The Power Brokers of 14th Street
By Cindy Loose
Joy Zinoman picked her way along 14th and P streets NW, stepped into the warehouse crowded with pushcarts and freezers stuffed with Sabrett hot dogs, then spotted the rats scurrying past her legs.
All up and down the 14th Street corridor 20 years ago and more, pioneers such as Zinoman were suspending disbelief about the riot-scarred area and imagining what could be. Nearly all the post-riot trailblazers were nonprofit organizations -- arts groups, churches, foundations and social service agencies.
Today marks the 30th anniversary of the rioting that broke out at 9:25 p.m. Thursday, April 4, after the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. More than 4,000 homes and 270 of the 320 businesses along 14th Street, from Thomas Circle to Park Road, were gutted. Many property owners who weren't burned out simply walked away.
For decades, private investors eschewed the area. Nonprofit groups stepped into the vacuum.
"If you look east of 16th Street, virtually all that was done or led by nonprofits," said James O. Gibson, a senior associate at the Urban Institute and former head of the city's planning and development office. "The developers built downtown office buildings, but their interest stopped there. If there were no nonprofits, there would be almost nothing in that corridor."
Instead, Zinoman's Studio Theatre performs in a recently renovated showcase, and six other theater companies perform nearby. An eighth is seeking space, and restaurants, bars and nightclubs have sprouted around them. The ultimate in gentrification -- Fresh Fields -- is about to break ground at 15th and P streets.
Farther north, in Columbia Heights, groups such as Jubilee Housing, Washington Inner City Self Help (WISH) and the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights (DCCH) have developed housing, shopping and social service centers. At least 125 nonprofit groups are located in the corridor, according to the Urban Institute, not including the foundations and service providers that work but are not housed there.
By default, nonprofit groups even have become the new power brokers in the area. Next month, for example, the city will accept development proposals for 13 acres of land around the new Columbia Heights Metro station -- land the city acquired from owners who walked away after the riots.
Aware that community leaders have been promised a voice in the decisions, potential investors are making the rounds of nonprofit groups, hats in hand.
Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, said nonprofits won their place by doing "substantially more than government or the private sector. Their investments . . . total hundreds of millions of dollars."
He noted that just one group -- the Washington Area Community Investment Fund -- put together $37 million for low-interest loans, much of it spent in the 14th Street area.
"More important than the dollar figure is the human energy that nonprofits put into the area," said Anne Allen, of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation. "Without that belief and understanding, none of it would have been possible."
There is still much to do. Private investors remain scarce, and poverty plentiful. The median family income in Columbia Heights is just $20,905. About one-fourth of the population is foreign-born, and about 17 percent don't speak English very well, according to a DCCH study.
Although the streets in the theater district are alive at night, the activity has mainly pushed the prostitutes a few blocks south and east. A former longtime resident said she moved out when her preschooler began greeting prostitutes by name.
As things improve, though, the visionaries keep elevating their notions of what can be. They imagine neighborhoods restored to their former glory, when the homes were among the most desirable in the region, when going shopping or going out meant going to 14th Street. It remains a vision, but their achievements allow ordinary people to see what they mean.
Jim Dickerson said Jesus brought him to Columbia Heights 30 years ago. He thought he was coming to save souls and spread a gospel of love.
Reuben McCornack was a peace and civil rights activist who'd joined the National Guard to avoid Vietnam, and ended up commanding troops overseeing the very demonstrations he'd helped organize. He first came to Columbia Heights in full battle gear, helping quell the riots. He returned soon after with plans to do a bit of social work.
Bob Moore set up shop in donated space above a funeral home at 14th Street and Spring Road. He planned to organize community activists wanting a voice in the federal government's redevelopment efforts, which mainly involved dumping badly designed low-income housing projects into a decimated area with no shops, no jobs and no hope.
Government officials also had bulldozed 70 acres of land in Columbia Heights after the riots, working from the theory that if they cleared it, developers would come. They didn't.
