The policeman stood on the roof of his cruiser, holding a bazooka-shaped video camera with high-intensity spotlight.Vietnam War technology, but the police were passing it off as "Operation Burbank" -- surveillance Hollywood-style. When it is dark, almost anything on 14th Street will shine.
Aiming the camera at a crowd in the doorway of the old Republic Theater, at 14th and U Streets NW, the policeman illuminated a knot of black men, some wearing faded Army field jackets and berets. Point, hold, shoot.
"Heroin. Nothing, but heroin out here," the officer said. "Those are the same people who laughed and cheered when officer Arthur Snyder was killed [during a drug bust on 14th Street last February].No, they aren't people. They're animals."
The crowd dispersed under the blaze of the Star Wars-like beam, but new groups formed in the darkness. From sidewalks and back alleys, they spilled back into 14th Street, jiving in a language of their own, reaching into a sock, slapping a palm. The drug trade.
"I made five busts earlier tonight. You should have seen their faces," the policeman sneered. "Swollen and bruised. Needle marks everywhere. This new Iranian stuff is killing 'em. I asked one of them. 'What happened to your face, lady?" She says, 'I fell down.'"
Two women were passing by when one of them stumbled, belched and rolled her eyes. She became a suspect.
"I hope you're not a part of any of this," the officer said to her.
"Everybody do wrong," she replied, red eyes blazing in the night, "but everybody don't do dope."
That's the way it is on 14th Street these days, where the word is you can get anything you want, anything that money can buy. But there is another side to this strip, too, where the bright lights of "Burbank" do not shine.
Outside Abart's Employment Service, at 1841 14th St. NW, the sign said "JOBS OPEN," but anyone familiar with Abart knew that simply meant the door was unlocked. Rachel Beavens, a polite, bespectacled jobs counselor, stood behind the counter, passing out applications. Young men, former "jitterbugs" (street dudes), streamed in from the cold, trying to keep from being burned by November's bitter wind.
"We have a big problem with people who just come in and sit, especially around this time of year," Beavens said. "They come from Oxon Hill, Seat Pleasant, all over, looking for employment. I guess 14th Street still holds promise for them, and they're still waiting. But there hasn't been much work available in the past two or three weeks. Well, there is some labor-work, maybe a day or so. Some of the newcomers around here do occasionally use laborers to help renovate their homes."
A scared, fearful, half-naked man staggered to the doorway. "Come back here," he cried to no one. He was holding an empty bottle. "That nigger know I know him and he still drunk my wine."
So many people, expecting so much, finding so little on 14th Street. In the aftermath of the riots of 1968, there were many promises of business loans, job training and health and education programs to assist residents in rebuilding rather than being forced out of, their neighborhood. Now the area is being renovated by "new pioneers." If truth was the light, 14th Street was a river of darkness.
Seated at the bar in John's Place before it recently closed down, Mary Jones, a sales clerk at Woodward & Lothrop, lamented the night on the strip over warm beer.
"I spend all day working hard, right? Don't make much money so I come over here for a little drink in the neighborhood bar, right? So every step I take some white man with Virginia or Maryland tags is leaning out his window licking they lips.
"I come to the bar, and all the black men are strung out on dope, can't find no jobs. All that's left for me is another drink. Lord, I hate to see so many men go down like that."
Out on the sidewalk, Officer R. G. Simmons spotted a cluster of men drop hypodermic syringes to the ground and disappear into the darkness.
"It's feeding time," he says "Look at 'em oil up. Not everybody in the crowd is an addict, and most of them don't even live around here. Fourteenth Street just attracts people. It's nationally known. People just keep coming back. But I can tell you one thing. They won't be coming back long. There is no such thing as an old junkie."
At 4 a.m., 14th Street can be livelier than at midday. Cars are still bumper to bumper around K Street, where the most expensive girls on the strip are located. Driving up towards, say, 14th and Q, quality drops dramatically. Still, these women gaudily dressed in fur panties and Day-Glo bras manage to get men to pay for what they otherwise might not take a second look at if it was free.
Earl Hawkins has an old sofa in an alley near 14th and Swann Streets where he can watch the girls parade by. Unlike most of the men leaning on lamp poles and seated on cars nearby, he is not a pimp. He is 52. When he was evicted from his apartment a year ago, U.S. marshals dumped everything he owned out on the sidewalk. He moved in with a friend, but all of his belongings were stolen before he could get them off the street. Except the sofa.
"I love this sofa." He smiled a brown-toothed grin and revealed a bottle tucked between the cushions. "When I was a younger man, I brought girls to my home, made 'em right here on this sofa. I used to go to Sidney West [a fashionable clothing store once located at 14th and G], get myself some Footjoy shoes, two-tone, brown suede, and a 'Dobbs 20' hat and I would be so clean dirt wouldn't stick to my shoe."
