O Street Market: Symbol of violence becomes a marker for D.C.’s resurgence

In the chill of a light rain, James Simmons, out for a smoke break from his job at Beauty Town, started at the sound: rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat.

Not firecrackers, Simmons thought. It was just before 7 p.m. on March 31, 1994, and the meaning of the sounds suddenly hit him: They’re shooting inside the O Street Market. And then outside, too.

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“Everybody was running,” Simmons recalls, standing in that same spot in Shaw 19 years later. “One guy came out, ran over to the church and collapsed.” Then he heard the shouts: “Little Duwan got shot! Duwan is shot!”

The market, where city residents stopped to grab some wings for dinner or paused to look at watches so cheap people said they had to be hot, cleared out. Duwan — Duwan A’Vant, 15, only child of Karen A’Vant — was dead. Eight other people were shot. A toddler. Two security guards from FBI headquarters. Two elderly women.

In a city where gun violence had become so widespread that the police had a special unit called ­Redrum devoted just to drug dealers killing drug dealers, the O Street Market shootings hit hard.

“There were just bodies falling everywhere,” a man at the deli counter said afterward.

For the next two decades, the market in Northwest Washington was a symbol of urban decay and dysfunction. The vendors bailed out. The roof collapsed. The shell of the historic structure, built in 1881, was vandalized.

And then, in 2001, three developers who believed that Shaw would find its way back bought the symbol of the drug wars and waited for the right moment, which they believe begins this week.

‘All new, for new people’

You can see the gleaming, restored roof of the O Street Market from the top of the new City Market at O, a 645-unit apartment complex with a 182-room hotel and 86,000 square feet of retail. The development unveils its first phase Thursday with the opening of a new Giant, the city’s biggest supermarket, “the perfect homage to the O Street Market,” as the ad from Roadside Development puts it.

A rooftop dog run — “We have daughters,” developer Richard Lake explains, “so we liked the idea that if you don’t want to go out late at night, you could walk the dog on the roof” — is adjacent to a dog wash, which is around the corner from the infinity lap pool and the dance floor and the poker tables and the den where book clubs can meet and the demonstration kitchen where top chefs will stage cooking classes. (You’ll have to go downstairs for the yoga room, cardio room, weight room and massage therapy room.)

A 550-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment rents for about $2,700 a month. City Market has already rented 75, sight unseen.

“It looks great,” Simmons says, looking across the street from Beauty Town, where he still works. “All new, for new people, people with money. All our customers are gone. Can’t get mad at the people who are gonna live there — they worked hard for it and now they get to spend it.”

The developers are not alien to this place. Lake’s grandparents owned corner grocery stores a few blocks away, and his uncle worked in the stalls at O Street Market. Roadside’s three partners have heard the complaints from some longtime black residents who say they are being systematically pushed out of Shaw, or at least priced out.

The only thing the developers pushed out, they say, was a surface parking lot. “We’re replacing a parking lot with 600 units of housing,” says Lake’s partner, Armond Spikell. Ninety of City Market’s apartments are reserved for elderly people on fixed incomes.

One block up Seventh Street, another eight-story apartment block is rising where the subsidized Kelsey Gardens complex used to stand — 281 units replacing 54, with the former residents guaranteed apartments in the new building.

Simmons and others worry that Shaw already isn’t Shaw anymore. The demographic transformation has been dramatic: from 1990 to 2010, the Shaw-Logan Circle area’s black population dropped from 65 percent to 29 percent. Meanwhile, whites increased their numbers from 22 percent of residents to 48 percent, and Hispanics, who accounted for 9 percent in 1990, grew to 15 percent in 2010, according to census data.

But it is Shaw — with shops, restaurants, lovely rowhouses and a brand-new playground being installed just this week — that this $330 million development is selling.

“That’s the authenticity that the young people seek,” developer Todd Weiss says. “This is a distinctive neighborhood with its own cultural and ethnic place in the history of Washington.”

‘It was so brazen’

Karen A’Vant still calls this distinctive neighborhood home, but she no longer lives there. She couldn’t bear to stay. She wishes she’d been there for the City Market groundbreaking, wishes there’d be a plaque there now with her son’s name on it. She still works for the D.C. police at headquarters, as she did in 1994, but she lives in suburban Maryland now, as far as she could get from that market.

Duwan was 15 when he was shot. His daughter, Amber, had just been born. Those were some of his buddies with those guns. Police and prosecutors advanced at least four theories to explain why the gunmen attacked the market.

They all had something to do with the rivalry between the 5th and O and 7th and O street crews, teenagers battling for turf that no one else seemed to want. The theories made no sense.

“It was meaningless then, and it’s meaningless now,” says Curtis “C-Webb” Mozie, who produces video chronicles of the lives of crew members who could flit in a flash from trash talking to blasting a Tec-9 semiautomatic weapon.

Mozie was in his apartment that March day, playing a Sega video game with friends. He heard the shots, ran outside and saw that this spasm of violence was different: all those people shot at once, people who had nothing to do with the drug trade or gang wars. For weeks, politicians and police swarmed the area, but the crews kept dealing and shooting.

