The Dream Struggles on King's Avenue
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 18, 1999; Page A1
In the cold morning mist, The Avenue slowly awakens.
The sky is patchy and purplish blue. It is almost 7 a.m. A spotty trail of men carrying bags and backpacks stuffed with their worldly possessions heads north on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE toward Good Hope Road.
Traffic crawls. Exhaust pours from tailpipes, from mouths. Up and down The Avenue, dressed-up women wearing 9-to-5 faces walk in the slumberous rhythm of the morning toward the Anacostia Metro station.
In a little while, the heavy iron security gates will go up on The Avenue's beauty salons and barbershops, its schools and churches, carryouts and storefront businesses. At Clara Muhammad School, the snow-bearded custodian already has raised the security shutters and turned on the lights.
In the east, a pale orange light breaks the horizon. It means that life, even on this forlorn side of Washington, soon will take its daily course.
Thirty years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, 70 years after his birth, this street like many named in his memory embodies both the dream and the dream deferred. Life and death, faith and despair, violence and a tenuous brand of peace coexist in a 30-block corridor east of the Anacostia River that in many ways is a portrait of inner-city communities across the nation.
"People are afraid to come on The Avenue. If they can avoid it, they will," says Felix Carter, a street-savvy vendor who sells goods from a burgundy van on The Avenue. "Every time I turn around, my customers say, 'So-and-so got shot, so-and-so is dead.'"
But just as poverty and peril sometimes gush like rainwater down a gutter, the hopes of the people run strong. The people proceed each day with a little more caution than people who live elsewhere, maybe with a few more troubles and always with a sobering sense of life's particular fragility out here.
Some are stuck here by pure economics. Some grow up, do better and leave, seeking suburban pastures and a better life, anything but inner-city life. Then there are those who leave only to return, drawn back by memories and their love for a place called home, no matter the trials and tribulations that life on The Avenue may bring.
"It's like any other community, like a small town, like Mayberry," Tony White insists. He runs the Ultimate Touch Hair Salon with his wife, Helenmarie, and has decided to tough it out. "We live and grow with each other during the good times and the bad times.
"I just want to stress," he says, The Avenue "is alive."
Empty Buildings and Bustle
Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue begins at the mouth of the 11th Street Bridge. The street stretches from the shuttered, barren storefronts at Good Hope Road SE to the Wingates public housing development in Southwest to the Bald Eagle Recreation Center and finally fizzles out.
Along one stretch, The Avenue as many here familiarly call it is a bustling, neon-lighted strip of fast-food joints. Along another, it is block after block of single-family brick homes. At others, it is public housing, boarded abandoned buildings, winos and drug addicts who linger from dawn to dusk.
The buildings that once housed a Safeway and a McDonald's are empty shells, marred by graffiti, lifeless and still.
There is no supermarket. No coffee shop. No shopping mall. No outdoor cafe.
No movie theater. No bowling alley. No McDonald's. No 7-Eleven.
No pharmacy. No drive-through bank service.
Pay-before-you-pump gas stations. Bulletproof partitions in small corner convenience stores and carryouts. Iron bars on schools and houses of God.
Sirens blaring. Poverty. Conspicuous young men on corners.
Over the last nine years, at least 41 people have been slain on The Avenue.
It wasn't always known as Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. The name was adopted by the D.C. Council on April 27, 1971. Before that, the street was Nichols Avenue, so named in 1872 in honor of Charles Henry Nichols, a former superintendent of St. Elizabeths Hospital.
Before that, it was known simply as Asylum Road.
Lifeblood and Guts
Inside the Big Dip/Cold Cut "Home of the famous Bay Burger" the polished glass counter tops show barrels of ice cream and frozen yogurt. Shelves are laden with boxes of 25-cent candy. There is no bulletproof glass or an unsociable partition like the ones at some of the other businesses along The Avenue.
That's not owner Sequietta Z. Johnson's style, not the way she thinks people in her neighborhood should be treated just because of where they live, just because they're black and poor the usual suspects.
"Most people are honest," she says, standing behind the counter. "They're not thieves and robbers, or out to do you in."
As proof, Johnson muses over how sometimes customers run short of money on purchases and she will let them have the items on their word that they will pay. Days later, often after she has forgotten, they come in and make good on their debts. It is such glimmers of promise that Johnson remembers when the reasons for leaving seem clearer than the polished glass.
Johnson, 36, grew up in Southeast, went to Ballou High School and graduated from Florida A&M University with a degree in journalism. She worked for a year as a reporter in Florida, then moved back to Washington. For the last six years, she and her father have run a print shop three doors down from the ice cream parlor.
"I wanted to bring services to our community that they can't otherwise get," Johnson says. "It's important to me because the people are important."
Community pride runs deep for business owners who, like Johnson, grew up here. On the other side of the street, Tony White and his wife opened their Ultimate Touch Hair Salon in 1980 with the same ideal of reciprocity and entrepreneurship.
"I left for a minute. I came back," Tony White says. "I'd rather be here than anywhere else."
