It all goes back to when a young Roy Clark was running around Highland Dwellings in his new Acme cowboy boots, a Sears guitar slung over his shoulder and a cowboy hat on his head. Back when the gray-bearded loon Ezra Pound lounged in his checkered pajamas, translating Sophocles on the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital for the Insane. Back when the lady lived in the glass house on top of the World’s Largest Chair on Nichols Avenueher door, of course, was never locked. It wasn’t all picket fences: Everybody knew that the toughest hoodlums and craftiest car thieves in Washington hailed from right here in Southeast.
This was back when Southeast was just a bustling country town across a soggy, dirty ditch from the nation’s capital. Southeast was a half-mythic Southern hamlet writ large, thousands of emigrant crackers from all over Dixie crammed on a hill in one big neighborhood, where everyone knew each other’s name and dirty little secretsand the black folks and the crazies knew their place.
Back when white people still lived east of the Anacostia River. But all this is getting ahead of the story.
Right now, we’re in Strick’s, a broken-down bar just across the District line in Prince George’s County. There are many such dying beer jointsHelen’s Tavern, Ray’s Bar and Grill, the Senate Inndives dotting the highways that radiate from Southeast like crooked spokes. More clubhouses than businesses, the bars are refuges where stubbled geezers bored by their local VFWs can talk about the days before white flight. For years, blacks weren’t welcome in places like Strick’s, and decades have done little to change that. These days, though, the separation is due to preference
on both sides: Whites come during the day, blacks
Of all the faded watering holes, Strick’s boasts the most venerable past, which makes its present condition all the more pathetic. The crumbling Depression-era building was once a major hot spot for Washington’s postwar country-music scene, playing host to Clark, Patsy Cline, and Jimmy Dean, among other legends. Outside, neon signs still promise “Dancing, Dining, Cocktails,” but only the last pleasure can be had here now. Long ago walled off, the dance floor is now crowded with crates of liquor; it’s a storage room for the booze-through operation on the other side that keeps Strick’s in business.
Only the hard-core regulars know that the bar even exists; it remains open only to satisfy the terms of some ancient liquor-license requirement. The draft taps stand stripped bare and bone-dry, and rows of cobwebbed whiskey bottles sit defiantly empty on a stack of bricks, lending the place the feel less of a former honky-tonk than of the dusty rec-room bar of a former swinger who gave up drinkingand swingingyears ago.
To get served on an early afternoon like this, you have to ring a barhop’s bell and then wait in the near-darkness and dreary inertia. The only persistent sign of life is the wheezing of an AC unit that ripples the pages of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar hung on the wall. Eventually, an employee will find a break in the rush next door to come over and tend the bar. But it’s not a chore he looks forward to, so he fetches a cold beer from the cooler or a miniature-size liquor bottle from the store in his own sweet time.
Today things are even slower than usual, and it’s hard to fault the help’s indifference to this sad little place: There are no mementos of the Strick’s of yore, no vintage photos of the smiling stars who raised hell here until dawn. Only a bulky old chandelierlurching from the ceiling above the partitioned-off former dance floorgives any hint of the hillbilly stampede that once shook these walls. Nostalgia doesn’t pay the bills, and customer service hasn’t exactly been a priority for several decades.
And, really now, who the hell cares who Patsy Cline cussed out here back in ’55, when you can’t get a goddam beer when you want one? Standing impatiently at the bar, a short, stubby man bangs on the bell again and again. Pushing 60, he’s an old “Southeast boy,” but he hasn’t been around here for years. The lack of service aggravates him no end, as if it were somehow the root of Why Things Went Wrong here.
“That’s what it comes down to,” he grouses. “Nobody gives a shit anymore.”
If anything, his problem has always been caring a little too much: A few decades ago, he killed a man in West Virginia. He didn’t want to, he had to: The sonofabitch had raped his girlfriend. So he ended up having to shoot him, first in the front, and then in the back when the bastard turned tail. He pulled some time for thateasy time, really, compared with the stretch he’d already done in Lorton for assaulting a D.C. cop. After spending his post-prison years down South, he’s back in the area.
Ensconced in the Maryland ‘burbs with a sweetie-pie saint of a second wife, he’s pretty near housebroken by now, but he still gets the itch to make the rounds and revisit the Southeast where he grew up, the old rough-and-tumble Capitol Hill area across the river. It’s now mostly gentrified beyond recognition, but he can still meet some old buddies who have stayed. The one place he doesn’t venture is his other former stomping groundsthe East-of-the-Anacostia Southeast. And why should he? There’s nobody left there that he knows. Hell, there’s hardly anybody left there at all, from what he’s heard. Only people who can’t escape, probably.
“I wouldn’t go through there in a jet car,” he says. Down the bar, a couple of old Southeast boys echo their assent in grunts of long-practiced bitterness. They’ll go as far in as Strick’s, and that’s about it.
Sure, they’re well aware that violent crime respects no boundaries, especially around here. And that the owner of Strick’s was gunned down in the parking lot more than two decades ago. And that there was a murder outside another liquor store just down the road the other night. Yeah, some of P.G.’s pretty wild now, too, but nowhere near as bad as Southeast: For these native sons, and for many who’ve never set foot there, SoutheastAnacostia in particularhas long been pegged as Washington’s very own Wild West, a nebulous no man’s land of a thousand crime headlines.
“Do any of the old folks still live over there?”
“Hell no,” somebody says. “By now, everybody’s moved out or died.”
The short man, face red with bottled-up anger, hits the bell again, slamming his fist down on the thing. An ear-splitting ring, probably the loudest sound here for years, fills the room. Well, at least the little piece of shit works alright. And yet: nothing. No response, not even a fuck-you shout of recognition from the other side. There you go: Nobody gives a shit.
