For those of us whose childhood ended before or shortly after the advent of the strip suburban shopping center and the enclosed regional mall, going downtown at Christmas was always a special treat.
The sheer joy and excitement of walking down Main Street USA, framed by spectacular window displays and colorful decorations overhead, and filled with the sounds of carols and the unmistakable jingle of Salvation Army bells, are unmatched by anything found today at a cluttered warehouse store or crowded suburban mall.
Merchants and public officials in many cities have nonetheless managed to recapture part of what made the retail centers of their downtown areas special places. Not so in the District. Each Christmas Eve, the absence of the sights and sounds of Christmas on the streets downtown is jarring. Not a single wreath, light or piece of tinsel hangs in public spaces downtown, either as symbols of peace and goodwill or even commerce.
Only in the vacant old Woodward & Lothrop building at 11th and F streets NW does one get a sense of the Christmas that used to be. There in the display windows of the old department store is a child's delight, a winter wonderland in which life-size animated figures perform night and day to the delight of young and old.
Thanks to the building's owner, developer Douglas Jemal, who initiated the effort in collaboration with the Downtown Business Improvement District, a Woodies tradition has been revived, giving many in the area a reason to go downtown again.
And behind those windows goodwill toward men and the true spirit of giving can be found as well. There, Jemal has turned over the entire first floor to the Washington Metropolitan Area Salvation Army for its annual Toyland operation.
Supplementing donations of toys and clothing with funds from grants and other contributions, the Salvation Army will provide gifts for at least 10,000 needy families in the District this year, according to Mark Bell, general secretary of the local Salvation Army chapter.
With help from several volunteers, Salvation Army officials will have given away tons of merchandise by the end of today, including 1,500 bicycles donated by a local radio station, hundreds of books and 50,000 coats donated by others. "This is the biggest Toyland we've had here in years, thanks to this man," Bell said pointing to Jemal. "He has even assigned some of his people to help us."
Out on the sidewalk, Jemal cursed the bleak surroundings, made to seem more austere by the chill of a cloudy December day.
"Look at the street," he said pointing to a row of low-end retail stores. "Why don't [city officials] come out of One Judiciary Square and look at this? This is a crime. It's four days before Christmas and not a mouse in sight" on F Street.
His concern about the slow pace of retail revitalization notwithstanding, Jemal on this day was more upset because "not one public official has come down here in support of the Salvation Army."
Bell's recollection of his meeting with Jemal to ask his permission to use the Woodies building is instructive. "He said yes right away, and then we prayed together," Bell recalled.
That's the positive side of a fascinating story unfolding at the Woodies building. The other side is business as usual: yet another attempt by special interests to promote and encourage ad hoc development in the absence of planning and sensible policy guidelines.
Jemal's revival of the Woodies Christmas windows tradition and his embrace of the Salvation Army's Toyland program provide an ironic twist to the opposition he faces in his attempt to redevelop the historic eight-story building as a retail and office complex.
Housing activists are insisting that the building be zoned for residential use, though that was not a consideration when its previous owner, the Washington Opera Society, planned to convert it to an opera house.
Jemal purchased the building for $28 million only to have it held hostage in the zoning dispute. "I can bring retail back," he insisted recently. "I can put this together again, but I'm on hold for financing because I don't have the [necessary] zoning."
More housing downtown would attract more retailers. But other developers are responding to the demand. Tying Jemal's hands will only delay redevelopment of the Woodies building, forcing the city to forgo millions of dollars in taxes.
Outside the Woodies building an elderly woman, apparently lost and confused, asked for directions to a supermarket, saying she needed food for her cats. But the store she remembered no longer exists. Worse, she didn't remember which bus she needed to take to return home in Northeast Washington.
Jemal offered to send her home in a cab, but she was apparently too proud to accept. Undeterred, Jemal dispatched an employee to buy a case of cat food and drive her home, promising to send a case to her house every two weeks.
In that brief encounter on a dreary street corner, Jemal truly defined the spirit of Christmas.
Now it's back to the dirty business of doing battle with those who would thwart his attempt to improve the face of downtown.