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It was a government job, and I didn’t especially like the people I was working for. That’s what I was thinking about, how little I liked the job I was going to, as I walked down 7th Street NW on my way to work 12 years ago. This was in the days before the Shakespeare Theatre, the white-walled art galleries, and Starbucks—in all its dark-roasted glory—pulled up to 7th Street. There were no cafe tables on 7th Street back then, but d.c.space was there, eating up the politics of poetry and the poetry of politics. The wig shops and men’s custom clothing stores were beginning to be strangled by whatever killed the rest of downtown. Union Hardware remained, filled with faded wallpaper and hard-to-find, but not-yet-vintage fixtures. On the day the old man died, 7th Street was one of a thousand places in this city people looked at without really seeing.
The sudden movement caught my eye, but there was no sound when he hit the ground. It’s a wonder I wasn’t hit by a delivery truck as I crossed the street to him, since I ran into rush-hour traffic without looking. He might have been 70—I’m not a good judge of age, or distance, or time. He had a little bit of white foam at the corners of his mouth, and his eyes rolled back in his head, but if those were the first things I noticed about him, they weren’t the most central to my story, or his.
He was an old black man, the kind of man people in my family might once have called “uncle”—a name that could carry either respect or condescension depending on who said it. He had gray hair cut very short and a dark suit that was probably 40 years old, and therefore stylish in its own way. It was a good suit—the pants had cuffs and a crease; the cream-colored shirt was neat and clean. On a perfectly cloudless day, the man carried a long-handled black umbrella. But for one thing—race—he might have been my grandfather.
I learned later that he’d had a massive stroke. As I cradled his head in my arm, I noticed that his head was cut and bleeding from the fall. I was young in those days, raised in the South, and still believed that people would stop to help a man taken ill on a public street. But 7th Street was not so naive. The businessmen and government workers cut a wide swath around us. Some looked on with a mild distaste, thinking perhaps that he was drunk, but most walked past without even looking. For the first time in my life, but probably not the first time in his, I and the old man were invisible.
Seventh Street languished, dying for years. A few of the old markers remain. Fred Litwin’s Antiques and Fancy Furniture, near the corner of 7th and Indiana Avenue, is still there, looking just as musty and crusty as it ever did. A good thing, that—it’s not everywhere you can pick up a 1950s chemistry set with “safe and exciting experiments in atomic energy!” for a mere $12. Next door is the transcendent Artifactory, whose owner, Dominick Cardella, has personally pursued the more fascinating aspects of international trade for almost 30 years. A few blocks north, the gleaming MCI Center faces off with the sad relic of the old Hecht’s building. While the gallery owners and restaurateurs in the new “downtown arts district” are congratulating themselves on a long-awaited renaissance, survivors like Litwin and Cardella ride this wave just as they’ve ridden every rise and fall since the Nixon administration.
In case you haven’t been here long enough to know some of the story behind the “new” 7th Street, let me explain. Seventh Street from Pennsylvania Avenue north to F Street was part of an expansive effort to revitalize the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor. Pennsylvania Avenue has been targeted for redevelopment since at least 1962, when the Kennedy administration established an advisory council on the area. White flight and the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 added fuel to the fire, and the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. (PADC) was established by act of Congress in 1972. By 1974, the PADC had begun to pursue its ambitious plans, without much input from D.C. residents. PADC struck the obligatory caution note about the “dangers of sterility and over-monumentality,” but preservation wasn’t exactly at the heart of their mandate.
Few of the buildings on 7th Street were terribly significant architecturally, but they were typical of its evolution as a commercial center since sometime before the Civil War. Most were two- and four-story structures from the mid-to late 19th century, with small or medium-sized retail businesses on the ground floor. Numerous older commercial structures in the PADC “zone” were targeted for demolition or redevelopment, and the whole area was re-envisioned by some as an urban playground of residential, retail, and office space.
Zenith was among the first art galleries to arrive, relocating from Rhode Island Avenue around 1986. The pace really accelerated with the completion of the Market Square building in 1990 and the arrival of the Shakespeare Theatre in 1992. Twenty-five years after the founding of PADC, the result is what you now see on 7th Street, where the old Union Hardware has been re-invented as a decorator center selling $600 imported toilets, where you can dine in the faux-’40s atmosphere of the District Chophouse & Brewery, where a store called Pua lets you revel in the purchase of natural-fiber clothing and “distinctive accessories for urban living.”
A grand old clock on the original (now derelict) Hecht’s building is permanently stopped at 9:17. Night or day? Then or now? As I think about the march of time as it has played out on 7th Street, my mind wanders back to that morning.
As I said, I was younger then, and had higher expectations, so I laid his head on the backpack I still carried a year out of college. I hesitated for a moment, then ran to the nearest open door. It was a Chinese-American diner, the kind of place where they served egg sandwiches and bad coffee in the morning, egg rolls (mostly cabbage) and moo shu pork (mostly onions) in the afternoon. There was a long stainless-steel counter over which you ordered your food, and the round stools facing the counter were covered in shiny red plastic that probably dated from sometime before my birth.
I don’t think I shouted when I asked the woman behind the counter to call 911, told her that a man had fallen down and needed help outside the restaurant. “That’s none of my business,” the waitress replied, making it clear that if it wasn’t on the menu, there was no need to talk about it. There was no pay phone, and none of the customers cared enough to risk their place in line. I ran back outside.
I knew what they were thinking. I’d been in the city long enough to know how to turn my back on the homeless. During those years, the years of Reagan, many were left out, and most of the rest of us walked by. But the man lying in the street was not homeless. He was not derelict or crazy or drunk. He was a gentleman, some good woman’s husband, some sweet child’s granddaddy. I could dream his whole life, from boy to man, Carolina to D.C., sharecropping to government work. I sketched the story of his morning, saw a coffee-colored woman pour him a cup of tea, imagined he was on his way to the Riggs Bank, half a block down.
“Someone help this man! He needs help—call an ambulance!” I yelled to 7th Street. I could feel the loss of control in my voice; my heart was beating hard; I began to sweat. “I need help!” I screamed, and 7th Street, heedless of us all, turned its back and looked the other way.
He died there. The ambulance finally came—someone must have called for one eventually. I heard the driver and technicians complain that the old man probably had no health insurance anyway. Maybe they were right. I went on to work. I didn’t mention it to anyone there. It wasn’t long after that I quit that government job, and with it, I left 7th Street.
As I said, it’¼s different now—cleaner, better lit. They collect higher rents there now, and the Chinese-American diner is gone. But when I do go back, I can’t walk that street without wondering about that long-handled black umbrella on that perfectly cloudless day, and the man who owned it. Like many things along 7th Street, he’s gone for good. CP