He’s still fuming when an apparition slips through the swinging doors into the bar. He is tall and skinny, maybe 140 pounds stretched distressingly taut over a 6-foot-5 frame. All gangly limbs, he seems barely able to support his head, a root ball of long, gravel-toned, tangled hair crammed into a Redskins cap, punctuated by a beard that echoes the tangle above. He wears a pair of too-small, dingy flannel shirts that reveal his bony wrists and mottled skin so mole-rat pale it seems almost phosphorescent.
Like a scarecrow the birds have picked clean, he shuffles hesitantly across the room as if unaccustomed to solid ground. He manages to find a bar stool, apparently his regular perch. Plopping down, he bows his head and burrows into his Rip Van Winkle beard.
“What’s your name?” barks the short man.
Raising his head abruptly and staring straight ahead, the newcomer announces ceremoniouslywith no small touch of haughtinessin a loud, clear voice: “Kenny O’Malley.” The last name in particular he enunciates with relishrolling heavy on the vowelsas if it earned him membership in some royal clan.
The guy takes a moment trying to put the name with the face; or, rather, to find a recognizable face in that daunting thicket of hair. Finally, he makes a match. “How the fuck are you? I haven’t seen you since before I went to Florida. That’s gotta be 20 years.”
“Yeah, this is like a hoodlums’ convention,” O’Malley cracks.
The two reminisce for a while, recalling some slick capers and comparing notes about old friends in old Southeast. Invoking the self-dramatizing desolation of Melville’s Ishmael, O’Malley says that only he remains to tell the story. If nothing else, the guy is way sharper than the average barfly.
“Still living at Naylor Gardens?” asks the guy. It’s a reasonable assumption. Most of the few whites left in Southeast reside at the ’40s-era condominium complex, a spiffy brick compound that boasts its own landscaping crew and round-the-clock security force. With every defense short of a moat, this enclave is where former Metropolitan Police Department Chief Larry Soulsby lived for years until he took up residence in the swanky downtown apartment his crooked buddy wired up, before leaving the department in disgrace.
“I never lived at the Gardens,” scoffs O’Malley. He seems offended to be lumped in with a bunch of apartment dwellers. “I was born and raised at 3217 Alabama Ave. SE. The top of the hill.” That would be Hillcrest, still regarded as the finest neighborhood east of the river. Wide avenues, spacious brick houses with porches that afford a view of downtown Washington that you can’t get in Chevy Chase.
“Where are you living now?”
“Oh God. It’s the middle of the ghetto,” groans O’Malley. “I’m the only honky on the block.”
His current abode, he explains, though only a few blocks from the manicured splendor of Naylor Gardens, is really in a whole other world. One of those spots that play dead during the day then bust out after dark, featuring a drive-through dope market as busy as Strick’s, boarded-up apartments ruled by druggies, and a cul-de-sac right up against the boundary of Southern Avenue, which separates the District from Maryland. Deep Southeast, where a neighborhood bucking for a beautification award often finds itself right next to a ‘hood from hell.
O’Malley’s lament carries more than a hint of braggart and crank, and it’s obvious that he either is already drunk or has spent a great portion of the day headed down that road. He seems inordinately proud that he has refused to join the legions of former Southeasters who have fled their homes for the suburbs. “It’s pitiful, I know,” he says. “Everybody got scared and left.”
Of his family, only Kenny O’Malley remains in Southeast. His parents are dead, and his brothers moved west to raise their own families. Likewise, all his friends have long since gone: Matt the Bat. The Sock. Hollywood. Coy. The Roach. All the old gang. Only Kenny the Spider’s stayed loyal to the soil. And when they talk on the phone, they say, “Goddam, Spider, what the hell are you still doing in Southeast?”
O’Malley always tells them the same thing: It’s his home and he’s not leaving. He’s always lived in Southeast, and that’s where he’s staying. “I’m a native Washingtonian,” he declares with aristocratic pride. “And I’m not going anywhere.”
As a matter of fact, O’Malley comes across the line to Strick’s only because there aren’t any more bars left in Southeast, at least any he feels welcome in. He doesn’t care squat for the bar’s hallowed honky-tonk past. He’s a Zappa man: Who do you think drew the portrait of Frank above the urinal in the bathroom? He reaches his long, bony, chalk-white arm across the bar. His trembling hand, blotched with faded freckles and other unidentifiable blemishes, is translucent under the overhead light. He gently taps on the bell, which echoes in the silence of Strick’s. Once again, there is no reply, and he pauses, glaring toward the bar door. Then he slams down his hand, bone-to-bell, and he booms: “Can we get a fucking beer or what? I need a beer!”
Anacostia, the future haven of beauty, will in the next fifty years be the most popular community in the entire District of Columbia….In the course of time this southeast portion of the city will be “The Spot.” There will be perfect living conditions here and only time will tell when it will be necessary to spread out farther in all directions to let the mass pour in.
Charles Hamman, “The Anacostia of Tomorrow,” from a 1938 class project for Miss Agnes Tweedie, Anacostia High School
No Negroes, Mulattoes, Pigs, or Soap Boiling
Public notice in segregated Anacostia
Stand on a street corner in any neighborhood east of the river. Stand for a good long while. Watch and wait. You can stand there a long time before you need your other hand to count the number of white people you see. Nine times out of 10 the sun will go down before you do, and then you can be sure you won’t find any whites out this way.
It’s not that whites can’t go theremuch of the place is friendly to people of all sortsthey just don’t. Many white District residents will go their entire lives without ever crossing the Anacostia to see what’s on the other side. “The river has become the imaginary railroad tracks dividing the city,” says Lamont Mitchell, owner of the Anacostia Imani Cafe, one of Southeast’s only sit-down restaurants. “And it’s like nobody wants to get caught on the wrong side of the tracks.” Stigmatized and vilified, Southeast long ago ceased to be a mere place; it’s a symbol of urban decay and danger, one of the District’s prevailing myths. (In recent years, areas in Northeast have actually surpassed Southeast in serious crime.)
