14 STREET NW, 1968
From Ruins To Rebirth
Sunday, April 6, 2008
T he intersection where it all began that catastrophic night, the once-ragged corner of 14th and U streets, is now a crossroads at the center of Washington affluence.
Seventh Street is a neon-lit pathway lined with boutiques, taverns, restaurants serving fusion cuisine and a world-class convention center.
On H Street, east of Union Station, condos sell for more than $1 million, and new nightclubs throb with the young and hip.
Forty years ago, the conditions on Seventh Street NW, 14th Street NW and H Street NE -- three corridors at the core of Washington's cultural and economic soul -- were beyond desperate.
On April 4, 1968, and the following days after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, a noxious mix of rage, frustration and lawlessness paralyzed the nation's capital.
Thousands of rioters flooded the streets, ransacking shops and setting buildings ablaze. Thirteen people were killed, including two suspected looters shot by police, and more than 1,000 were injured. It took 13,600 armed federal troops to restore order after three days, but the charred remains and the scarred storefronts would define Washington for years to come.
The complex and painstaking process of reconstruction began soon after the fires were doused, pushed along by federal and local officials, churches and community organizations. For three decades, progress was slow and sporadic: a new District office building, for example, or a neighborhood health center, a pocket park or a subsidized apartment building.
But over the past decade, as developers rediscovered cities across the country, the pace of construction exploded along Washington's riot corridors. Boarded-up husks and rubble-strewn lots were reborn as faux-loft apartments, luring white professionals to predominantly black neighborhoods.
"It doesn't look like the ghetto anymore," said Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), a community organizer in the District during the riots who would serve four terms as mayor.
Civic leaders have celebrated each groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting as fresh evidence of a city reborn. Yet the renewal also has provoked questions that echo the race and class tensions that triggered the cataclysm 40 years ago.
Why did it take so long? And who's reaping the benefits?
Gloria Robinson, 55, an office administrator, grew up in Columbia Heights, where a new shopping center and condominium apartments stand on a street devastated by the riots. She is convinced that the promise of rebirth eludes poor and working-class African Americans.