When the Washington Convention Center was in the planning stages in the late 1970s, a city report described the proposed site as "a sea of cars surrounded by decaying buildings and vacant lots." Little has happened in the past six years to change that description.
But when the District was a young city in the early 1800s, the neighborhood was a thriving business and residential area, according to descriptions in a D.C. government environmental impact statement prepared before the Convention Center project was launched. Development was well under way by the mid-1820s. The streets were improved in the 1850s. During the 1860s, commercial development of the area intensified, mostly in the form of small shops with apartments above them.
As a middle ground between Capitol Hill and the White House, the Seventh Street NW corridor was a perfect location to become the area's dominant retail section. The earliest mass transportation--horses, then streetcars--converged there and made the area more accessible to people living on the perimeter of the city.
The area began to lose importance as a business center for a number of reasons. With the invention of the car came a decentralization of retail and entertainment businesses, according to a report on the neighborhood written by the local preservationist group Don't Tear It Down.
"In 1954, after the Supreme Court said no segregation, all the whites ran out," said Wesley Williams, deacon at Greater New Hope Baptist Church. During the riots of 1968, much of the Seventh Street corridor burned. Few of the businesses ever reopened.
"I've seen a lot of change. There used to be stores on both sides of this street," Williams said. After 1968, the area "went down to nothing," he added.
Walking around the center, one might be suprised to see a large Star of David amidst the abandoned buildings. This is Greater New Hope Baptist Church, which started out as a synagogue for the Jewish minority that once lived in the area.
In 1860, the District had fewer than 200 Jews out of a total population of 7,500, according to city documents. Most of them settled in the area around the retail core of the city. This small group, the Washington Hebrew Congregation, bought the Methodist Episcopal Church during the Civil War. In 1897, they built a synagogue on the site.
Most of these Jews were of German descent, but by 1890 they had been joined by a fairly large population of non-German Jews. As they got wealthier, they moved away from their Seventh Street businesses and rented their homes. Later, semi-industrial and light industrial development drove more residents out of the area.
In the past 30 years, blacks have become an important force in the area. In 1955, the synagogue was turned into the predominantly black Greater New Hope Baptist.
"I like this area. I've been here for 35 years," said Nicola Fera, manager of a Medco store on 11th Street. According to Fera, there were no vacant stores at all on his block during the early 1960s. Business persons lived in the area, and about 70 percent of his clientele was white. "After the riots, our white trade disappeared. Right now only 2 percent of our trade is white," Fera said. The opposite side of Fera's street is made up of burned-out buildings that have been destroyed by transients, he said.
Chinese residents are the Convention Center neighborhood's dominant ethnic group today. They originally began moving into the area around 1930, after they were displaced by government construction from the original Chinatown at Pennsylvania Avenue and 4 1/2 Street NW.
The Urban Renewal Plan of 1969 expressed the city's intention to preserve and enhance Chinatown. A Chinese Community Center was built, and street signs display both English and Chinese characters.
The Convention Center displaced a portion of Chinatown but steps were taken to protect the area's individuality and provide a low-rent housing complex for those Chinese forced to move from their homes.
So far, development has been spotty. Empty stores line the streets and parking lots sit where buildings were planned. The public actions proposed to help downtown still are in the talking stage. However, with the upturn in the economy, some observers see reason to believe development will take off and the area once again will thrive.
This is the last in a series of articles assessing the impact Washington's new convention center is having on the surrounding and downtown area. The series was written by members of a George Washington University journalism class under direction of Charles Puffenbarger, an assistant financial editor of The Post, who teaches part-time at GW.