Some of the people who live there resent Anacostia’s status as a totem for the fears and misperceptions of white people. “Anacostia does not rhyme with Calcutta,” says Le Eckles, a white resident and local businesswoman who lives off Good Hope Road. “Anacostia is not a state of mind,” she says. “It is not some huge, amorphous placeit’s a little goddam place right on the edge of Washington.” Eckles says the most visible white people around her neighborhood are the most annoying: consultants and surveyors clutching blueprints and notebooks, the point men for a revitalization that never comes.
Southeast, in the light of day, possesses a charming, small-town ambience, more like Mayberry than some shunned part of the District. You can drive for blocks and blocks all over Southeast and find stately residences of every sort of American architecture. Entering Anacostia from the 11th Street Bridge is a startling sight for a newcomer: It has the quaint storefronts of any postwar small town, except that many are empty. Until recently, Anacostia also had more single-family, detached houses than any other part of the District. The churches aren’t too shabby, either. The grounds of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church boast what many consider the most breathtaking view of the nation’s capital.
Even more striking is the landscape itself. For variety and charm, it has no equal on the other side of the river, except, perhaps, the untamed splendor of Rock Creek Park. It’s an endlessly surprising terrain: Recalling less the Potomac basin than the Blue Ridge, the steep hills and swooping dales and dramatic scenery recall a picturesque mountain town that hit hard times and never recovered.
While fear of crime is most of what causes Southeast to be shunned, race is in there as well. Not only is this the poorest part of the District, but it is also widely perceived as the blackest. Indeed, some of the housing projects hereBarry Farms and othersremain literally 100 percent black. Except for Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue during business hours, the main thoroughfares (Good Hope Road, lower Alabama Avenue, South Capitol Street, etc.) are bereft of any except black faces.
“To be quite honest about it, you can walk around and ride the buses in Ward 8 for days and weeks on end, and the only white folks you’ll see over here are the ones wearing blue uniforms,” says Phil Pannell, a black activist in Anacostia.
Of course, the same statement can be made about many other areas of the District where outsiders fear to tread, especially parts of far Northeast. What makes Southeast unique is that barely two generations ago, the exact opposite was the case: Blacks in Southeast made their way through an almost exclusively white world.
In 1950, Anacostia’s population was 82 percent white and 18 percent black, relegated to a few ramshackle neighborhoods like Garfield, across the railroad tracks on the edge of town. Then came Brown vs. Board of Education and the subsequent integration of the schools, which had the practical effect of segregating the neighborhoods. As in so many other cities across the country, white residents at first protested the decision, marching down the main drag of Nichols Avenue pushing baby strollers and toting placards. And then, as the schools turned majority-black, many whites simply migrated to the suburbs. By 1967, whites were 37 percent of the population in Anacostia. After the ’68 riots, that number soon dwindled to a handful.
The fleeing whites were replaced by blacks, many of whom had been uprooted by the federal government’s misguided urban-renewal project in Southwest.
Not all the whites left, of course. Frank Hynek’s family had had enough of being fugitives. When he was just a boy, Hynek came to Southeast D.C. from Czechoslovakia as a displaced person following World War II. His father, Frank Sr., had been a produce man in Prague, known as the “Strawberry King of Czechoslovakia” because of his monopoly on that prized crop. During the war, the Nazis commandeered his fleet of delivery trucks, and the family lived under house arrest during much of the war. After two years in a displaced persons camp under the Communists, the Hyneks fled to the U.S., where they settled first in Capitol Hill and eventually on 30th Street on the far edge of Southeast near Southern Avenue.
Hynek and his father worked at the Florence Banana Company at the Fourth St. NE marketplace. They would often pack 60,000 pounds of bananas per shift, and Hynek says that the sweetest bananas (“they had no ridges; they were completely circular”) came from the Dominican Republic. After he graduated from Gonzaga High School in Northwest and later from Georgetown University. Following an Army stint, he took a job with the Library of Congress, where he still works today. In the ’70s, he married and bought a house in the Penn Branch neighborhood not far from his parents’ place.
Hynek and his family stubbornly remained even as house by house, block by block, their white neighbors moved to the suburbs of Hillcrest Heights, Oxon Hill, Suitland, and beyond. During the riots, Hynek was stopped at a checkpoint while heading back into the District. The sight of the National Guard jeeps conjured bad memories, but his early years as a political refugee had steeled in him a resolve never to flee again; he has remained in Southeast in defiance of the white flight, the crime rate, the surrounding poverty, and any other bugaboos that have given it a bad name.
“You can’t run,” he says in his thick Czech accent. “You can’t let yourself be intimidated.”
Even so, Hynek has become a strangeran interloper of sortson the very streets where he grew up and continues to reside. By no means a paranoid man, the 59-year-old Hynek every so often gets the feeling he’s being followed, and quite often, that is precisely the case. Every few months, for several years now, he has
gotten tailed and pulled over by police for
the sole reason that a white motorist is such a rarity here.
“They follow me going home, thinking, ‘Here’s a white guy going into this area: He’s either looking for drugs or hookers,’” says Hynek. “It doesn’t bother me. It’s their business to check.”
Local authorities confirm Hynek’s hunch. “You have a crew of white folks who drive in here in the late-night hours, and they’re here for one reasonto buy drugs,” says 7th District Commander Winston Robinson. “Either drugs or prostitution.” So far this year, of the 40 homicides in the 7th District, three victims were whites, none of whom were Southeast residents. “At least three homicides have been suburban white motorists coming in from Maryland and Virginia,” says Robinson. “If you don’t know where you’re going and you don’t have any serious business over here, you shouldn’t be here. ‘Cause these guys will attempt to rob you. And if you buck on ’em, they will kill youthat’s the bottom line.”
