawn both the CDC and the H Street Connection. Now, a year after the destruction of the building on which the mural was painted, the lot is still rubble, surrounded by a barbed-wire fence.
Although Barrow has been at the center of redevelopment efforts, his view on them is difficult to ascertain. Despite two rambling telephone conversations with the Washington City Paper, Barrow refused to be formally interviewed for this article about any aspect of what the CDC does on H Street. But the picture that emerges from talking with several present and past members of the CDC board is that the organization is heavily indebted for the Atlas property, with a $400,000 note to the city, and that Barrow considers the roller rink a more commercially viable proposal. The only color Barrow sees, according to one board member, is the color of black ink.
Barrow won a $70,000 personal grant this summer from the Fannie Mae Foundation, an achievement award for a 16-year community-development career that features $64.5 million in commercial and residential projects around the city, including the Douglas Townhomes, under construction near 10th and H Streets NE. The award was a needed PR boost for Barrow, a dignified but embattled black Republican with a long list of academic degreesand an equally long list of critics who say he’s done more far-flung land speculation around the District than any solid development on H Street.
The critics include Robey, many of the merchants on H Street, and some of the CDC board’s members and former members. “This CDC is one of the richest in the city, but it has produced little,” says Saleem, who sits on the board.
Barrow’s backers say the criticism is born of the typical frustration that attends being a booster of a long-suffering commercial district. “I say don’t wait for Bill Barrow; don’t wait for the District government,” says CDC consultant and fellow black Republican Vickey Wilcher. Where government and nonprofits have left off, she believes, the invisible hand of the marketplace will take over. “It’s a highly traveled corridor,” she says. “Just over the bridge is the new convention center, the MCI Center, and downtown. Looking the other way, you’ve got an up-and-coming neighborhood. There’s money to be made on H Street.”
On H Street, success and failure sometimes come wrapped in the same package. The H Street CDC had a hand in developing a five-story District building housing the city’s Department of Human Services that was dedicated to Councilmember Wilson. The building was also the fulfillment of a Barry campaign promise to help the H Street corridor. But if the project brought 900 government jobs to H Street, it didn’t bring the street-level retail that was expected to go with them. Instead, it created a block-long retail dead zone. Across the street is an equally grim five-story self-storage facility with hot-pink awnings. In the midst of these big, square complexes, King’s Discount Store Supply next door screams for attention with banners announcing human-hair wigs and 99-cent bottles of bleach.
The self-storage facility, housed in a long-abandoned car dealership, was itself a point of contention on H Street when it opened two years ago, crushing hopes that the building would be converted into something that might bring more liveliness to the strip. “It hurt,” Carswell says. “It should have been used for something else.” Some fault the ANC, which backed the storage facility and got a new office out of the deal. Others blame Barrow for failing to bring another project there, much as he has failed to bring a project to the Atlas in the 14 years his CDC has owned the theater.
The list of missed opportunities goes on: Down on the west end of the strip, at 3rd Street NE, BP-Amoco (formerly British Petroleum) this year quietly bought up much of a block that the CDC was supposed to develop as a “gateway” project for the business corridor.
Many area residents resent the BP-Amoco land purchases. But there is no greater testament to healthy traffic volume on H Street than the present Amoco station, which faces the slightly shopworn but popular Capital Children’s Museum at the foot of the Hopscotch Bridge. In terms of sheer gallons of gasoline sold, the run-down station outpaces most of the 130-some stations BP-Amoco owns in the D.C. area. It does such a booming business that the company has chosen the site for a future BP Connect prototype, a futuristic station that, to the astonishment of more than a few beleaguered H Street locals, promises to have touch-sensitive screens for news headlines, weather information, and Internet access.
Bell, the architect, notes that BP-Amoco appears to view H Street as merely a commuter highway. Another preservationist, Patrick Lally, who lives a block south of H Street, has found a 19th-century wood-frame house on the site that might merit landmark designation as a historic structure.
Ambrose dismisses the proposed 4,200-square-foot BP Connect as “the world’s biggest gas station and minimart,” and vows to block it any way she can. The future of H Street, she hopes, is more retail-oriented and pedestrian-friendly. “We’re not talking about a Harrods or a Fresh Fields,” she says. “It’s a gas station.”
Jeff Folks, BP-Amoco’s director of government and public affairs for the eastern United States, explains that the company wanted its new station on a busy thoroughfare, near the Capitol, and in a place with prospects for revitalization; in a wordor a letterthe company wants to be on H Street. “One way to look at this is that we’re one of the largest corporations in the world, and this is a place we want to grow and invest,” he says. “That’s got to be a positive.”
