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.
So how, the bartender is asked, are people getting along on H Street? What is the real story? Rawls says most nights, things are cool. But she hesitates. Then she tells a story. She was serving some white patrons. They began writing on the table and she asked them to stop. They ignored her. She repeated: "Please, guys, quit writing on the table. Nobody wants to rub their elbows in chalk."
The customers laughed. They picked up the chalk again.
Exasperated, the bartender yelled: "Come on, ya'll grown people!"
A white woman at the table mocked: " 'Ya'll grown people!' What kind of language is that?"
The woman: "You ought to be glad I bought a $500,000 house in your black ghetto neighborhood. "
Bartender: "I can't believe she just said . . . that. Hold me back."
And somebody did. And she didn't do anything she regrets. The unruly people left, called the police claiming they were victims of racism, and the next day they posted a bad review on a Web site.
Several months later, the bartender's anger still simmers. Can't explain what happened that night, why the chalk writer's words stay with her. Why the gentrifier had a need to assert herself, spew her thoughts of superiority and let the bartender know that it is she and others like her who are changing the neighborhood, and for that, the bartender should be grateful. "You ought to be glad I bought a $500,000 house in your black ghetto neighborhood."
The bartender, whose stepfather is white, a "sweet" man, refuses to break the whole thing down into a race issue. "What bothers me is it seems like the average person can't afford to live in D.C. anymore," she says. "I have two jobs. I'm not going to say it's a black-white thing because it is not that simple. But there is a pattern of young professionals moving into neighborhoods changing things."The Squeeze
Scott Magnuson, 28, a white man who manages the bar, only heard about the chalk incident, but he believes he's seen enough to understand the tensions around race and class on H Street.
Gentrification is such a "strong word," says Magnuson, who lives on Linden Place. He is at ease here, he says. He gets his hair cut at the Perfect Cut. He says the men from the shop go into the Argonaut. "We laugh about the same things, football and video games.
"I don't personally see color. My dad was in the Navy, so we moved around."
But he has heard things from both sides of the fault line. There are some whites, he says, who "try to put people down, the way people speak, how they dress." He doesn't want to repeat the words, for to say them aloud would allow them to pass through him.
But the words come from the other side too, thrown with equal force.
When he is walking home at night from the bar, sometimes he is confronted, mostly by high school boys. "They say, 'Hey, get out of my neighborhood. . . . You are not welcome in it.' "
Magnuson doesn't respond. "It has nothing to do with race," he says. "It's just boys trying to impress the pack. I'm not scared. I acted the same way when I was growing up in Virginia Beach."Agent of Change
A man with a cane and purple leather cap stops at the House of Prayer -- for All People, which sits behind locked black iron gates. He pulls the gate. And searches the space between the bars, as if the space itself held something valuable, held some knowledge. The man pulls a laundry cart behind him. He walks west on H Street, passing the Joy of Motion Dance Center, Dazzles Unisex Salon, Phish Tea Cafe, with its red curtains in the window and green chairs outside.
A man drinking milk out of a water bottle emerges. And he is asked how people on H Street are getting along.
"Everyone gets along fine," says Travis Englert, 21. He says he lives in Pittsburgh but travels to Washington because he is working here for his uncle.
Who is his uncle? That would be Joe Englert, 46.
Englert, a frustrated writer, doesn't like to be called "a developer." But he is credited with changing the way Washington partied, more than a decade ago. Credited with resurrecting neighborhoods, opening up clubs in Adams Morgan and U Street, surrealist clubs, cultlike dark places with neon signs and spider webs. He's an impresario who goes into partnerships with his cooks and bartenders, and is called by some partygoers the King of D.C. Nightlife. Now he has turned his attention to H Street, has a vision that it too will become a chic place to live and party and shop.
He is walking east on H. A light snow is falling.
He opens the groovy doors of the Rock & Roll Hotel. Its motto, he says: "You can play here, but you cannot stay here."
