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As Shaw gentrifies, another battle looms between town and (preacher’s) gown.
On the inside, Shiloh Baptist Church has a way of making the drab look beautiful. The Sunday morning is overcast, but a huge stained-glass window makes it seem cloudless and radiant. The early-November service carves into its second hour, but the sound of 900 congregants harmonizing on “Old Time Religion” crowns the place with an aura of timelessness.
As the Rev. Alice B. Davis approaches the lectern, worshipers reach for red-jacketed Bibles and take in a sermon built on the Gospel According to Mark’s first chapter—where Jesus finds Simon and Andrew fishing along the shore. “‘Follow me,’ Jesus says. ‘I will make you fish for people.’”
“There are people who have fallen into drugs and prostitution,” Davis proclaims. “Jesus wants us to fish for [these] human beings as if our lives depended on it.”
After the closing prayer, I wade through congregants out front, on the corner of 9th and P Streets NW. Circling around to the cracked-cement alley that passes underneath the stained glass, I stroll past the church parking lot to a patch of gravelly yard abutting three abandoned homes. Plywood, brick, cinder block, and mortar fill windows and doorways. The ground is dotted with golden rubber rings—faded skeletal remains of decayed condoms. A few needles litter the grass that occasionally pokes through the dirt.
Beyond the stained-glass mural, the drab just looks drab. And, if you ask some of Shiloh’s newer neighbors, the congregation that should be a source of uplift is actually a dynamo of dysfunction. Those vacant brick shells and that littered rectangular lot actually constitute part of a small, dilapidated kingdom ruled by the church. In the midst of the hottest local real estate market in years, a total of seven vacant Shiloh-owned properties sit near the $13.5 million church building, on nearby 9th or Q Streets.
Some neighbors would like to see those buildings house new middle-class homeowners out to transform the old neighborhood. Church leaders, meanwhile, say they’re doing what they can—and add that their priority is making sure poorer locals will benefit from revitalization.
On its surface level, the clash plays into every neighborhood-conflict cliche of ’90s D.C.: Middle-class homeowners want tax-free institutions to take responsibility for their property; old-timers counter that what their foes really want is wholesale gentrification. And yet the sore feelings over Shiloh Baptist are a little more complicated than either side would have it, because neither group can deliver what it wants. Nobody’s going to turn Shiloh’s block into Pleasantville anytime soon.
In Shaw’s battle of Shiloh, Clyde Kazebee is a die-hard anti. “The only thing I can surmise is that they want to support the underground economy,” the retired Navy Hospital Corpsman says. “They’re complicitous.”
On Sunday mornings, Kazebee—whose house stands likes a watchtower over the empty plot behind Shiloh—occasionally gazes down through an upstairs window to see churchgoers and drug pushers politely ignoring each other.
A self-described “obstinate, nasty bastard,” Kazebee moved into his white Q Street home back in 1986, launching a 14-year cold war with the church. His response to my very first query goes straight to the point: “Shiloh is a slumlord,” he says.
Kazebee says the feud started when he moved in—back when the now-vacant buildings still housed tenants. The church refused to shell out for tenants’ garbage collection, he says, despite a law requiring multi-property owners to foot trash bills. Garbage piled up under a tree near Kazebee’s place, but Shiloh denied that it belonged to its renters. For three weeks, Kazebee and his wife, Becky Kazebee, picked through their neighbors’ garbage for envelopes bearing the tenants’ last names, proof that Kazebee says eventually forced Shiloh to clean up its act.
But the taste of victory has been bittersweet. These days, Kazebee couldn’t really complain about Shiloh’s waste mismanagement if he wanted to: Five of the church’s 9th Street properties have been completely vacant for at least three years. Even by the church’s own account, the buildings have served intermittently as musty haunts for drug users, prostitutes, and the homeless—though the mortar and plywood seals were recently tightened. Even the best fortifications won’t stop the crime that neighbors say thrives in the sidewalk’s empty shadows.
“The strip just looks poor,” says Hiran Rosario, a cop who regularly patrols the block. “If the houses were well-lit, heroin users wouldn’t be using those [streets].” Rosario says he’s busy nabbing lowlifes from the corners of 9th Street “practically every day.”
Kazebee combats Shiloh’s seeming indifference with a strategy that hinges, he says, on being “obnoxious as hell.” He writes letters to D.C. government agencies, calls the police, and once even notified a local news program about the brick vagrant-magnets. He claims D.C. ignores him because “Shiloh members are in the bureaucracy like moles.”
Some of Kazebee’s neighbors agree that the church-owned empties could use some more attention—especially because the church is understandably proud of its elaborate new building, which replaced a predecessor destroyed by fire in 1991. “It’s a major eyesore,” says 14-year Shaw resident Ray Milefsky, shaking his head at a boarded-up facade along 9th Street. “To me, it’s like dissing the neighborhood.”