Usually, the cops have pulled Hynek over in the early-morning darkness when he’s been driving to his job in acquisitions at the Library of Congress. Hynek likes to leave his house at Branch and T Streets SE sometimes as early as 5 a.m. and hang out for breakfast at a coffee shop near the Madison Building where he works.
On one recent Sunday morning, he took a drive around Southeast. Along Mississippi Avenue, a street known for its scenic views and drug traffic, a cop pulled him over. After demanding his driver’s license, the cop handed it back, perplexed. “This is a black cop, very sharp, very polite,” recalls Hynek. “He says, ‘Mind if I ask you a question? What’s a white guy like you doing in an area which is so rough, so bad?’ I said, ‘I like this area, I like this street, I like to drive here. Just ’cause an area is bad, I’m not going to restrict my motions and be intimidated.’”
The cop, who turned out to be a rookie from the Midwest, invited Hynek on a ride-along. The officer made three arrests in a couple of hours, all the while pumping his guest for stories about the old days in Southeast. “He wanted to know what it was like years ago,” says Hynek. “How in the hell could he have known that all these areas were highly respectable with middle-class families where everybody worked?”
Tooling around in his battered, twice-stolen-and-recovered Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, Hynek refuses to be frightened. Yeah, Southeast has gone downhill, he admits, but neighborhoods change. Ever the optimist, he talks about the coming rejuvenation, after the Green Line finally brings Metroand jobs and people and prosperityto the area. He’s sure that the worst is behind. There’s no way in hell it could get any worse.
Yet Hynek is not foolish, either. He knows where not to go at certain times, whether it be the notorious Atlantic Gardens near South Capitol Street, or a block near his home that has suddenly turned bad. His parents’ shady neighborhood near Southern Avenuewhere not long ago vegetable gardens reigned supremehas gone completely rotten due to Section 8 housing and an open-air drug trade. Hynek says he only goes by occasionally, during daylight hours, to check on the place and its caretaker, Kenny O’Malley.
The saga of Congress Heights, just up the hill from Anacostia, is the most dramatic, convulsive example of whiteand subsequently, blackflight in D.C. history.
From the ’30s through the ’50s, Congress Heights was an all-white enclave of working-class migrants. Many of these were rural Southerners from Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia who settled here during the war years. They worked at the Navy Yard just across the river or at nearby Bolling Air Force Base.
One of these families, the Clarks, hailed from southwest Virginia; they lived first in a newly built government housing project, Highland Dwellings, then at a shotgun shack on First Street SE in upper Congress Heights, near the District line. (Both residences remain intact and occupied, and the Highland apartment is only a few blocks from the notorious, now-abandoned Condon Terrace projects, home to the fictional 10-year-old heroin addict of “Jimmy’s World,” the Washington Post’s infamous Pulitzer Prize-winning hoax. In fact, all of Southeastmostly untouched by the ’68 riotsremains remarkably intact, except for recent demolition due to Metro construction.)
A father of five, Hester Clark ground periscope and telescope lenses at the Navy Yard by day, and at night he picked banjo at square dances. His son Roy took after his daddy and then some: After the 13-year-old got a Sears-catalog guitar for Christmas, he soon made a name for himself. By the late ’40s and early ’50s, Clark was headlining around the D.C. area, a hotbed of country music. In Southeast, the budding star performed at beer joints like The Stagecoach on Good Hope Road in Anacostia. One of Clark’s showcase spots was Strick’s, where he competed in battle-of-the-bands showdowns against a crew-cut Carolina boy with horn-rimmed glasses named Charlie Daniels, who fronted a flashy, Bill Haley sound-alike rock combo, the Jaguars. Then there was an Air Force cadet from Texas, Jimmy Dean, whose TV show brought national fame to Washington’s hillbilly music scene.
For Clark, Southeast was a rural paradise, and Anacostia, down below the Heights, was a daunting town full of crowded houses and streetcars. Right behind the Clark home on “the Hill,” as the two-story brick projects were known, a hog farm stretched all the way to the District line. “You talk about country, I mean that was the wilderness, the thicket. We used to go camping back in there,” recalls Clark, who now lives in Tulsa and still performs year-round. “People came from all over the South, from Virginia, from Alabama, from everywhere. It was like the ethnic groups, they seemed to find their own. To us, the Capitol Hill community in the Northwest section was a world away. There was a very strong Southern feel….Back then, everything was segregated except music.”
Though cosmopolitan in its own country sort of way, Southeast was far from enlightened. The southernmost part of a border city, it reflected the mores of the small Southern towns that people had migrated from. Old-fashioned, deep-seated racism was as much part of the landscape as the backyard patches of collard greens. Then, as now, there were people who made the argument that the real South begins not when you cross the Potomac but when you cross the Anacostia.
Through the ’50s, local blacks learned to be wary of downtown Congress Heights, where Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X Avenues now intersectand for good reason. “You couldn’t just walk through Congress Heightsit was a white, blue-collar area, and you could get your ass whipped,” recalls Don Matthews, a longtime resident and black business owner who used to run The Manhole, a Congress Heights go-go club, in the ’70s and early ’80s. “You could not come up from Barry Farms past that Safeway [on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, then known as Nichols Avenue]you could not cross that line. If you did, you might get a beer bottle thrown at you, and the next thing you know, you’re getting your ass whipped.”
As white flight hit Congress Heights and blacks moved in, cultural clashes were inevitable. At Walker’s Tavern on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, owner Johnny Walker used to open the front door and blast country music from the jukebox to ward off black customers. According to his widow, Hazel, he soon mellowed and “quit that foolishness.” “For a long time colored people didn’t like western music, but then Charley Pride came on the scene and they started coming in a little at a time,” she says. “What the heck? They were customers, too, and we waited on ’em. Now we got frowned on, especially from the men from Georgia and the Carolinas. We had a worse time with them than with the colored, always fighting and all. It was a workingman’s bar
carpenters, painters, masons, and whatnot.