White had been operating a beauty salon in a rental unit on Capitol Hill before moving to The Avenue. He came back to the Anacostia neighborhood because he could own his own property and also be a light to some in the neighborhood. As he sees it, simply taking care of his wife and five children and running a business serves a purpose in a community where role models for young black men are sorely needed.
A slim, fortyish man with a shaved head and stubble for a beard, White grew up in the nearby Barry Farms housing development. White lives in Maryland but spends as many as 10 hours a day at the shop and says, "It's just like living here."
Johnson still lives in the neighborhood. She stays because this is home. There is something about seeing your neighborhood sinking into the elements, something about believing that maybe you can help save it, or at least not give up, give in, give out.
"I didn't want to be one of those educated people who get theirs and get out," Johnson says.
Two years ago, she had a craving for ice cream and realized that the closest ice cream parlor was in Maryland. Six months later, in June 1997, Johnson opened Big Dip. The original menu didn't include fries or burgers or the other fast-food items now posted on the walls.
"If people want chicken wings and steak sandwiches, we have to give them what they want," she explains.
But some things you want to hold back.
Last summer, Johnson was down at the print shop one afternoon and her 16-year-old niece was tending the ice cream parlor alone. A teenage boy marched through the door wielding a gun, announcing a stickup. He demanded that Johnson's niece open the cash register. She refused and told him police were on their way. The would-be robber fled.
"I said, 'Girl, for this little change, it ain't even worth it,'" Johnson says laughing, but shuddering at the thought that her niece could have been killed.
"One thing's for sure, you can't come into this community and act like you're scared, because they will certainly try to intimidate you," Johnson says. "You got to have a lot of heart and a lot of faith. You definitely need Jesus."
She laughs again, except she is dead serious.
'This Life' and 'That Life'
Inside the Clara Muhammad School, the children kneel for noontime prayer. At Horace & Dickie's and other carryouts, people pick up their fried fish and chicken dinners.
Not far away, Kirk Jones hawks his wares from a wooden stand in the afternoon cold. This is his corner of The Avenue: two blocks north of Good Hope Road, across from the big, brown brick buildings that house D.C. Lottery headquarters, doctors' and dentists' offices, just down from the welfare office.
He's a smooth wheeler-dealer on a first-name or face-recognition basis with his customers, most of them women.
Jones's rack is stocked with watches, wallets, cigarette lighters, earrings, CDs and bottled oils, imitations of name-brand perfumes, such as "Patti Labeel," a bootleg version of Patti LaBelle. The children's gloves and hats and the barrettes are his best sellers.
Jones, 33, grew up in Southeast and has been street-vending for the last year, he says. He sees the illegal alternatives on The Avenue that glare like the lights of a police cruiser flashing in the dark. He doesn't condone that life, reckons it is something you come to understand when you've felt the force of the street, the lure of making a fast buck slinging drugs or the temptation simply to hang on The Avenue long enough to get sucked down, like a body in quicksand.
"Some people just ain't as strong as others," he says without smiling. "They don't have that willpower."
As a younger man, Jones dealt drugs and was in and out of prison, serving time for his transgressions, six years in all, he says. By his last release from prison about six years ago, he had had enough and figured that "freedom and peace" were worth more than a quick buck. He worked for a couple years as a guidance counselor for troubled teenagers before starting his vending business, he says.
"You've got this life," he says, looking south on The Avenue to where a group of drug dealers do business. "And you've got that life," nodding in the other direction.
"I know you got more people trying to do better than you got people trying to condemn the neighborhood. All I know is you've got to keep away from the madness," he says.
Two women walk up. They ask for Patti LaBelle. Jones stands in the afternoon sun, pouring the sweet-scented imitation into two tiny vials, oil lapping over the sides. The women wipe off the excess and rub the Patti LaBeel into their skin. Jones smiles and shoves the dollars into his pocket.
The aroma sweetens The Avenue.
Death on The Avenue
Fists hit like muffled explosions. It's another late afternoon inside the stale boxing gym at Police Boys and Girls Club No. 11.
The club sits on a dead-end street, about 100 yards and a world away from The Avenue. While one boxer pounds the heavy bag, Terrell Davis waits anxiously for his trainer. His professional boxing debut is just days away.
The junior welterweight used to "hang" on The Avenue, knocking out people "for fun."
He grew up in a two-parent home, was raised in the church. But, he says, "we were always around it, coming from school, guys selling drugs, stealing cars. You know it's wrong, but you see it so long, it seems right."
Davis was slugging it out with another young man on The Avenue outside Players Lounge one day. When he landed a hard shot to the jaw of his opponent, a man emerged from the crowd, handed Davis a card and invited him to the gym.
"I was going down the wrong road. I should have been dead so many times," Davis says. "All of my friends are dead or in prison. Donald, Angelo, Roy, Byron, Eric, Bill, Chris, Sandy. I could just go on and on."
On and on, like the list of bodies lost and found on The Avenue.
Last summer, police discovered the body of Cleallor Christina Price, 17, in the back yard of an abandoned house in the 2600 block, badly beaten, lying face down, naked except for her sneakers.