Some might say that since the ’68 riots, not much has happened on H Street. But they would be wrong. A lot has gone onit just hasn’t led to much of anything. Then again, what with city hall neglect, a prickly ANC, and a bunkered-down CDCnot to mention the new racial tensions over gentrificationthere’s not a lot of agreement about what should be going on here. It really is Washington, D.C., writ small, paralyzed by its own demons. H Street even has its own Marion Barry anecdote: He campaigned down H Street in 1994, during his last run for mayor. He bought a $5 barbecue sandwich at an outdoor grill, chatted with Harper on a barstool at the Ohio Restaurant, and spotted a local youth worker a crisp $100 bill. Then he reportedly told the locals, “I’d like to clean up this street….Wouldn’t you like that?”
Everyone’s together on that point. But now everyone’s reading headlines about redevelopment plans for Anacostia and the waterfront, and, most recently, a $111 million face-lift on Georgia Avenue. So naturally, some H Street merchants and politicos are wondering when their bus is going to finally pull into the stop. “It doesn’t seem to be on any city planner’s map,” Harris laments. Ambrose, a Capitol Hill resident who knows she runs poorly north of H Street, confirms that there is no grand plan coming out of the mayor’s office to help the commercial district right now. “There absolutely is not,” she says for emphasis.
Saleem says businesses come and go. There’s plenty of evidence of continuing neglect in the scores of boarded and abandoned storefronts: The 75 board-ups between 3rd Street and 14th Street NE constitute one of the thickest clusters of plywood windows in the city. Some of the vacant buildings have been that way since the riots.
The streets, though, are hardly empty. “H Street doesn’t have a great reputation, but it has traffic. It has people,” says Charles Lloyd, president of Lovejoy Jewelers. Unfortunately, he notes, many of them have nothing to do. In fact, messages abound on H Street that almost ask people to go away. “No Loitering” signs are sprinkled liberally up and down H Street. The fine print on a sign for Capitol Hill Legal Services at 4th and H waves away unwanted visitors by announcing that the firm is “not a public legal aid agency.”
You really want to root for H Street. You want to ignore the boarded-up Martinette Beauty Salon and the burned-out pizza carryout and the “Fuck da Police” graffiti. You don’t want to ponder the implications of the sign on a storefront church, which implores you to “pick up your Bible, throw down your guns.”
So you focus on the most stable enterprises on H Street, the ones that have withstood the ages: the Men’s Fashion Center, “serving H Street since 1952”; Ross Upholstery, open since 1961; and Lovejoy Jewelers, a family concern that’s been on the street since 1947. Harper’s bar has been here since 1959. Carroll’s barbershop, which was opened by Carroll’s dad, dates to 1931. These hardy businesses withstood segregationthrived through it, actually. “When I was a kid, black folks couldn’t shop downtown, so they had to shop H Street,” says Lloyd. Then came the King assassination, the riots, outmigration, and official neglect. To keep up, Lloyd converted his dad’s radio and television repair shop to the present Afrocentric jewelry store. Now he’s also on the Web, where he promotes his jewelry and a brand of black-empowerment ideology that ties in to the Million Man March. “I’m just struggling like everyone else,” he says.
And so you go on rooting, hoping, daydreaming, and seeing opportunity in all the rubble and cheap real estate. Suddenly, a young woman walks up to you in front of the boarded-up Atlas and asks, out of the blue, “You want some pussy for $20?”
Make that 201 merchants on H Street.
It’s dusk on an August Friday. H Street is starting to hop. Or, to be more accurate, the side streets around H Street are starting to hop. The Metropolitan Police Department’s Sgt. Diane Groomes steers her squad car west on H Street, past the 1300 block, near the Atlas, where 32-year-old Reginald Humphries was stabbed to death a few weeks earlier.
As bad as a murder is for morale along H Street, it’s strangely comforting that the slaying has made such an impression, that people stopped, took notice, talked about it, and collectively shook their heads. A little more than a decade ago, when cocaine kingpin Rayful Edmond III held sway in Near Northeast, when the 8th and H Crew cast a pall on the corridor with the Fuller murder, people here were almost getting used to stepping over bodies.
But Humphries’ death is a reminder of latent physical dangerand its close relationship to economic survival. Every once in a while, just when the merchants get to talking about progress, a body turns up inconvenientlyand, by its very existence, denigrates the public perception of their entire street.
