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From Ruins To Rebirth
Condos and Cafes Have Replaced Gutted Shops, But Who's Profiting?

By Paul Schwartzman and Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.

"I feel like I'm in another city," Robinson said. "I get the feeling I no longer belong."

* * *

The symbols of Washington's metamorphosis are the cranes that have become a ubiquitous presence over its skyline in recent years. Since the late 1990s, developers have delivered a litany of amenities that other cities take for granted: big-box retail, dozens and dozens of shops and cafes and restaurants, a 20,000-seat arena. Just last week, the city celebrated the opening of Nationals Park, a publicly funded, 42,000-seat baseball stadium.

The dollar figures are dizzying. Since 2001, along the riot corridors alone, developers and the government have poured more than $3 billion into new housing, offices, theaters and the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, according to District officials. During the 1990's, Metro spent more than $500 million to open four stations in neighborhoods along two of the corridors, each station helping to catalyze further investment.

The breadth and magnitude of the changes, said Robert Peck, former president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, has turned Washington into a "bustling, cosmopolitan city."

In their decayed state, Peck said, the riot corridors still possessed the potential to help drive the city's transformation. "When people ran out of room in the old downtown, it was the riot corridors that provided the cheapest place to buy," he said. "For certain developers, there was no other place to go. For people who wanted cheap housing in the city, it was the place to go."

In their heyday -- the 1940s through the early 1960s -- the corridors were bustling shopping strips, primarily for Washington's black middle class. Women bought earrings at Kay's Jewelers on H Street, and men flipped through suit racks at Morton's on 14th Street or Cavalier's Men's Shop on Seventh. There were bakeries and hardware stores, car dealerships and electronics shops, places to dine and dance or buy records and evening gowns.

Yet even before the riots, the corridors had begun a steady decline as desegregation propelled middle-class black families to leave those neighborhoods and whites moved to suburbs where new shopping plazas were drawing patrons from downtown.

By April 1968, the neighborhoods around Seventh, 14th and H streets were inhabited by a black population that was largely poor and working class. They endured rat-infested housing and low-paying jobs. Their children attended dysfunctional, decaying public schools, where three of every four students read below the national average.

Conditions were so dire that King, a renowned pacifist, warned of a repeat of the rioting that had erupted the previous summer in cities such as Detroit and Newark.

"I don't like to predict violence," King told a congregation at Washington National Cathedral, "but if nothing is done between now and June to raise ghetto hope, I feel this summer will not only be as bad, but worse than last year."

Four days and four hours later, King was gunned down in Memphis. Word of his death ignited civil disturbances in more than 100 cities across the United States. In Washington, Stokely Carmichael, the civil rights activist who had injected the term "black power" into the national dialogue, led a throng up and down 14th Street, demanding that shop owners shut down to honor King's memory.

Although most proprietors closed immediately, their gesture did little to calm the roiling anger.

At 9:25 p.m., protesters shattered the windows of a Peoples Drug Store at 14th and U streets, triggering spasms of mayhem through the night and over the next three days in neighborhoods in three of the city's four quadrants, from Anacostia to Capitol Hill, from Shaw to Columbia Heights. The most severe damage occurred along 14th, H and Seventh streets, where hundreds of businesses, nearly all of them white-owned, were damaged or destroyed.

At one point on the second day, about 200 fires burned simultaneously, creating a blanket of smoke that shrouded the city.

Bob King, then 21, was riding a bus to Columbia Heights when the rioting began. He was stunned to see, at 14th and Harvard streets, a crowd ripping the iron grates off the face of a shuttered liquor store.

Four decades later, the images remain fresh in his memory: men in the street sifting through heaps of stolen suits; looters breaking into Hines Funeral Home and walking away with caskets; families at a Safeway stuffing carts with steaks and chickens, rolling past cashless cash registers where strangers shrieked with laughter, pretending to ring them up.

"It was like a festival right where I was born," King said. "I felt so sad that my community was being destroyed."

* * *

As soon as the embers were out, talk of rebuilding began.

The following January, 11 days after taking office, President Richard M. Nixon traveled two miles by limousine from the White House to inspect Seventh Street. Standing alongside Mayor Walter E. Washington, Nixon watched a wrecking ball smash into the Waxie Maxie record store, the crumbling vestiges of which remained nine months after the shop burned in the riots.

"These rotting, boarded-up structures are a rebuke to us all, and an oppressive, demoralizing environment for those who live in their shadow," Nixon said. "They remind us again and again of the basic fact that the principal victims of violence are those in whose neighborhood it occurs."

The president pledged that rebuilding on Seventh Street would begin within months. In the meantime, community organizations such as Pride Inc., co-founded by Barry, and fledgling black entrepreneurs saw opportunity in the rubble. African Americans, they said, should run their own ventures. They were the city's majority, after all.

Warren Williams Sr. decided to start a business. Dropping out of dental school, he bought a storefront at Seventh and Q streets, one that had housed a white-owned clothing shop destroyed in the riots. Williams fixed up the place, hung a sign that read "W & W Liquors" and launched a 40-year career in business.

"It was an exciting time," said Williams, who lives in Chevy Chase.

Each new store was progress, if only incremental. But what would it take to create the massive infusion of investment needed to transform entire neighborhoods?

In the wasteland that had become 14th Street, Bob King, a college student at the time, found a mission trying to rebuild the neighborhood in which he had grown up, the son of a janitor who worked in a building in which only whites could rent apartments.

Four months after the riots, King turned the ravaged remains of what had been a pawnshop into a community center, where he handed out donated food and clothing. Later, he won election to a local advisory board promoting the reconstruction of the corridor.

