U-Turn on H Street

Elisa Bernard, Anthony Leonard and Robert Mana-Thompson hang out at the Pug on H Street NE, where gentrification has brightened the area, and spotlighted a divide.
Elisa Bernard, Anthony Leonard and Robert Mana-Thompson hang out at the Pug on H Street NE, where gentrification has brightened the area, and spotlighted a divide. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 18, 2007

Awhite woman and a little white girl are walking west on H Street Northeast, the 1300 block. Behind them, three black men are walking, not far behind, but close enough to invade their space, as if there is such a thing as personal space on a public sidewalk in the middle of a sunny Saturday afternoon.

Three invisible men, residents who lived in the meantime, the in-between years when this street was desolate, neglected by the city, when some white people would not be caught walking in this block of H Street.

One black man shouts: "Ma'am, please tell your daughter she don't have to be afraid of us!" The white woman turns and smiles. It is not a nervous smile. But she does not slow her pace; this does not appear to be done out of fear but is more a pace one might keep while running errands on a busy afternoon. The little girl holds the woman's right hand.

The men continue, as if to prove something. "Ma'am," one of them says again, "please tell your daughter she don't have to be afraid on H Street."

The woman climbs into an SUV and drives away.

She is gone, and what remains is a question about what urban renewal has brought to H Street. What comes with the swarms of new, hip people who now walk the once desolate streets looking for the coolest bars, sleek in their leather and heels? Do they know the history, the riots after King's assassination, the white flight, or what happened in 1984 at Eighth and H to Catherine Fuller, a tiny cleaning woman found in an alley, her death too gruesome to recall the details -- the pipe, the beating, the dreadful era that followed?

At a party, a real estate agent, new in town, mentions she just sold a nice couple a fabulous house off H and Eighth Northeast. She is chirpy, as real estate agents must be, and she imparts that she is quite delighted with the sale. She is asked whether she knows what happened at 8th and H to Catherine Fuller. She says no. And you don't tell her. To provide the details would seem impolite in polite company.

Later, you stand on the street and watch, like the narrator in some novel, who knows more than the characters moving through the plot, through the street, but who must remain a distant storyteller. A witness to change. What does it all mean, this new mix on H Street? The Asian men in leather jackets and white girls in strappy dresses walking at midnight, unguarded? How do those who owned this street for so long share it with those just arriving?

Do the newcomers shop at Murry's: Your Neighborhood Food Store, where you go in one day looking for white grape juice and a clerk asks whether he can help you? And you tell him what you want and he says they only have what they have and what they have is not white grape juice. And you turn to leave and he yells, "But I can make some for you if you want me to." He smiles. And you wonder whether the newcomers would catch that kind of humor, appreciate that kind of street wit that doesn't come with a degree.

If one could enter the world of H, then perhaps one could understand this street, this place that is changing fast, like so many other corridors in this city, like so many corridors in the country: in Harlem, Detroit, Chicago. Change bringing with it newcomers, who want to fix things, change them into their own image. Bringing issues: stratification, generalizations, classism, police presence, rising rent, rising taxes, two-way streets becoming one-way, an invisible squeeze on loiterers, pushing them gently but insistently until they are no more. And the new neighbors push for a "quality of life" ban on single-sell alcohol, and the request turns into a discussion about race. And someone is complaining about Cluck-U Chicken, arguing it was not the kind of sit-down restaurant they wanted. Some neighbors say war has been declared on black Washington. And the neighborhood school gets new landscaping. Giant metal flowers grow. And there is a man hired to sweep H Street. So there he is on a sunny afternoon, trying to sweep the street with a broom.

On this street, what conversations would rise above the complicated questions of racism and classism, what would you hear at the Rib Tip, where the owner plans to sell one day and "leave everything behind but my dog and my wife," who takes her time cooking and tells her customers if they want fast food, they should go elsewhere? She didn't mind when a white man who moved in up the street came in one day and asked to inspect her kitchen and found it more than spotless. She says she didn't mind because she is fastidious about cleanliness and now the white man comes in the Rib Tip every day just about dinner time.

Divisiveness Is on the Table

Courtney Rae Rawls, 26, a bartender at the Argonaut Tavern, is one of those enigmatic people to whom lonely souls gravitate for conversation, inspired or not. She pours drinks, integrating brown liqueurs and white liquor. She is unencumbered in her brown skin, shaved head; she is confident, having graduated from the University of Michigan, where she protested against the assault on affirmative action there, then moved to this city with hope of a career in social work. The nonprofit she worked for lost funding, so here she is this night pouring drinks at a neighborhood bar, where the newcomers sit next to each other at the wooden tables, rub elbows, have their own Aquarius parties, fill up the loneliness of their nights.

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