They were rough and tough, but the minute I’d come in all the bad language stopped. They called me Mother Superior.”
Whether it was because or in spite of his progressive racial views, Walker was well-liked by the locals, black and white, and he owned two other beer joints in Congress Heights. Hazel Walker says it was because her late husband had style to burn and let people know it: “He always said, ‘When you walk in a place, if you don’t own it, walk in like you’re gonna buy it.’ That was his attitude, and I think that’s what turned me on to him. And if the women were tramps, he treated them like that.”
Other customers included patients from St. Elizabeths, whose gates butted up next to the side of the tavern. “When the prestigious people made their trips to St. E’s from Capitol Hill for the treatment, then we’d get their business, too,” she says. “Some of them were famous, but I won’t name them.” In the more than a decade the tavern was open, says Hazel Walker proudly, there was only one murder inside its doors, when the bartender shot a would-be robber: “It was a sad thing. The guy was doped uphe just wanted money for his drugs.”
But there was more to the local bar scene than honky-tonks. It was the rock era, and Southeast had gained a reputation as a place where both switchblades and guitars were always within reach. Local musicians recall that Anacostia taverns like the Shanty were some of the roughest places around. There were racial dimensions to some of the violence as well.
The 1023 Club, a redneck biker bar near the District line, hosted some brawls that foreshadowed the ’68 riots. A squat, deep cinder-block cave built into the side of a hill, the 1023 took its name from its address on Whaler Place SE. In the mid-’60s, it was a popular hangout, mostly due to its house band, Link Wray and the Raymen, who performed six nights a week. The legendary guitarist and author of the seminal instrumental hit “Rumble” lived in an apartment nearby; Wray attracted crowds that included such notorious biker gangs as the Pagans, fans of the band’s over-amped, proto-punk rock ‘n’ roll. Wicked rave-ups like his most recent hit, “Jack the Ripper”which was named in honor of a dirty-dance style invented by D.C. black kidsmade a suitably menacing soundtrack for brawling.
Though Southeast had its Wild West dimensions, guns hadn’t become a routine part of the landscape. The fights, mostly among bikers and rival gangs, remained of the fist-and-knife variety. But there was other trouble brewing. By the summer of ’66, the 1023 was surrounded by apartments occupied by black residents. The club remained stubbornly white in its clientelea policy that didn’t go over well with the locals: After all, this was their neighborhood now. Several times, local blacks tried to gain admittance, only to be taken out and beaten, according to John Van Horn, bass player for the Raymen. But a growing racial consciousness on the part of the black community meant that they weren’t interested in taking discrimination in their own backyard.
“One night we were playing, and a brick came crashing through the window, ” says Van Horn. “It barely missed Link and landed on the stage.” That was the last time he played the 1023 Club.
In August, things heated up, and it was payback time. After a black robbery suspect was reportedly brutalized by police, local black youths took out their frustrations on the 1023 and a nearby shopping center. The melee began as Wray and his band were roaring through a Saturday night gig. Outside the club, a white customer had his ear cut off, a scuffle ensued, and some motorcycles got knocked over. Then the club’s power went out, and all hell broke loose. Rayman Ellwood Brown says the band and the audience barely escaped the darkened club in a barrage of bricks and rocks. While it was no full-scale riot, the incident made headlines in the Aug. 15, 1966, edition of the Washington Evening Star, in the blunt, black-and-white reportage of the day:
The crowd of Negroes at the shopping area was unruly, but dispersed. About 11:45 p.m., a group of youths jumped Wallace Poole, 23, of Friendly, Md., who is white, as he left the 1023 Club, hit him in the face with bricks and stabbed him twice in the left side….The crowd of youths peppered the 1023 Club with rocks, smashing two plate glass windows. They left the shopping center shortly after, but police received a flood of calls about 1:30 a.m., saying they had returned. Witnesses told police the group numbered about 100 men and women, many of them laughing and shouting racial epithets. The youth scattered in all directions as police arrived, leaving 25 large glass display windows in pieces….Officers at the 11th Precinct said that since there was no evidence of looting at the damaged stores, apparently the youths were ‘just out raising hell.’
(The incident spurred further violence the next day, this time targeting police at the now-defunct 11th Precinct Station in Anacostia, as the Star reported on “roving gangs of Negro teen-agers on a rock-throwing rampage…besieging a District Police precinct station for two hours and hurling bricks at cars and buses.”)
Shortly after, the Pagans reportedly returned to the neighborhood to get revenge. It wasn’t long afterward that the 1023 closed as a music venue. In the last few years, it has hosted all sorts of business (most recently an all-night auto body shop and convenience mart offering “Used Tires, Smitty Deli + Variety Store,” according to a hand-painted sign) before shutting its doors for good. Scheduled for demolition this month, the gutted building now serves as a refuge for crackheads and whoever else crawls in for shelter.
By the ’80s, it was black flight from Congress Heights that was in full swing, and today it shows no sign of letting up. Near the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X Avenues, in the frame-house office of Shelton Real Estate, Jeanne Shelton Gault now brokers deals for an exodus of black middle-class families that rivals the white flight seen by her late parents decades before. Under a portrait of Robert. E. Lee that’s graced the wall since the ’50s, Gault provides resourcesXeroxing, faxes, notary public stampsfor a community that has precious little. She describes her customers as “the working people who don’t make good money but make good neighbors” who are trapped here.
“Once they get a decent job, they head out to Prince George’s,” says Gault, who also now lives in the suburbs after growing up a few doors down. “It’s very hard to get people of any race to move into Southeast, because of what they read in the papers. And, really, Congress Heights doesn’t have much to offer a person with a middle-class income. There’s just nothing here.”