So over time, people such as Dickerson, McCornack and Moore began building things. Hope Housing, which McCornack heads, and Manna, which Dickerson chairs, both grew out of church-based ministries. Moore heads DCCH.
Dickerson began with a small home repair business whose primary purpose was to train ex-convicts and "lost and lonely women." Soon he realized that his souls needed places to live, but private investors were nowhere to be found.
"Nonprofits just stepped in. We evolved from performing social services to rehabbing a house to eventually becoming viable development entities capable of taking on complicated projects."
The evolution took place simultaneously among foundation grant-makers who put up cash, among government officials who had to get used to working with nonprofits, and among bankers "who were learning project by project that we were good risks," Dickerson said.
Moore led a tour of Columbia Heights this week, beginning at its southern border, 14th and Belmont streets, where neighborhood rioting began with the looting of Belmont TV and Appliance.
The site is now home to the Nehemiah Shopping Center -- a block-long project of eight nonprofit groups. At the northern end of the shopping center, opened in late 1996, Moore turned the corner and began walking up Chapin Street.
"We own this," he said, pointing to a renovated apartment building. "And WISH is working on this apartment building, putting together $4 million in financing.
"We did this building a year and a half ago," he said, pointing to another apartment building. He gestured toward a town house renovated by For Love of Children, then looked across the street. "The city owns this vacant lot. We're working with a private developer and hope to do town houses."
He stepped up to a three-story apartment building -- a gorgeous but badly decayed mansion-style historic building. "We own that. We got construction bids last week, but they're high. We have to sandpaper them down a bit."
And so it goes up and down both sides of Chapin, where nonprofits are involved in most of the buildings on the two-block street.
Back at the shopping center, Moore pointed across 14th Street to a handsome row of three-story apartment buildings built by WISH to look like town houses. The buildings, designed by architects hired through a foundation grant, have within them a community center whose broad windows face the corner of 14th and Belmont.
Around the corner, down Belmont, starts an entire block of town houses built by Manna. On the other side of Belmont, where most homes are privately owned, about a third of the block is marred by vacant, city-owned land. Nonprofits are in the midst of presenting development proposals for the site to the city.
Moore then got in his van and rode past a variety of renovated and newly built properties developed by nonprofits: a high-rise for senior citizens called NCBA Estates, Trinity Towers Apartments, Columbia Park Townhouses, Lazarus House, the Christopher Price House, to name a few.
The hope is, Moore said, that nonprofit projects will create a critical mass and convince investors that they should return.
Next month, the city begins accepting proposals for seven major parcels. Development on those parcels has been stalled for 15 years as a group headed by Herbert Haft, of Crown Books fame, sat on exclusive development rights awarded by the city -- rights rescinded last year.
Major retailers and supermarket chains are "chasing us around like crazy," Moore said. "The new challenge is, how do we negotiate with these billion-dollar companies?"
Moore said he's gone from being ignored by moneyed interests to being romanced. But what they actually will bring to the table remains to be seen.
Moments after looking past the rats to see the high ceilings and hand-carved woodwork in the Sabrett warehouse, Zinoman knocked on Gibson's door, then at the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation. She had no appointment, but someone had told her that Gibson was a "good guy."
"I found a theater at 14th and P," she told him.
"Let's go look," he said. On the spot, he committed support.
It turned out the idea was the answer not just to her dreams but also to his.
Before Gibson left the city's development office, plans for a major city office building at 14th and U streets were already underway. Gibson knew that the Frank Reeves Municipal Center would be an important catalyst. But what could bring people to the streets after 5 p.m.?
"I remember how exciting it was when Joy came into my office," Gibson said. "She had a vision, but she also could see how to do it step by step."
The Studio Theatre opened with 17 subscribers in 1979. Today, 20 years and 125 productions later, it has 5,000 subscribers, including the original 17. Between rehearsals for a play that opens this week, Zinoman showed off the $3.5 million renovation of the historic building that once was a showcase for Peerless automobiles.
She paused to look up 14th Street.
"I'm trying to see this through your eyes," she said. "To you, it may still look crummy; to me, it's urban and alive. And you should see it at night."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company