Now dirt sticks to everything: face, hands, clothes. He looks used up, dumped out on the street like so much evicted furniture.
"I don't know what happened. Negroes just went wild, burned down everything. Lost my job. Tough tiddy," he said, flashing another grin, taking a swig.
Fourteenth Street was not always like this, and, indeed, there are people who live on some sections of the long gray avenue who will tell you it still is not. North of Military Road where 14th Street dead-ends at Walter Reed are some fine houses occupied by the aspiring black middle class who send their children to private schools. And way down on the other end, there are the Departments of Agriculture and Commerce and the Bureau of Engraving, filled with upstanding bureaucrats and frequented by colorful and patriotic tourists.
Now, back to 14th Street, the one black folk made famous. How it used to shine.
The men who hang out around the Flamingo Club near 14th and Florida Avenue say the band instruments inside are still set up like they were in 1950. That's when the big acts favored the strip. Ray Charles. Ella Fizgerald. Sammy Davis Jr. Billy Stewart was live at the Bali, 14th and T.
Boys learned to shoot pool at the Idle Hour, where Ben's Chile Bowl restaurant is located now. When they were good enough, they went next door to Charlie Buck's Place. There, the girls from Cardozo High lined the wall, keeping an eye on the "shark."
There was a time when black folk rarely ventured north of U Street. That's where the white neighborhood began. Instead they turned left to the Booker T or right to the Republic. And they were not welcomed too far south of Thomas Circle, where St. John's Military Academy was first located. The Casino Royale was then considered the hottest spot between the Copacabana and the Fontainebleau -- and was for whites only.
As the black population of the District continued to increase during the 1950s and 1960s, blacks claimed 14th Street as their commercial mecca. U Street emerged as the entertainment strip, since many more clubs were located there. Before the riots, it was black Washington's downtown. More than 245 variety shops, jewelry shops, boutiques, movie theaters, bars and carryouts lined the thoroughfare from Florida Avenue north to Newton Street. But even before the fires that destroyed more than 90 of the establishments and severely disrupted business for others, 14th Street had begun to change.
Desegregation hurt black businesses on 14th Street, especially the clubs and restaurants. When Ella Fitzgerald stopped appearing at the Bali Club and began showing up south of Thomas Circle, the Bali closed its doors. It reopened under the name "The Spar." Some of the more rowdy customers must have thought that meant boxing club, because the police were always being called in to break up fights..
Blacks from the rural South continued to flood the city, and clubs like the Dixie Bell opened on 14th Street. They were blue-collar joints, frequented by laborers, maids and mechanics. They were loud and fun. The chicken wing and hogmaw carryouts followed, and before long 14th Street looked like a strip out of central Carolina.
Years later the social anthropologist John L. Gwaltney would write a book about such people entitled Drylongso, a word passed on through generations of blacks from the motherland, Africa meaning your ordinary, everyday black folks, not misfit exotica, not -- in Gwaltney's words -- "some kind of blackwater tributary of the American mainstream" but "core black culture."
These people took over 14th Street, gave it definition, made it a political symbol. Martin Luther King Jr. opened his Washington office at 14th and U Streets. Signed in graffiti by Malcolm and Che, sealed in wall murals painted red, black and green, delivered from riot ash, it was a political street, the western boundary of "Chocolate City."
In the Shaw neighborhood, there are blacks who say they have never been west of 16th Street, let alone the Kennedy Center or Rock Creek Park. More than containing blackness, 14th Street has kept white people out. But that boundary has started to blur with the arrival of the "new pioneers," whites who are intensely renovating the inner city. Georgetown's Canal Store and other swank shops have popped up on the strip, a clue as to what 14th Street is about to become.
For many black Washingtonians, 14th Street was the road that brought them across the Potomac River from points south, the same road to travel back home again.
Of the estimated 25,000 District residents who were evicted from homes and apartments during the past five years owing to "displacement," according to a 1978 study by the city's Rental Accommodations Office, nearly half came from the 14th Street and neighboring Shaw areas, where renovation activity has been dramatic. Another 75,000 residents are expected to be moved out during the next five years, the study said.
"They came and tried to move us out in the middle of the night," said Bonnie Dublin, a part-time waitress and go-go girl. That sounds far-fetched, but other residents have recounted similar experiences. "This white guy came to the door and said he had bought the place and said we had to move. They didn't give us no warning or nothing. Then he wants to take a tour of the house . . . while we ill in it. I say, still in it. I say 'Cracker, if you don't get yo you gonna get cut,' your ass away from here you gonna get cut.' So he called the police. There was eight of us, but we all split up now."