In a city that recorded 399 homicides that year, what made the O Street Market shootings stand out was that “the gangbangers went into the public’s business,” says Lorren Leadmon, who worked the case as a D.C. police detective. “It was so brazen, and it struck people from all over the city because people came from all over to that market. Next to running up into a church, it was about the worst thing you could do.”

A’Vant still checks the Bureau of Prisons Web site to make sure the shooters remain safely packed away. Three are serving life sentences. One who testified against the others was released three years ago. The prosecutor in the case became a judge and still invites A’Vant to lunch now and then.

An hour before the shootings, A’Vant saw the crew members in the playground on her way to the old Giant. From inside the store, she saw the flashing lights of squad cars and ambulances. She hurried outside and saw a friend, who blurted, “Duwan is shot.”

For five months after the attack, A’Vant took a detour to get from her Gibson Plaza apartment to the Giant. But avoiding the market building could not stem her grief. She moved.

She returns to Shaw occasionally, and this is what she sees: “White people all walking their dogs up and down.”

“I’m not against it,” she adds. “It’s good for the area to have change. But I just don’t feel comfortable. It just makes me sad that when they have a memorial for all the kids who died, quite a few people have to come over from Maryland or Southeast because they don’t live there anymore.”

Change, race and class

One block up from the market, the neighborhood laundromat closed last week. It will be replaced by a gourmet coffee roastery. A long-empty corner storefront is expected to become a Mexican restaurant under the direction of a celebrity chef. Diagonally across, a beer garden, Dacha, draws a large, happy crowd.

Mozie, the videographer of Washington violence, loves the new places. “It’s all peaceful and safe, what it should be. But I did ask myself: How is it that white people can open a place and drink beer on the corner and when black people drank on the corner, they went to jail?”

Alex Padro has been listening to the debate about change, race and class ever since he moved to Shaw in 1998 and bought a house for $155,000. Recently, two houses on his block sold for $2 million each.

“The reality is that longtime renters of houses and rooms, the folks who were most vulnerable, are gone,” says Padro, who runs Shaw Main Streets, a nonprofit that pushes to revitalize the commercial corridors of Seventh and Ninth streets. Many homeowners sold, made a bundle and took off for the suburbs.

Those living in subsidized housing can afford to stay because they are protected from rent hikes, he says.

On the other hand, Prado says, although the cost of living in Shaw is much higher, the neighborhood is a much safer place. “Crime is down,” he says. “You had a crack dealer on every corner in the ’90s, sometimes more. Now the gang activity has mostly disappeared.”

More than 120 businesses have opened since 2003, many in storefronts that had sat empty since the 1968 riots. But as new eateries open, some mainstays are departing.

Everett Lucas opened Variety Market on Seventh Street in 1970. For decades, his place was where kids stopped after school for candy, though he now mostly sells soda, lottery tickets and single cans of Steel Reserve malt liquor.

Shaw’s new white residents don’t come in, Lucas says: “I can understand, some of the Caucasians might be scared. They want this to be like 14th Street, all bars and restaurants, and that’s where it’s heading.”

Lucas, 72, is planning to sell to a developer who’s building a residential and retail complex. “I’m just ready to pay some of my bills,” he says.

Whose neighborhood?

Across from City Market, the sidewalk in front of Bread for the City, which provides food and legal and medical assistance to low-income residents, teems with people who need work and can’t afford the rising rents in Shaw.

“People are worried, and there is tension,” says the executive director, George Jones. “There are going to be hundreds of families in those buildings that don’t share much with the people we serve.” When a new resident of Shaw told him that she didn’t like to see his clients hanging out on the sidewalk, Jones noted that “those people have lived here much longer than she has. It’s the old question: Whose neighborhood is it really?”

Lake believes different income levels can coexist in a revitalized Shaw. When City Market began construction two years ago, 1,700 Shaw residents applied for jobs. Two hundred and thirty were hired there and at the City Center development site a few blocks south, and Roadside and Clark Construction offered job-preparedness classes to residents who didn’t get jobs. In addition, the new Giant has hired about 160 local residents.

Some of those who got work were in the street crews, including 23-year-old Ivan Cloyd. He was a little kid when the market shootings took place, but growing up at Seventh and O, he heard about the incident, especially in his early teens, when he was in a crew.

“The ’94 shooting was held up to us like something we could aspire to,” Cloyd says. “It was passed down from the older guys.”

Eventually, Cloyd spent time in an program run by the Alliance for Concerned Men, talking with counselors about what it meant to be a man, learning what’s expected on a job.

“I took the baggy jeans off, and I wear nice collared shirts now,” he says. “The neighborhood doesn’t feel like home anymore, and at the recreation center now, you see more Caucasians and Latinos than African Americans. But I got a job — I’m a navigator for Obamacare — and I’m going to college. It’s opened my eyes to a new way. But it’s not home here anymore. It’s like living in somebody else’s neighborhood.”

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

Then and now

A look at how the area around
the O Street Market has changed:

Average price of two-story rowhouse on a block in Shaw

1994: $75,000

2013: $660,000

Homicides

1994: 399

2013: 94 so far

Major demographics of Shaw/ Logan Circle
1990: 65% black, 22% white,
9% Hispanic.
2010: 29% black, 48% white,
15% Hispanic

 
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