For more than a decade, King trudged to endless community meetings, listening to residents recite demands for new housing, restaurants and stores.

"They always had the same question," said King, now 62 and an assistant to the District's parks director. " 'How long? How long will we have to wait?' And I always gave them the same answer: 'Not long.' "

In time, he said, he stopped believing his own words.

Despite promises of developers' interest and the rise of new low-income apartments, vast stretches along the corridors were vacant for decades, including 12 acres at the center of Columbia Heights.

The corridors languished for myriad reasons, not the least of which was that District leaders during the 1980s lobbied developers to rebuild downtown, which became depressed after the riots. At other points, corruption scandals and financial crises made the District less than attractive to investors.

Washington's difficulties were shared by many cities, which deteriorated after World War II with the emergence of interstate highways and the suburbs. In Washington's case, the riots accelerated the process.

"We had decided as a country that these neighborhoods could not be saved, and there was no point in throwing good money after bad," said Paul Grogan, author of "Comeback Cities: A Blueprint for Urban Neighborhood Revival."

"There was no quick fix," he said. "The deterioration of these cities happened a block and building at a time, and it had to be put back together that way."

In the absence of major developers, churches, foundations, community organizations and the federal and local governments were part of the answer.

By 1970, the District built 13 playgrounds and basketball courts within the three riot corridors. A year later, two churches collaborated to construct the Lincoln Westmoreland Apartments on Seventh Street, the neighborhood's first new housing. In 1986, on the spot where the riots had begun, the District government opened the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center, a $50 million building intended to stabilize terrain that had been commandeered by drug dealers and prostitutes.

On 14th Street, the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights put up housing and a strip mall in the mid-1990s, the neighborhood's first new retail hub since the riots.

On H Street, the local community development corporation turned a vacant lot into a $20 million office building that it leased to the District in 1987. "The architecture was plain but the point was larger," said William Barrow, executive director of the H Street CDC. "You were signaling a rebirth."

But those improvements were incremental compared with the opening in the 1990s of four Metro stations, two in Shaw, one in Mount Vernon and one in Columbia Heights.

More than two decades after the riots, the stations reconnected Seventh and 14th streets to the rest of the city.

* * *

By the late 1990s, deep-pocketed investors had descended on the riot corridors, spurred in part by the District's offer of tax incentives. On Seventh Street, along a stretch where there had been minor looting and window-breaking, Abe Pollin built the MCI (now Verizon) Center, injecting new life into what had become a vista of despair and desolation.

Then developer Douglas Jemal and builders Herb Miller and John E. "Chip" Akridge III invested millions on the same street, bringing new offices, housing, restaurants and shops.

On 14th Street, from 1998 to 2004, Jim Abdo developed a dozen high-end residential and commercial projects. At first, Abdo recalled, banks refused to provide financing, telling him that he should focus on well-established neighborhoods such as Dupont Circle. But Abdo saw possibility in the frayed, historic buildings around Logan Circle.

Whole Foods popped up on P Street in 2000, followed by more apartment buildings, a wave that extended north on 14th Street to Columbia Heights, culminating with the new Target-anchored shopping center that opened last month.

On H Street, the administration of Mayor Anthony A. Williams devoted new attention to rebuilding the corridor, pledging $50 million to reconstruct sidewalks and roadways and add streetcars.

The city's investment helped drive more development. Williams himself recently paid more than $1 million for a condominium in a new Abdo building on H Street. Four more residential projects are planned, in all adding 1,700 units of housing to the neighborhood. At the same time, the number of vacant buildings has declined by half since 2002, and 75 businesses have opened during the same period.

Anwar Saleem grew up in the neighborhood -- he was 13 at the time of the riots -- and now heads H Street Main Street, a community organization that promotes the corridor. Every new cafe and club opening, he said, is further proof that H Street's long decline is over.

"Times have changed, and everything around here is going to change with it," Saleem said.

But those changes cause trepidation. For all of the city's newfound affluence, one in five Washingtonians lives in poverty, the highest level in a decade, even as the supply of low-income housing has declined sharply. Indeed, the number of families seeking housing subsidies is almost six times as great as the number available.

Barry stressed that the redevelopment has not solved the city's social problems.

"We did a lot to move forward," he said. "But the progress is not what it should have been in 40 years. Poverty has gotten worse. What happened in this city is we moved poverty. We didn't solve it."

The changes also touch homeowners and merchants, who worry that rising property taxes and rents will force them out or crush their livelihoods.

"I have built a rapport with my customers," said George Butler, owner of an H Street clothing shop that he opened seven months after the riots. But where will they go, he asked, as the city grows more expensive? "I worry about them all fading away," he said.

Abdo said that none of his projects on 14th or H streets caused displacement because each was built on vacant land. And if the development forces up prices and taxes, he said, it also helped bring new retail and services and generated wealth.

"If I increased the value of your home fourfold because of the investments I made, I won't apologize for that," he said.

No one would argue that rebuilding the riot corridors hasn't created prosperity. But civic and community leaders question whether, in the new Washington, all races and classes share in the benefits. The city's renewed spirit is palpable, they say, yet so is the economic peril.

"It's incredible," said Maudine R. Cooper, president of the Greater Washington Urban League, who has lived in Washington since 1958. "It doesn't resemble old Washington, even before the riots. It was your low-end stores, where you could get a dress for $10. . . . What has come back, what is coming back, is much more upscale. Economic revitalization is the only way to get the city going. But there will be casualties."

Researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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