In 1977, Don Matthews opened the Manhole nightclub at Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Lebaum Street SE. Matthews had originally intended the club to be a jazz spot, but after an initially dry showing, he opted for something a little more earthy. Matthews turned the Manhole into a go-go joint, and business boomed. “The fire marshal used to come in and say, ‘Don, if you let one more person in, I’m gonna have to shut you down,’” says Matthews.
The Manhole was not the only commercial enterprise making money in Ward 8 in the late ’70s. Twenty years ago, the depressed ward had two grocery stores, two movie theaters, and a dry cleaner. “We even had a men’s clothing store,” says Sandra Seegars, who has lived in Congress Heights for 30 years.
But as the ’70s wore into the Reaganomics ’80s, Ward 8’s business geography took on a less eclectic tone. Matthews shut down his club in 1983 over a dispute with the community, but others left for reasons having less to do with morality than money. Some were following the black migration to suburbia. Others were simply divesting in a community that seemed to be dipping south. “It wasn’t a bad neighborhood,” says Matthews. “We didn’t have the drug problem then, but I saw it coming.”
What Matthews didn’t see coming, however, was the fleet of low-grade investors who took the old-line merchants’ place. Citizens living east of the Anacostia river watched respectable businesses get replaced by liquor joints, pager services, fried grease shops, and convenience stores. Local economic-development advocates regularly pillory Ward 8’s schlocky storefronts. Few, however, bother to note that these oft-criticized totems of urban decay have boomed alongside another type of institution that isn’t usually criticized by community activists: churches.
Today, some Ward 8 residents like Matthews wish their neighbors would shift some of the righteous indignation from cheap carryouts to places of worship. Matthews characterizes many far Southeast churches as storefront operations devouring space that could be used to bring commercial life back to a beleaguered community. The result, local activists say, is rides to heaven for a few parishionersand long hikes to the grocery store for everyone else.
At the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Alabama Avenues sits the Charity Full Gospel Holiness Church. A sign over the door reads, “Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus” mantra the avenue has absorbed well. A short ride up Ward 8’s main street shows how thoroughly the second estate has colonized Anacostia: No fewer than six churches call the strip between the Anacostia Metro station and St. Elizabeths Hospital home. The rest stops on the highway to heaven include Campbell A.M.E. Church, United House of Prayer For All People, and Bethlehem Baptist Church. “Every other building on Martin Luther King Avenue is a church,” says local activist Cardell Shelton. “The first thing you see when you cross the bridge is a church.”
Stacked with resources to save the tortured soul, Ward 8 offers very little to save the tortured stomach. With last summer’s closing of the Milwaukee Place Safeway, not one major grocery store calls the ward home. And in the entire area east of the Anacostiawhich includes a sliver of Ward 6 as well as Wards 7 and 8there are only two supermarkets. Residents are apparently expected to survive off of cheese-steak subs, shots of Bacardi, and an occasional healing.
Matthews says it was about 10 years ago that he began to notice businesses exiting crime-ridden Southeast en masse. As check-cashing spots replaced banks and convenience stores replaced supermarkets, storefront churches seemed to spring up on whatever property their pastors could lay their hands on. “I’m a church man,” says Matthews. “But I’ve seen churches swallow up whole blocks….In Georgetown, how many churches do you see popping up like this?”
Shelton, one of the more vocal critics of east-of-the-river churches, has a personal ax to grind with the houses of the holy. One day in 1996, Shelton found what he claims was a dream site on which to establish the vocational institute he says he’d been trying for years to organize. At the intersection of Alabama Avenue and Wheeler Road was a small church that was being sold. “They had a ‘For Sale’ sign, and I thought it would be a good area for a training center or a school,” says Shelton. But Shelton was told that he couldn’t buy the church because the parishioners had agreed to sell the building only to another church group.
Shelton comforted himself by noting that at least one church was simply replacing anotherit’s not as though his institute would have sold meat and potatoes, either. But last summer, after the Safeway closed, community leaders clamored for a new store to take over the space. When no developers rushed forth, Rehoboth Baptist Church stepped in. Church leaders are among those now planning to put a charter school in the abandoned supermarket.
Adding salt to the wound caused by the religious real estate boom, say neighbors, is the fact that many of Southeast’s parishioners are suburbanites. “Look at the license plates,” says Matthews. “You’ll see that a lot of them are from Virginia and Maryland.” A Sunday stroll up Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue bears out this assertion: Most of the parked cars feature Maryland tags.
Some local ministers agree that the area has an unfortunate ratio of men of the cloth to, say, clothiers. But they also say activists shouldn’t lump all churches into the same category. “It depends on what you call a church,” says Leon G. Lipscombs, pastor of Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church. “[Some churches] just open on Sunday for their pop show….I like a church that offers counseling and works with the poor.” Lipscombs notes that his own church, among other things, supports two youth football teams, operates two day-care centers, and offers counseling.
Pastoral boasting about charity does little to assuage the concerns of activists like Shelton. “They contribute absolutely nothing,” says Shelton. “Every preacher you see turns his collar around and gets to stealing in the name of Jesus.”
But others say that blaming the churches for the absent commercial infrastructure amounts to attacking the symptoms instead of the illness. “If the black church could get us to heaven, then we’re there,” jokes Hillcrest community activist Paul Savage. “But you have to ask the question, Why was the void [for a church to come in] there in the first place? Where is the plan to enhance and bring resources to Ward 8?”
Lipscombs says the community has not united swiftly enough around economic development. Consequently, churches simply outrun development activists. “These activists are so divided,” says Lipscombs. “The churches claim the warehouses before [the development activists] even get there….I don’t have the right to deny you the right to worshipyou’ve got to beat the man to the property.”
Ward 8’s absence of economic development notwithstanding, some experts say that the race for east-of-the-river property is actually just about over. George Washington University Professor of Urban and Regional Planning Dorn McGrathwho has studied development issues in Anacostia for 30 yearsasserts that the amount of land suitable for development is dwindling. “Land in that part of the city has always been scarce,” says McGrath.
Southeast is not without open space. For years, there’s been talk of developing the sprawling Camp Simms site, located in the 1400 block of Alabama Avenue SE. But McGrath says that commercial analysis of the property has revealed that its land is no good for supporting the foundation of a modern structurewhich is what a supermarket would insist on building. When developers get scared off, he says, “the real estate people get hungry, and they’ll lease it for anything. The next thing you know, you’ve got churches everywhere.”
Like any urban scholar worth his land-use map, McGrath blames the District government. If the city had a better planning office, says McGrath, there would be plans in place to balance church and commerce. “In other cities, everybody knows this is going to happen,” says McGrath. “In a grown-up city, you get an analysis.”
But activists, planners, and clergy alike say that getting government officials to make a changeand alienate all those pastorsis about as likely as Fresh Fields buying out the United House of Prayer for All People. “They all know it,” says Shelton, referring to Ward 8 economic development’s secret hurdle. “But they can’t speak out against the church.” CP