The United House of Prayer on 6th and M streets NW has survived the District’s changing demographics and criticism over its real estate empire. But now the church billed as “God’s White House” faces a dire threat: bike lanes.
“We consider it a threat to our existence,” UHOP pastor A.D. Cunningham said, speaking at a District Department of Transportation-sponsored meeting about proposed bike lanes near the church.
UHOP parishioners, along with opponents from other churches and bike lane supporters, crowded into the packed meeting room at the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Neighborhood Library Thursday night to talk about the bike lane proposal.
The audience was nearly all African American and nearly all opposed to the bike lanes. When one opponent asked her bike lane compatriots to stand up to show DDOT staff their opposition to the lanes, nearly the entire room joined her.
“Are you getting this visual?” she said.
The discussion was too heated, both rhetorically and literally, to last. With the room filled beyond capacity, library police shut the event down an hour early.
While bike lanes were the ostensible point of the event, the meeting often became less about cycle tracks and sharrows and more about the city’s changing racial and economic demographics.
Support for the bike lane broke down almost entirely down racial lines, with African-American parishioners from historically black churches like UHOP vocally opposing the lanes while a smaller contingent of mostly white bicyclists advocated for them.
For the churches, the lanes represent both a threat to their parishioners’ parking options and another sign of an increasingly white District.
Speaking against the bike lanes, UHOP pastor Robert Price III declared that he would rather “die standing than die not fighting [them].” Before that, he listed the lanes with Whole Foods and Chipotle as signs of gentrification.
“That’s nice establishments, but I know that’s not for me,” Price said.
UHOP wasn’t the only church opposed to improved bike infrastructure on 6th Street. A. Michael Charles Durant, the pastor of Tenth Street Baptist Church at 11th and R streets NW, explained why he opposed the 6th Street bike lane even though it would be five blocks away from his own church.
“If you see a cancer, you don’t wait until it gets to your address,” Durant said, then conceded that “cancer” might be a little strong.
With potential designs arranged around the room, the meeting was intended to be an open house to show the four options for bike lanes. Still, the most vocal members of the audience, many of whom accused DDOT of cutting churches out of the earlier stages of the process, managed instead to turn it into a community debate in front of hundreds of people.
One topic of debate: whether living in the District longer should give bike lane opponents’ words more weight. When one white cyclist described himself as a “longtime” District resident of eight years, the crowd groaned. After bike lane proponent Megan Peterman said she supported them, a woman in the crowd accused her of being new to the area.
“You don’t know when I moved here,” she replied.
For their part, supporters argued for the lanes by pointing to the injuries suffered on 6th Street. Washington Area Bicyclist Association executive director Greg Billing said 12 cyclists have been hit on 6th Street in the past year. When a woman leaning on crutches—-injured as a result of what she described as a 6th Street bike accident—-pushed for a lane, opponents in the crowd mumbled that she should have taken the 15th Street NW cycle track instead.
While DDOT associate director Sam Zimbabwe took most of the heat as the night’s MC, Muriel Bowser, who wasn’t at the event got her own share of criticism. In an elaborate chess metaphor, Price said “pawns” and “rooks” like Zimbabwe should relay a message to their “queen.”
Next up for the bike lane saga: another meeting. Zimbabwe declined to set its date, prompting more anger from the crowd.
Photo by Will Sommer