A 15-year-old boy, who Christina's mother, Deborah Dunlap, said had been a friend of her daughter's, was later arrested by police and charged as a juvenile with murder.
Down on The Avenue, in the back yard where Christina was found, three heart-shaped balloons on sticks stand above a sea of yellow and brown leaves. Every so often, her mother leaves balloons and teddy bears there. Sometimes she doesn't have the strength.
"I don't know if I'll be able to go past there tomorrow or not," Dunlap says, wiping away tears. "Every day's not the same."
The day on The Avenue is almost done.
Outside, it's getting dark. Some parents arrive with their children for karate practice at the Boys and Girls Club.
"A lot of times, there ain't no love out here," Davis says. "That's why there's so much killing."
On the side of the old Safeway is a eulogy to all The Avenue has claimed. White spray-painted words on cold red brick.
It reads: "R.I.P to all MLK Heaven."
Signs of the Times
The voices inside Lighthouse Baptist Church blend in dry a cappella.
"Come by here, dear Lord, come by here," the tiny congregation and its pastor, the Rev. Jeff Wilkes, sing inside the storefront. "Somebody needs you, Lord. Come by here."
Bundled in jackets and sweaters, they sing under fluorescent light amid the rattling of space heaters. The church, which opened here in September, has what Deacon Tommy Taylor refers to as "18 strong" members. But Wilkes is convinced that the Lord wants them to be here, that it is through the church the community will be resuscitated.
There are more than two dozen other churches along The Avenue. Baptist churches, AME churches, Church of God in Christ, Church of God in Christ Jesus, Church of God, Catholic churches, all kinds of churches.
Still, Wilkes sees a void. In many churches in the black community, there is what he calls "Churchianity," the preoccupation with building larger churches, with membership drives, with foot-stomping services inside while outside lost souls wander, oblivious to the existence of any message of hope.
So Wilkes and his congregation evangelize the neighborhood, pairing up in small teams and toiling in what they see as a vast, ripe vineyard.
"These are the last days, heavenly Father," prays a woman. "Satan is busy."
The church's front doors are secured with sky-blue bars. The back door is buttressed with 2-by-4s.
"It's a sign of the times," Deacon Taylor says. "Nothing's safe anymore. Not even the sanctity of God."
The blue and white sign that hangs above the church doors depicts a lighthouse. "The light is for the people outside," Taylor says. It tells them, he says, "there's still hope."
The Anacostia Economic Development Corp. has proposed an "office, retail and urban commercial center" at the intersection of Good Hope Road and west to 13th Street SE. Construction could begin this summer on the first phase of the project, a three-story office building with shops on the street level. Butch Hopkins, president and chief executive of the development corporation, says the project will be funded with a combination of government and private money.
"It stands to be the catalyst for whatever occurs east of the river," Hopkins says.
There is also a plan to convert an abandoned D.C. National Guard post in Southeast into a $38 million state-of-the-art shopping and movie complex. The Congress Heights Plaza, which developers have said could employ as many as 1,400 people, would include a national movie chain in a 12-screen theater complex and a 50,000-square-foot grocery store. Groundbreaking could take place in July. Slated for nearby Alabama Avenue, the plaza's impact is expected to ripple through the community.
For years, talk of economic revitalization, of community revival, has left some wondering whether they will die only having seen the Promised Land in the distance without ever getting the chance to enter.
"We believe things are going to change," says Big Dip's owner, Johnson, who has an 8-year-old son. "I hope I get to see it, and not in my son's time. It's such a long time coming."
The Avenue is still. The glowing yellow streetlights seem to cast more shadow than light.
The trail of men has begun its descent down The Avenue to a dimly lighted parking lot on the south end of St. Elizabeths Hospital. Here, the Martin Luther King Jr. Men's Shelter is run out of 18 interconnected trailers. About two dozen men wait in the cold for the food van and tonight's supper.
A bare light bulb hangs above the entrance of the main trailer, where overnight residents must sign in for a cot. The shelter opens nightly at 7. By 7 a.m., the men have to be up and out.
Most of the men wear distant stares and tired, unshaven faces. Most have substance addictions, say officials at the shelter. In the morning, many of them walk north toward Good Hope Road to a tidy, inconspicuous storefront just off The Avenue for twice-daily Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. But the meetings, and the day, are done now.
The van from D.C. Central Kitchen swings into the parking lot. One by one, the men get a steamy plate and sidle away, quietly eating.
Inside the van, on the wall near the driver's seat, hangs a picture of a contemplative Dr. King. The words "I have a dream" are emblazoned in bold letters. Another portrait of King hangs on a wall inside the shelter, where the men have begun to sign in.
"When you say The Avenue, you're talking about the good and the bad," says John Wilkins, a homeless man with dreadlocks poking from under a blue cap. "When you say Martin Luther King Avenue, you're talking about a man's name.
"It's so much good on The Avenue. They need to build it up, just like they do Pennsylvania Avenue. But it's a black community."
Sirens blare on The Avenue. A dark, wrinkled man saddled with bags wanders across the sleepy street, toward the parking lot and the light of the shelter, seeking refuge from the cold until morning when the sun rises and The Avenue reawakens.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company