"There has always been drugs on 14th Street," said Robert Tucker, a laborer, as he was being served at Vicky's Variety Shop. "You used to not be able to find a cop nowhere around here -- now they are everywhere. Let the whites start moving back to Maryland and Virginia and there won't be a cop in sight. Everybody knows you can't stop drugs once they get out on the streets, so now they are just trying to keep it away from the predominant group of people -- the whites. They get protection from the addicts. But not the blacks who were living here all along."
Relief from the grief of 14th Street usually comes from the pulpit, and few deliver it with a flair so indigenous to the area as that displayed by Dr. T. A. (Pastor Theresa) Davis, founder of thee Free Evangelistic Church, at 14th and T, where a used car lot used to be.
Hers is a large church, seating more than 1,000 persons on two levels. A door guard keeps an eye on the hubcaps. Inside, a dozen women in nurse's uniform keep eyes on the jubilant congregation.
"I used to be an alcoholic, I used to be a vandal, a shoplifter, a playboy. ." Pastor Teressa continues until she touches all of the bases. "But I was saved."
Her voice reached a high pitch with every "used to be," drawing the audience to the edge of their seats. "Will everybody stand and jump up and down?" she commands. They do. Amen. With the congregation at ease, she begins a sermon tailored for life on 14th Street, where she has been doing her missionary work for seven years.
"Have you seen the sinner couples prosper? And wonder why you haven't? Are there any couples like that here today? Raise your hands. See, the reason they succeed and you don't is because they have the 'same mind.' I say, the 'same mind.'" She ducks and disappears behind the podium. Imitating a women she knew who had been "hit" by the spirit, she does a huckabuck dance across the stage.
Here's how you can get the 'same mind," she tells the captivated audience. "I say, sit down, together, and write God a letter. Say, 'God, I need a car.' Okay now. What kind of car? One says a Rolls. No. The other says a Cadillac. No. So what you need is the 'same mind.' Think about it, measure the need against the cost -- then agree on a Dodge, four-door.
Now, about that home. Think about it. Don't worry about the neighborhood. God knows what neighborhood you belong in. Then say, 'God, I want to be a GS-14.'"
The congregation explodes into a applause.
"Amen. Amen. Amen."
History begs the question: What kind of street is this? Of more importance to the residents and community activists who live along the strip is, What is it about to become?
There are young black men slumped in the doorway of some juke-joint, wasting away on herion. Next door, a holy-roller revival meeting is thumping full blast.
Three black families, more than 18 people if they can all get together, are doubled up in a crumbling rowhouse off Logan Circle while, nearby, two guys fix up their mansion.
John Somerville, a longtime resident of 14th Street, struggles to get a loan to open up John's Place, a local nightspot, then goes out of business. Just down the street, the Thai-Am Market flourishes, using help from out-of-towners who, when asked a question, say, "No comprende."
Fourteeth Street has always been a place that could make or break a person, from Marion Barry, who used it as a stepping stone from "sidewalk militant" to establishment politician, to Bruce Wazon Griffith, gunned down by police as the accused slayer of Arthur Snyder. It was during the 1950s that Sam Hawkins made a record called, "King of Fools," his only hit, while singing in nightspots along 14th Street.
There is still the need to be recognized here. Some street dudes threatened the photographer for this story. They said they'd take his camera if they were not photographed. And the cameraman for "Operation Burbank" was not having a hard time getting people to pose for him, either. Over 55 packets of heroin were confiscated during the first five days of shooting.
The place is changing, no question. They had a block party on Wallach Place a few weeks ago and nobody was selling "bam and the works," short for the prescription drug, Preludin. Syringes are called "the works." Instead, there was a band, food and soft drink. It was a festive and colorful affair -- drylongsos jammed back to back, reclaiming the turf.
"We just wanted people to see that there was more to this area than drugs and prostitutes," one organizer said of the event. "We have arts, theater, neighborhood clubs and a whole lot more around here. It scares me when people continue to harp on the drug thing. It makes you think they are just trying to use that as an excuse to get rid of all of us."
In a large artist's studio, a converted warehouse just off 14th Street, Sam Gilliam has been painting canvas since 1968. One of the reasons he liked 14th Street was the people -- the old auto and body shop mechanics who shared his alley, worked those same weird hours that he did. Showed him a thing or two about paint. Gone now.
Around him, Victoriana is making a comeback with steepled roofs and arched doorways gleaming in original splendor. White people living behild bars, walking attack dogs.
There are some physical changes that are noticeable, but I can't say its for the better," Gilliam says. "There used to be a very strong community along 14th Street, a more enjoyable community. There was a lot of 'funnyness' and " camaraderie with the kids around here. There is still some of that kind of thing around here, but it's disappearing. I see signs of physical improvement, but I also see blight of another kind."