Groomes hardly needs to be reminded of the danger. In the lobby of the 5th District police station on Bladensburg Road, where she starts her patrol, a bulletin board full of pictures and yellowed newspaper clippings memorializes the death of Officer Scott Lewis, who was shot to death on H Street in October 1995, while he was assisting a deaf man.
But last year, crime dropped more than 40 percent in the area. Now, Groomes says, people mostly complain about the little stuff: the hustling, the hanging out, the public urination, and the seven liquor stores in a 13-block stretch. Still, while the body count is going down, the drug scene is thrivingmostly in the open-air market spanning from 7th and H to a block to the north.
The trade is so entrenched that participants are hardly fazed by the approach of Groomes’ squad car. Young, fit, and with a knack for community relations that’s made her a rising star in the police department, Groomes sidles up comfortably to many of the dope sellers, some of whom she’s arrested in the past. She talks with the broad accent of her native Virginia, and she’s fond of calling people “hon.”
“Hi, Scooby!” Groomes shouts to one of the loitering teenagers.
“Hi, Blondie!” he shouts back.
A few blocks away, while she’s stopped at an intersection, an elderly black man walks up to her car window and mumbles softly, “The next time you see me, pull me over so we can talk.”
A few blocks away, about a dozen members of the area’s Orange Hat Patrol are gathered in front of the neighborhood police narcotics unit to draw attention to the problem of rampant drug dealing. They are led by 79-year-old Loree Murray, founder and president of Near Northeast Citizens Against Crime and Drugs. Murray, a retired government worker, and her husband, a retired teacher, have lived in the neighborhood since 1946. Five years ago, suspected drug dealers allegedly set their house on fire in retaliation for their crime-fighting efforts. “They practically thumb their noses at the police,” she says. “What can we do?”
Groomes says she shares the frustration. But while the neighborhood drug activity is plain even in the fading daylight, Groomes explains, a passing patrol car has to see more than just boys hanging out on the street corner. “I can’t just walk up to them and go through their pockets,” she says.
On the way back to H Street, Groomes passes a front-yard family picnic memorializing a victim of one of the neighborhood’s past shoot-’em-ups. A banner announces: “One Year Anniversary in Memory of William Antonio Floyd.”
The red Austin-Healey convertible parked in front of the Luna coin laundry on the 400 block of H Streetclose to where the WOL radio studio used to beis a sign of something new. It’s a classy-looking ride, and it belongs to one of the new kids on the block: 28-year-old David Bernhardt, who bought the business and the building it’s in. He also bought the building across the street. He rented out the apartment above the laundry for a while, then moved into it himself in April. He has a woodworking business in the back, where he stores the big blue motorcycle he says he once rode all the way to Alaska. He plans to build a greenhouse on the roof.
Bernhardt is white, and he used to live in a renovated house on Capitol Hill. But nobody seems to hold that against him. After all, he’s an example of the incremental, small-scale business development that could help H Street retain its character as a neighborhood commercial corridor.
“Right now, there’s more hustle than bustle on H Street,” he says. “But there’s a sense of community here….Gentrification is inevitable. But gentrification does not have to have a pejorative connotation, if people can work together and shed their suspicions.”
Bernhardt likes to think of himself as a bridge between the north and south sides of H Street. “I have a strong faith in people, and the laundromat has given me a chance to meet a wide swath of types.”
He says he’s gotten some of the white-guy-sucking-the-community-dry flak, but “not persistently.” He was mugged one night on H Street for a pack of cigarettes and $9 in cash. But he fought back, got 15 stitches under his right eye, and figures he won some people’s respect in the neighborhood. Anyway, he hasn’t been bothered much since.
The drug dealers and delinquents hanging out on the street corners, he says, “are about 10 percent of the population. The other 90 percent are people who would make Republicans happy. They’re tax-paying, law-abiding citizens. They’re not out on the street drinking.”
Bernhardt looks around these days and sees black and white professionals moving ever closer to H Street. He’s even started to see white people from south of H Street in the laundry. “It’s still like the lunchroom at school, with the white kids at one table and the black kids at the other.”
He’s suspicious of grand urban-revitalization schemes. He can live with the basic food offerings at Murry’s grocery store. It has no gourmet anything. It doesn’t have 20 varieties of paper towels. But in Bernhardt’s view, “it’s cheap, clean, and the produce is the right color.”
So he figures other urban pioneers from Capitol Hill aren’t far behind. “This feels like a live place, as opposed to Capitol Hill, which is really quiet…. I’m having a really good time.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.