Whose H Street Is It, Anyway?

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Bernard Gibson had a simple wish: to open a Cluck-U Chicken in the H Street neighborhood where his grandparents have lived for decades. Bound and determined, he held two jobs to squirrel away the cash: He owned a carwash and worked as a mechanic for the city. Last year, after selling the carwash, he got a permit for a sit-down restaurant and opened his dream.

"Best Buffalo Wingers in the World," declares the bright purple awning on H Street, between the Family Dollar store and the check-cashing outlet.

But in the age-old way that one person's dream is another's bedevilment, the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission said not so fast: H Street in Northeast Washington is a strip trying to shed its bedraggled past and become a gleaming urban paradise.

Cluck-U is not a sit-down restaurant, the ANC argued. It's a fast-food joint, just like McDonald's and Burger King, and, under zoning laws, neighbors should have had a say before it opened. Because they never got that chance, the ANC wants Cluck-U's permit stripped, an appeal it will make at a hearing today, as the struggle over H Street's future heats up.

The ANC is going after another new eatery, Birdland, which also got a sit-down permit. Another civic group challenged the carryout permit granted to Taste of Jamaica on Sixth Street, an appeal put on hold when the owner promised to convert the establishment to a restaurant.

Before it got to Cluck-U, the ANC targeted a Blimpie on Eighth Street; the appeals board agreed with the ANC, and the Blimpie shut down rather than reapply for a special permit to sell fast food.

ANC Chairman Joseph Fengler said the commission's opposition is all about getting a fair, uniform interpretation of the zoning code. But some merchants and longtime residents see it as a war on black Washington.

The ANC, which became majority white in 2002, wants to push "the African-Americans from the corridor," said Clifton Humphries, owner of the H Street Martini Lounge, who is black. "They're trying to steer what comes down here. They want an upscale environment, where they are comfortable around their own."

Gibson, who said he can't be certain what is driving the ANC, bristles over the effort to strip him of his permit.

"Who are they to dictate a style of business?" he asked one afternoon as his customers dined on garden salads, ribs and Cluckwich sandwiches. "If they don't like it, go somewhere else."

* * *

The signs of change are unmistakable.

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