Before it was the Rock & Roll Hotel, where those in Generation Me come to party, listen to bands or just chill, this space was a funeral home. Before that, it was a furniture store. Upstairs there are flying guitars with metal wings, golden crushed velvet sofas, mannequins with skulls hanging above the bar.
Englert steps back onto the street, headed for another bar he owns a block away. His vision for H Street is "to bring back the period of H Street," its cultural heyday when it was a thriving business thoroughfare. "What is truly amazing, what's unusual about this place, is it was so shuttered. What is striking is how desolate it was at night."
Outside, he doesn't slow down, walking between his establishments. There are still 85 boarded-up buildings on H Street NE. But he doesn't seem to see them as places of despair; instead he has visions of kid-friendly restaurants and high-end shops that might sell $2,000 sunglasses. You don't see what he sees, but that's why you are not a millionaire.
"We'll have brick sidewalks and a new street trolley," Englert says. "The residents say they want restaurants. We've given them taverns first. You need feet on the street first, then they establish a market and they pave the way for older, more sedate businesses to succeed."
Still you wonder about the split in the neighborhoods between people who rode out the crack epidemic and those just moving in. Englert, who lives in Glover Park, boils the dichotomy down to this: "Some neighborhood people are incredibly welcoming. Other neighbors are like, '[Expletive] you. I'm black. I'm white. I'm old. I'm gay. Some say, 'I've been here three months. Some say, 'I've been here 30 years.'
"If you are friendly, you won't have a problem. But some people want to change things in their way and it is not well received. In a public meeting, whenever there is a disagreement, race comes up. There is a segment of people who are so sensitive. It's so raw."
You ask him: What makes white people move into an area they dared not go for many years. What is the tipping point?
"It's kind of like a field of dreams, 'If you build it, they will come.' It's my yoke," he says. "People are looking for an excuse to go out." The city is where life happens, he says.
"The choices are you live in your car and deal with the blandness of suburbia or you live in a place you can walk and you know your neighbors," Englert says. "If more people lived in the city, it would be safer. It's become such a mind-numbing thing to live in the suburbs. It makes me sick to think about going shopping out there, the strip malls and endless lights. It's so depressing, the sameness. You don't know where you are but it looks the same: the Bennigans and Applebees, the fake made-up restaurants.
"You live here and you have Dickie's and the Italian Market and you can get your hair cut at a place like Smokie's, which is not -- for God's sake -- the Hair Cuttery."In the Line of Fire
The stakes are still high. The mysteries of the neighborhood are never really conquered by the pioneers. Sometimes the street jumps up and bites a newcomer. And the question becomes whether the newcomer will stay or go.
At the end of a misty night in September 2006, Quike (pronounced Key-kay) Morales, a bartender at the Argonaut, toasted James, another bartender.
Clink of glasses: "It was a beautiful night," Morales said to James. "People were happy. Women were flirting. 'Let's toast to life.' This was beautiful." Then they played their song: "Maybe Tomorrow, I'll Find My Way Home."
After the song ended, they closed up the pub. Morales started walking to his house at 18th and H Northeast. He waited for the light to change at the corner where H meets Benning and Maryland and 15th -- the crossroads of his life, he would call it later. It started to rain, a soft rain. A soft thought crossed his mind: his girlfriend lived just a block away on 14th. He said to himself: " 'Bree is waiting for me, I know.' I said, 'Why not?' I have clothes there and a warm body who can warm me." It was 5 in the morning. Morales turned and started walking to 14th. He passed James, who teased him, saying Morales must be missing his girl.
Morales remembers there was nobody in the street. He remembers putting the key in the door.
He woke up 10 days later in the hospital. A detective was telling him: "You got shot. Do you know why you got shot?" A doctor was telling him: "You lost your eye. Your skull was shattered. You don't have a skull."