Gault blames the proliferation of rental apartments for killing a once-vibrant community of single-family homes. As the houses became empty and boarded up, Section 8 housing took its place. Congress Heights’ downward spiral has hit bottommost agree it can’t get much worse. Chain stores like Rite Aid have fled the area, and the Safeway that served the area for four decades closed earlier this month. Even the McDonald’s called it quits a while back.
Among those hardy souls who are hanging on in this amenity-free desert are a few white folk. According to 1998 figures compiled by the D.C. Office of Planning, there are 4,556 white residents in Ward 8, or roughly 7 percent of a population of 58,890. Many of these live in nearby Bolling Air Force Base or at St. Elizabeths. “I always try to figure out where’s this 7 or 8 percent they’re talking about,” says activist Pannell. “I haven’t seen them.”
Four of those invisible whites are the Norwoods, three generations who live in a one-bedroom apartment on the dead end of Malcolm X Avenue SE. They moved here from Northwest D.C. in the late ’60s, when Congress Heights was still predominately white. They were fleeing the riots, which had gutted their H Street NW neighborhood near Chinatown. Years ago, the elder Norwood, who worked as manager at the Eastern House Hotel, was walking home from the corner market when he dropped dead from a heart attack.
Now the Norwood clan makes do on his meager benefits and some oddfew and far between, apparentlyjobs to pay the $300 monthly rent; they don’t own a phone and have lived in the same cramped apartment for a quarter-century. The family consists of Helen Norwood, her adult sons, Billy and David, and her 8-year-old granddaughter, Amanda, a fourth-grader at Mary C. Terrell Elementary. (Above the Norwoods lives another white, a man named Cunningham who’s resided here nearly as long as they have.)
The only other whites around are patients on day leave from St. Elizabeths; they roam the streets and often bum change down the block outside the Popeye’s, the only chain left in Congress Heights. (“Politically, the most active white folks I’ve seen in Ward 8 have both been patients at St. Elizabeths,” says Pannell.)
“They took away the drug store, they took away the McDonald’s, they took away the Safeway,” says Billy Norwood. “Now we’ve got nothing. But we can’t afford to leave.”
A car pulls up, and at the wheel is Billy Norwood’s sometime employer, a black gospel singer from Northern Virginia. Apparently, he’s got some work for Norwood today, some odd jobs for pocket change. “He won’t come in here when it’s dark to pick me up or drop me off,” says Norwood. “He’s too scared.”
In an alley behind Alabama Avenue SE, Kenny O’Malley steers his ’88 Chevrolet Celebrity station wagon past a group of young blacks working on a car. It’s a tight squeeze, and they’re not exactly making it easy for him to pass. “OK, gentlemen, let me through, pleeeeease,” says an exasperated O’Malley. “Thank you.” The men regard the stranger with bemusement, staring at his dark sunglasses and unkempt, woodsmanlike appearance as if he were some sort of crazy-ass Unabomber dude who made a wrong turn on the way to blowing up the U.S. Capitol.
In fact, this is O’Malley’s old neighborhood of Hillcrest, where he lived his whole life until three years ago. Earlier that morning, after a hearty breakfast of several cans of Milwaukee’s Best Light, he got the urge to visit his old stomping grounds. He hadn’t been up here for more than a year, even though it’s only a mile or so from where he now stays.
O’Malley’s life has become extremely circumscribed as of late, right down to his daily trip to and from Strick’sand that’s about it. On this route, he drives by the spot on Naylor Road where his father, a D.C. firefighter, died in a car wreck back in the ’50s. O’Malley still carries his dad’s Metropolitan Fire Department badge in his wallet.
Since World War II, Hillcrest’s tree-lined streets and spacious houses have been the pride of Southeast; it is now a sort of hilltop haven for politicos like Kevin Chavous, along with a mixed population of well-to-do blacks and elderly whites who have remained. It is the only neighborhood in Southeast that has remained relatively unchanged (except, perhaps, for the bars on the windows) during the tumultuous post-integration decades.
Farther down the alley, O’Malley stops the car and points to a two-story brick house. “Goddam it,” he shouts. “Now why they’d have to go on and put that up?” He knows why, but he makes a point of being disgusted by an 8-foot-tall wooden slat fence that rings the property. Increasingly, residents in Hillcrest feel compelled to build these as a final defense against the encroaching world and their neighbors.
For O’Malley, this is rank blasphemy, an affront to the wide-open backyard and alley culture on which he once thrived. That’s how he met all his lifelong buddies, like the Sock and Matt the Bat, who grew up right around the corner.
He stares at the house where he spent most of his boyhood and adult life and takes drags from his ever-present Kool cigarette. “Even when everyone was moving out of Southeast, my mom always said that she would never leave, no matter what,” he says. “She said, ‘They’re going to have to take me out of the house
It was here that she had raised her three sons, she vowed, it was here that she would die.
But his brothers spoiled those humble plans, according to O’Malley. After nearly a decade of caring for his invalid elderly mother, he was deemed unfit for the task by his brothers. They decided to put her in a nursing home (where she later died) and promptly kicked him out of the family homeand then sold it. At least, that’s the way he tells it.
Whatever the case, three years ago, O’Malley had no place to go. And that’s when Frank Hynek came to his rescue; his boyhood home nearby was sitting vacant, and he needed someone to watch the place so it wouldn’t get overrun by crack dealers. To just stay there, like a human watchdog. That’s where O’Malley’s been ever since, and that’s where he’s headed now.
First, though, there’s one last stop in the old neighborhood. He goes back up Alabama, veers into another alley, and he pulls the car up behind perhaps the grandest house on the hill. In the back yard, bursting with flowers and crafts and elaborate woodwork of all sorts, is a gigantic maple tree, with a street sign wedged into the massive trunk.