All in all, pretty standard gripes when wealthier newcomers—even 14 years ain’t that long in Shaw—show up in a long-blighted area. Especially when there are racial differences thrown into the mix. But a few hours with Milefsky and his friends makes it clear that what it really comes down to is wanting something that has little to do with petty building-maintenance violations: a true neighborhood.
“It doesn’t seem a particularly Christian act to not increase the cohesiveness of the neighborhood,” says resident Ray Rhinehart, clearing dead leaves from his front yard at sunset. “If it’s a problem of white gentrification, I’d like to see low-income parishioners live there.” Rhinehart lives next to a massive Shiloh-owned building on the corner of Q and 8th Streets. It’s been closed up—boards painted red to match the brick—ever since Rhinehart moved in 20 years ago.
A low-key guy in jeans and a plaid work shirt, Rhinehart’s the inverse of Kazebee, but with a similar vision for the surrounding blocks: a real, lived-in neighborhood, with people doing ordinary, around-the-house types of things. And without the trappings of desolate urban poverty that go along with abandoned properties. “We’ve periodically dealt with people selling drugs here,” says Rhinehart. “It’s a great place to do it.”
And yet it’s worth wondering whether that idealized neighborhood is something that Shiloh—or any other church—can provide. Church administrator Charles Randolph suspects that nearby homeowners’ desire for community coziness may color their take on how the church handles its properties. “I just had ’em [re]boarded up and repainted three or four months ago,” he says. “We have done everything that we could to make them more appealing.”
Then he asks, “Are they unsightly? They’re not occupied, but are they unsightly?”
Framed by an office window that offers a view of Shiloh’s facade, the Rev. Wallace Charles Smith mulls over the neighborhood’s complaints, offering a series of smooth responses. A wispy shock of white hair, wide eyeglasses, and magnetic black eyes give him an air of unabashed upfrontness. “I understand the neighborhood’s concern,” he says calmly. “They just want what’s right.”
When Smith relocated to Shiloh eight years ago from Nashville, he inherited an unhappy legacy of real estate acquisition that had been decades in the making. Since the mid-’60s, the church had amassed about a dozen decaying buildings, inherited from loyal congregants or purchased outright as promising investments.
“We made the decision to pretty much get out of the real estate business,” Smith says. During his tenure, nearly half of those properties have been revamped and sold to new homeowners—locals from lower-income backgrounds—who’ve kept them up.
But seven brick cadavers still remain in Shiloh’s name, and the church isn’t heading to the auction block. “We don’t want to sell to outside speculators who could clear the African-Americans out of here,” says Smith. But that strategy doesn’t address Kazebee’s grievances against the drug users and prostitutes who grace the church-owned plot behind his place.
Some residents support Smith’s keep-it-black policy. The most ardent Shiloh naysayers are middle-class whites unabashed in their desire to remake the neighborhood. And sometimes they’re downright snotty about it: Kazebee asserts that it’s a travesty that he knows more about jazz than half the kids in the area.
“You got to look at it from a black perspective,” says 8th Street resident Jackie Hart, who says she’s watched wealthier blacks emigrate to the suburbs and seen their houses claimed by a gradual wave of white professionals. “It’s taken so long for black people to get property that they want to hold on to it.”
Shiloh leaders say they want to resurrect the lifeless buildings on their own terms. In 1998, the church scored a $340,000 grant from D.C.’s Department of Housing and Community Development to pay for part of the makeover of a pink-brick house at 1533 9th Street into Jammin’ Java—a coffeehouse that will target youth through special programs. But Smith says the church won’t touch those funds until it has garnered enough money for the whole project.
Even more ambitiously, Shiloh’s board of trustees is looking to salvage the four buildings across the street that flank the historic Carter Woodson House. Smith looks into the future and sees a massive extended-care facility for the elderly.
That’s not exactly the fast track to neighborhood revitalization. But it’s hardly the indifferent inaction Kazebee cites, either. In fact, it’s something contemporary D.C. doesn’t really have the vocabulary to describe: a case of differing priorities. Rather than one side of evil and one side of good, it’s two sides with values that are fundamentally at odds—and two sides with enough glass in their houses to make them think twice about throwing rocks.
Even optimistic estimates put the coffeehouse two years down the road. The cash needed to break ground is pocket change compared with the tab for the church—but Smith claims money for smaller projects is harder to come by. “A university has a great deal of difficulty funding a chair of a sociology department,” Smith points out. “But it’s relatively easy for them to build a big library.”
For now, the future home of Jammin’ Java looks really blue. The wrought-iron staircase out front looks as if it had been mangled by a tornado—the guide rail’s been torn from its socket, and a piece of stair clings stubbornly to its frame. High above, a campaign poster from the last election still hasn’t been removed. Its white-lettered slogan has been blacked out by spray paint—all except the last word, “excuses.” CP