James told the police he heard three shots. The police later told Morales the person who most likely shot him was killed four days later. Now Morales, wears a white helmet to protect his head. He is awaiting surgery to replace a section of his skull. He is awaiting a new, fake eye, which a doctor/artist is now painting a delicate brown to match his own. He is trying to gather enough money for the surgeries and the hospital bills and the other doctor bills: $65,000, which he says will take the rest of his life to pay off. And he still does not know why the person shot him. "When I heard he died, I was angry because I'll never know why he shot me." Morales sits on the porch of the pale yellow brick house he rents on H Street. His neighbors, black, wave at him from the sidewalk and ask how he is doing. Life on the street has continued, the rhythm of life is normal: Kids ride bicycles, old women in stockings cross the street with their bags heading home as the sun sinks. The mail lady brings the mail. Today, Morales got a hospital bill for $32,000.
He is trying not to be bitter, not to show anger. "I can't be a normal person until I get my plate. I lost part of my skull. They had to take it out because it broke in pieces."
"The chain of suffering is just too long," he says. "The injury is really bad. I'm not lucky. I'm blessed. The bullet went through my eye. . . . The doctor told me the bullet went through a bunch of nerves without touching what was essential." Still he can't bend without pressure, a pounding in his head. He thanks the people of the neighborhood and the customers of the Argonaut for raising money while he was in the hospital. With this money, he has been able to live.
He has not moved. "I'm not like a person who can just move because I want to. I'm not making plenty of money," Morales says. "Moving myself out of the neighborhood won't make the neighborhood safer for anybody. I don't want anybody to suffer like I did." Now, he has started a campaign against violence in the neighborhood. He calls it: "Music Is Bulletproof," and he plans to take the anti-violence tour to clubs along H to raise money for other crime victims. "I want to use this energy instead of thinking about revenge or being bitter," he says. "I want to give back to the neighborhood what the neighborhood gave to me. It was because of this neighborhood that I survived."A Common Concern
In one paradigm, a world is familiar. When the paradigm shifts, a way of living changes:
Vanessa Ruffin has lived on Wylie since 1970, when she signed a lease with her grandmother, who at one time owned five houses on Wylie. "She was a simple hardworking woman who did day's work. And she was a smart woman. She made me sign a lease-purchase agreement. She wasn't like people today who give houses to their children. She made me earn it."
"H Street," she says, "went from being a viable black-business downtown district to being a ghost town to now being Speculator City. This has been the fastest-moving wave of development since the '70s.
"At one time, I was the only neighbor on the block who stood up to drugs and hanging out and loitering. I was assaulted. The house broken into."
Now things on Wiley have changed, a new mix of people have moved in.
At Holy Name Church, there is a statue of a black saint standing outside. Inside the neighbors are talking. The common denominator among those who have lived here for decades and those who just moved in last summer is the rat problem.
"The first issue is rat abatement in the alley," says Ruffin. "The city should come out and look for the rat city, the holes in the ground where they live."
White man in hat: "I saw seven, eight, nine on the dumpster behind the lounge. It's bad."
White schoolteacher: "I just moved in and I'm willing to help. I see the rats, they, like, drink out of puddles. I can't believe I have reached a point that I can gaze on them with a flashlight."
Ruffin: "There is too much liquid soup in the alley. My back steps are stained blue, blue with whatever they give them to kill them. They just run across my stoop."
White man in hat: "Oooh. Like, do you really want to grill in your back yard?"
He says he wants to put up a privacy fence.
Ruffin: "You put up a privacy fence and what you've done is provided a hiding place for a criminal."
White man: "But I don't want a chain-link fence."
Ruffin: "I'm giving you the pros and cons. The decision is up to the individual."The Exchange
And a white man passes a tall black man on H Street. The tall black man, wearing a knit hat, asks the short white man for a smoke: "You got a cigarette?"
"No, I don't smoke."
"That's good. You are healthy. Smoking can stunt your growth."
The tall black man smiles.
And the short white man laughs.
And the tall black man walks east on H Street.
He bends to pick up a dime on the sidewalk, and 13 pennies fall out of his pocket.