“That’s Mr. Marinari’s place,” he says with admiration. “Get a load of that sign. He’s got the original Nichols Avenue sign before they switched the name to Martin Luther King.” The 72-year-old Dante Marinari and his wife, Rose, have been here for decades after moving up from Anacostia, he explains. Marinari still runs a plumbing business down in Anacostia and is a tireless home improver and skilled wood-crafter. But around these parts he’s most famous for the elaborate holiday lights display that he and his wife put up every Christmas. People come from all over Southeast to see the spectacle; over here, it’s a bigger deal than the lighting of the national tree across the river at the White House.
Heading down Alabama Avenue to hisor, rather, Hynek’splace, O’Malley rags on the rest of Southeast. He especially dislikes Anacostia, which he calls “Animalcostia,” and its main drag, “No Hope Road.” He says he hasn’t been down there in years and has no intention of visiting anytime soon. His grudge seems to be more idle talk than any deep-rooted resentment, as if he’s merely mouthing all the usual stereotypes about the area. It’s disconcerting that one of the lone white defenders of Southeast can so easily trash an entire neighborhood not much different from his own.
When O’Malley pulls into the driveway of Hynek’s place, he immediately points out his ’56 Plymouth Plaza, a brilliant green jalopy sitting in front of the garage. “That’s my pride and joy,” he says. “Unfortunately, she’s not functional right now. She needs some parts.” In the days when he held a job, that’s what O’Malley was, an auto parts man, renowned as one of the best in Southeast. Now he can’t even scare up the necessary pieces to get his vintage car back on the road.
Next door a pair of mixed German shepherds yap ferociously and bum-rush the chain-link fence until they realize it’s only O’Malley. “That’s Pepe, and that’s Roz,” he explains. “They belong to Mrs. Jackson.”
An elderly black women shouts a warm greeting from deep in a metal swing rocker on the front porch. “Hello, Mrs. Jackson,” intones O’Malley, as if he were addressing his favorite teacher.
“She’s good people,” he says. “She’s like a mother to me. She keeps me from starving, especially in the wintertime. That’s when she goes bake-crazy. If anybody lays a hand on her, I’ll put a bullet in their head.”
O’Malley returns her favors by repairing Mrs. Jackson’s fleet of lawn mowers and any other appliance that goes on the fritz; he’s always had a knack for fixing anything mechanical.
On the other side of the house is a brick duplex, run-down and recently gone Section 8. A group of men sit in chairs in the grassless yard, playing cards and drinking out of paper bags. It is a good-natured bunchat least at this point in the afternoon. One of them, a barefoot, shirtless man, shuffles to the fence to say hello to O’Malley, who grudgingly offers his salutations.
Around back, an overgrown jungle of briar and weeds and swarming yellow jackets, O’Malley gingerly steps over broken glass while making his way up the steps to the kitchen door. A few days ago, somebody busted in the back window; it’s been repaired, but O’Malley hasn’t gotten around to cleaning up the mess yet. He’s still angry about the incident, which he believes was triggered by the fact that he had complained to the police about the open-air drug market in his street.
“They were out there during the day, selling their crack, blasting their music, and I finally had enough,” says O’Malley, who gets most of his sleep during the daylight hours. “I went out to the driveway and said, ‘Hey guys, could you please keep it down?’ And one of ’em just looked at me and said, ‘Fuck you, white man.’ So I went in and called the cops.” That night, someone put a brick through the window.
The house, an old, two-story frame building, was obviously once a nice place to raise a family. It’s now a ramshackle mess, inside and out, but especially inside. There are empty beer-case cartons stacked everywhere, along with mungheaps of clothes, old mail, and various unidentifiable junk. It’s dark and musty, and it reeks like a pigsty. Ever polite, O’Malley apologizes for his lack of tidiness. It’s a one-man disaster area, all right: Hynek might have been better off letting it get homesteaded by the crackheads.
There is a clue to the rampant disorder: The only items in the refrigerator are fresh cases of Milwaukee’s Best Light. O’Malley pops a cold one and grabs a nearby aluminum baseball bat from the corner. Then he waves it toward the front door, barred from the inside, saying he’s ready to defend the place if need be.
O’Malley hasn’t bothered to make the place feel like his home; he figures he’s lost the original homestead up on the hill. Why try to replace it?
The only decoration in the place is a portrait of a 19th-century Czech bishop hanging on the wall.
“Frank is Czechthat’s his first language,” explains O’Malley. “He’s a D.P., a displaced person. First the Nazis, then the Commies, drove his family out. Then he came here when he was a boy. He hasn’t left, either. Him and me.”
On a cluttered table are framed black-and-white photos of O’Malley’s father, Charles, who was a bigwig in the VFW, shaking hands with Eisenhower. “My dad won a freckle contest once when he was a kid,” says O’Malley, gazing at his father’s handsome, sober visage in full uniform. Alongside these family keepsakes is the sprawl of an unrepentant music and car freak: Vintage car magazines and photos and a case of Frank Zappa CDs, at least two dozen. This last item is the
only carefully arranged, cared-for object in the entire house.
“I love Frank Zappa, God rest his soul,” O’Malley says. Along with his buddies, he never missed a Zappa show in the D.C.-Baltimore area from ’69 ’til Zappa died in ’93. Once, at an incredible Zappa concert at Cole Field House, the
performance was almost ruined when some redneck stood up behind O’Malley and his friends and yelled a racial slur at Coy, who was black. “Dead at the age of 39 from a heart attack,” sighs O’Malley. “But Coy had already moved out and married by then, too. Everybody I knew is gone. Died or moved out.”
