As the sun sets on H Street NE, Anwar Saleem watches the shopkeepers slam shut their roll-down security gates. Their distinctive, thunderous rumble is part of the urban soundtrack every evening in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. And Saleem, a longtime African American business leader and executive director of the nonprofit group H Street Main Street, wants that particular sound to become a part of the neighborhood’s past.
On a recent evening, Saleem, 57, walked from store to store and chatted with business owners about his vision: replacing the gates, known in the security industry as “riot architecture,” with more attractive and effective forms of security. “They’re relics. Imagine being able to stroll down the H Street corridor and window-shop without looking at metal. It’s about dreams and being able to promise your wife that one day you will buy her what’s in that window,” Saleem said.
This week, Saleem described his vision to a national audience at “Rediscover Main Street,” the 27th National Main Streets Conference in Baltimore, where 1,200 representatives of commercial districts, city planners, community leaders and architects from Detroit to Dubuque gathered to talk about revitalizing America’s traditional main-street districts.
Saleem, wearing a leather newsboy cap and caramel-colored tweed jacket, hobnobbed with chambers of commerce leaders and main-street advocates from West Des Moines, Iowa, to Atoka, Okla., to Seattle. He talked with small groups and appeared on panels that debated gentrification’s woes and wonders. And he talked about his dream of inner cities without roll-downs and bulletproof glass.
The H Street Cinderella story told by Saleem took many conference attendees by surprise. “You want to take your kids to Washington’s museums and monuments, but you want to be gone by dark,” said David Fred, a lighting company owner from Marion, Ind., voicing a commonly held view. “But maybe that’s changing?”
The conference had an exhibit hall where vendors’ booths displayed chichi iron bike racks, seating for al fresco dining and street-festival lighting complete with “artificial ice,” for winter events. There was a makeshift bookstore stocked with wonky titles on the issues that keep people like Saleem up at night: parking solutions, farmer’s-market strategies, window displays, pop-up shops and street murals.
“Notice there’s no roll-downs or bulletproof glass at the exhibit,” laughed Saleem. “Its day has ended.”
Saleem recently helped several H Street business owners get shares in an $1.8 million grant from the District’s Office of Planning and Economic Development to attract and enhance H Street retail. He also played a role in securing a $474,000 grant from D.C.’s Department of Housing and Community Development; the money will be divided among 12 businesses in four neighborhoods — H Street, Shaw, Mount Vernon Triangle and Barracks Row. “The neighborhoods are ready for this,” Saleem said.
New York City voted in 2009 to gradually ban metal roll-downs and replace them with other forms of security. Advocates told the City Council that the gates were a blight on the urban cityscape and actually make it harder for police to protect businesses.
Bulletproof glass may take a little more time to ban, both in Washington and around the nation, because it’s seen as protecting people, while roll-downs are seen as protecting property, said Rosemary J. Erickson, a sociologist and president of Coral Gables, Fla.-based Athena Research, which specializes in security.
Erickson has studied the effect of bullet-resistant glass on crime. She asked 1,000 convicted stick-up men to name 14 possible deterrents to robbery. Bulletproof glass ranked low on their lists. “They worry more about escape routes and police presence,” she said. “That said, you do understand the need for the shop clerk’s safety.”
“It feels cruel, and I hate to sit behind [it] 10 hours a day and talk to customers through these holes,” said Jose Torres, who works at a liquor store in Northeast near H Street. “But it also feels safer.”
While Saleem is a maverick, he’s also pragmatic about change, which he says is best undertaken slowly. He’s spends lots of face time explaining his ideas to anxious merchants. He grew up in the neighborhood. His best friend was killed during the 1968 riots. But he says that H Street — and many other Washington neighborhoods where crime is decreasing — is ready.
“Washington is the world’s capital. It doesn’t need to be locked up and served food from behind bulletproof glass. That just takes a piece of your soul,” he said. “I think we are past it.”
Saleem now lives in Shaw, but he’s owned an H Street salon since 1989 and is on a first-name basis with a cross section of neighborhood people. He can be heard calling to yuppie business owners, “Hey, let’s work on a pop-up store.” They wave and shout back, “Awesome, Anwar.” At the same time, he checks in with longtime black residents, many of whom he grew up with, and tells them about free community classes on opening businesses. “I did it, they can do it,” he said. “We don’t want to leave anyone out.”
He’s at his most animated, though, when he’s encouraging business owners to embrace his vision. “It’s going to look great if you get rid of your roll-down. Then you can decorate your window and have a welcoming storefront. It’s free advertising,” Saleem said to Kapiamba Muteba, owner of H Street Care Pharmacy.
“But what about security? It gives many of us a peace of mind,” said Muteba, who is from Congo and worked at CVS for 20 years while he saved enough money to open his own shop.
“You’re nervous because you’re used to it. You can have a security system and an interior roll-down, and it will be even safer,” said Saleem, reaching out to shake Muteba’s hand. “There’s so many better options these days.”
The men stood outside at dusk chatting about the neighborhood and how the police presence had been improving, about an upcoming street festival and about family life. By the end, Muteba was seriously considering doing away with his pull-down gate.
“If anyone can talk us into it,” he said, “Anwar can.”