Waiting for Their Spin in the Cycle

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, June 8, 2006

The cycle of the city spun round and round. Love's 5 & 10 store shut down, and the Atlas movie house died. What the riots hadn't cleared out, the crime did. For decades after the fires of 1968, H Street NE was a boulevard of boarded-up buildings and storefront churches where Baptists held fish dinners and Muslims sold snow cones on the sidewalk.

On the block where a '60s street activist named Marion Barry had set up a jobs program for young people called Pride Inc., a couple of nightspots opened that became notorious for shootings and people wired beyond words on PCP. By the start of the '90s, the clubs and too many of the people who frequented them had died unnatural deaths.

Through it all, Richard Lee watched out the window of a barbershop as those who could move away did, and those who couldn't wandered the empty streets, often up to no good. Lee, 65, still cuts hair, now at Smokey's Barbershop and Oldies, where a $10 cut comes with the sounds of Chocolate City: the '70s soul of Teddy Pendergrass and Parliament, on cassette.

Out the window of Smokey Maye's shop -- the shop is one of H Street's survivors, even if these days many customers arrive in cars with Maryland tags -- what you see now is people who don't get their hair cut here. Yet.

Lee sees young, artsy types across the street at H Street Playhouse, an exciting new theater carved out of what used to be French's Restaurant, and young people of all races ducking into the new R&B Coffee, Alphonso Morgan's jazz-, caffeine- and poetry-suffused escape from 20 years of work as a computer geek. This crowd does not exactly fit the classic profile of H Street barbershop customers. But the barbers at Smokey's stand ready to change with the neighborhood, whether that means upgrading their decor and even their musical selection.

For years, H Street has been the firebreak for the gentrification pushing north from Capitol Hill. Even now, the new theaters, shops, bars and eateries tend to be on the south side of the street, while the north side is home to hair cutters and shuttered storefronts.

But with a significant boost from the city, which is pumping money into everything from signs to small-business loans, the face of the street is changing.

Six years ago, Adele and Bruce Robey, longtime Hill residents who ran the Voice of the Hill newspaper and were active in local arts groups, became interested in opening a theater in one of the boarded-up spaces on H Street. "Everybody wants a theater, right?" Adele says. "We were so naive. That's when we found out how truly difficult and poisonous the politics of race was."

She found herself denounced by neighborhood activists as "a bad woman and a liar," a white usurper of a black part of town, Adele says. But she formed alliances across racial and class lines, and today the H Street Playhouse stages productions by half a dozen companies. Anyone who lives within five blocks gets in free. A few doors down, the shell of the old Atlas movie house has become a stunning arts center, with two theaters and three dance studios for the African Continuum Theater, Joy of Motion dance school and several other arts groups.

Out behind the theaters, in an alley where car repair shops sit hard by tiny rowhouses built in the 1880s for freed black Civil War veterans, the Robeys see the city's housing boom continuing unabated, despite what you may read about bubbles bursting elsewhere. Houses that sold for as little as $40,000 three years ago now go for four times that and more.

Yet Mike Benning, whose father opened a car repair place in this alley in 1955, keeps the place going with equanimity; he's happy to stay, but if he gets priced out, he's happy to head to the Bahamas.

Back at R&B Coffee, Alphonso Morgan knows some people grumble about change, but he sees a mix of customers that blows away facile assumptions about gentrification. "People are all different, but we have to get along," Morgan says. He spent hundreds of hours working above his shop, exposing the old brick walls and installing a bar to create a cozy, inviting room where he can offer performances of poetry and jazz.

Back across the street, Smokey Maye stares out at everything that's happened. He took over the barbershop seven years ago, but the shop has been on H Street since '61. Some customers complain about the new businesses, but "I don't see how any of this can hurt," he says.

Richard Lee says the theaters and the new people on the street are the best thing to happen in 40 years: "People don't remember, but before the riot, there was actually businesses here with people living on top of them. And when people live up there, somebody's looking out for the property. You could hardly do anything without people knowing about it. That's how you make it safe." It took sociologists and urban planners decades to figure that out. Lee had only to look out his window.

The cycle spins once more, and the men at Smokey's feel more confident than ever. They intend to be here when the good times cross over to their side of H Street; it's their neighborhood, too.

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