The last time O’Malley ate a meal here (that wasn’t prepared by Mrs. Jackson) was when he tried to order a pizza during a Redskins game. When he told the Domino’s man where he lived, the guy said that he would have to meet him at the end of the block. He refused and hung up, and that was the end of ordering delivery food. The fucking Redskins lost the game, anyway.
So now he doesn’t do much at all, except once in a while tinker on a car, aided by his “apprentice,” a neighbor named Wille. However, there’s far more leisure time than auto repair. Mostly, he listens to Zappa, watches TV, drinks his beer, and smokes his Kools. Sometimes, he thinks about the good old days, when the best sledding hills were in Southeast, when he and the gang used to chuck snowballs at passing Metrobuses, when they’d borrow a car for a joy ride, or sit around a bonfire out in the woods like pioneers….
Soon, with barely a warning, O’Malley is fast asleep on a clothes-piled couch, his impossibly long legs stretched out. With his hands folded over his beard, he snores peacefully like a hermit who has found repose.
A week later, in the parking lot of Strick’s, Kenny O’Malley is raving like a madman from the back seat of his car. He’s got a mean-looking gash on his forehead and a black psychedelic Albert Einstein T-shirt on that’s soaking, stinking wet. The shirt has an Einstein quote that seems to approximate O’Malley’s present state of mind: “One feels as if one is dissolved into nature.” In this case, it’s as if O’Malley and his car are both succumbing to a deadly mildew. The stench is almost unbearable.
O’Malley is in bad shape: He’s shaking like a leaf in every limb, and he keeps screaming for his car keys even though they lie in a clump only a few feet away in the gravel. Without his cap, his hair and beard have merged into a frightful, tormented Afro, and with his bloodshot, pinwheeling eyes, he resembles John Brown on a bad trip. What’s really going on is a bad case of alcohol poisoning.
Inside Strick’s, Frank Hynek explains that O’Malley went on a wicked drunken spree the night before. He was talking all sorts of wild nonsense, raving about a “traveling African circus” that had come to dinner at his house before “the shooting started.” He got into some “high-test rum,” and he drank so much that they took his car keys away. Then he refused to accept a ride home, instead spending the night in the car, with the windows open, enduring two thunderstorms. The next morning, the owner of Strick’s found him at the bar entrance, sprawled on the bare concrete. He helped O’Malley into the back seat of the car, where he remained in a paranoid state the entire day.
The police and rescue squad arrive just as happy hour hitsand just as a local prostitute has apparently given up trying to score with the strung-out zombie. The way she tells it, she was probably ready to roll O’Malley until she just plain felt sorry for him. Finally she started mothering him, even though her pimp sat on the curb only a few feet away, brooding in his quart of malt liquor. “I was just making sure that he was OK,” she says, leaving in a huff to catch up with her boss, who has had the sense to high-tail it down Naylor Road. “He has some valuable auto parts in the back of the car, and somebody could steal them.”
The Strick’s regulars, one by one, try in vain to convince O’Malley to go to the hospital. “Never!” he screams. The cops ask him where he lives, and he replies, “3217 Alabama Ave SE, the O’Malley ancestral home, of course.”
The cops ask him who the president is. “Ronald Reagan, of course,” says O’Malley, but it’s hard to tell if he’s goofing on them. They ask him how long he’s been in the car. “Since February.” What has he been doing all that time? “Reading.” What, exactly? “Everythingscience fiction, adventure, crime.” Then he starts to put some imaginary socks on his gnarled, chalky, wrinkled feet.
Nearly an hour later, he has agreed to go the hospital, until they tell him he’s headed to Southern Maryland Hospital over in Clinton. “I’m not going down there,” he shrieks. “What about the hospital around here?”
“[Greater] Southeast [Hospital] is all full, Kenny. They’re not taking any more.” He finally relents, and they drag him away feet first, putting him on a stretcher and shoving him in the back of an ambulance.
That weekend, Hynek picks up O’Malley from the hospital, and the two head back to the Strick’s parking lot. They need to jump-start O’Malley’s car, which is dead. Taking the juice from Hynek’s battered, duct-taped Olds, the engine roars to life.
“It’s an O’Malley car,” says O’Malley. “It always runs.” He finds his soggy wallet, empty except for his father’s fireman’s badge, a wet $2 bill, and his National Rifle Association lifetime membership card. It seems the hooker managed to roll him after all, but O’Malley sees only victory: “Looks like they didn’t get everything,” he says, clutching the NRA card. “I think they know now that if they fuck with me, they’re gonna get shot at.” In triumph, O’Malley takes out his switchblade and cuts the hospital band from his wrist. “Let’s chug-a-lug up to the house and clean out this car.”
Though his mind seems sound again, his body is still hurting. He’s still visibly shaking as he drives home, across the District line to Southeast. When he pulls in the driveway, there’s no one there to greet him except the dogs. Mrs. Jackson’s car is gone.
As O’Malley crawls slowly out of the front seat, a young black man from across the street approaches. He’s a straight-A student from down the block; he wants to be a lawyer someday. “Kenny, how are you doing?” he says.
“Well, I’m walking and talking and moving around, right?” snaps O’Malley, nursing about a month’s worth of vicious hangovers rolled into one.
“Mrs. Jackson said you were in the hospital,” the guy says softly. “Are you doing all right?” He averts his eyes from the pitiful sight, so it won’t seem as if he’s staring at this mess of a man.
“I’m all right, now,” says O’Malley. “I’m going to lay off everything for a while.” He mentions that he’s hungry, even though he’s already had breakfast and lunch. “I could really go for one of Mrs. Jackson’s triple-chocolate cakes right now.”
“OK, so I’ll see you later.” As the guy walks back across the street, O’Malley watches him and yells over, “Thanks for asking.”
Then he limps as cautiously as a decrepit old man past the gleaming ’56 Plymouth, crunching over the broken glass, and into the house.CP