Driving to his far Northeast clothing shop one spring day about three years ago, Vernis L. Winfield glanced out his window and noticed that an oild junkyard on Minnesota Avenue one block from his store was gone.
It was only, then, he said, that he finally believed the subway really was coming to the drab commercial area.
"When they pulled away those old cars and replaced them with cranes and bulldozers, you knew something was happening," recalled Winfield, who has operated The Young Men's Shop in the 3900 block of Minnesota Avenue NE for 21 years. "It was the moment of truth."
Until then, Winfield said, a number of people who either lived on Minnesota Avenue NE or did business there figured the subway was "just conversation" - idle optimism among residents of a "forgotten" section of Washington, a stable black community that seldom received publicity except when crime pierced the quiet.
But Metro is coming. Next Monday, a subway station opens at Minnesota Avenue and Hayes Street NE just off the Benning Road Bridge and about nine-tenths of a mile from the Deanwood Metro station that also is opening next week. Both stations are part of the New Carrollton, or Orange, line.
"We're not forgotten any longer. We've got Metro," said one long-time resident.
Businessmen and residents, who are planning a welcoming ceremony and parade this Friday desperately hope that the subway will be the catalyst for upgrading, and a way, in the words of one, of "putting us on the map."
The station sits on the edge of a Minnesota Avenue commercial strip that resembles the main street of an old Midwestern small town. It is a hodge-podge collection of one-story hardware, fast food, grocery, and clothings shops, many of them in need of improvement. A few of the buildings are painted bright orange or yellow, as if attempting to stand out from the surrounding bleakness. The smokesticks of an electric power plant loom in the background. Across the street is Woodson Junior High School. Nearby stands the boarded up Benning School and a run-down, vacant theater.
The station also borders a stable neighborhood that has been predominantly black in most sections for generations. The entire area is called Deanwood, but Deanwood is split up into several small communities, according to long-time residents, and a part adjacent to the Minnesota Avenue station is usually known just as "the Benning area." Residents include the very poor and many blue-collar and middle-class black families.
Merchants hope that they soon will be able to build up their area so they can compete with the sleek suburban shopping malls only a few miles away across the Maryland-District line.
"We want to stop some of these shoppers from going out there," said Winfield, who is also the president of the local businessmen's association. "We want to get some of the money that's going to Landover."
Edward Travers, who has owned the Benning Shoe Store in the 4000 block of Minnesota Avenue since 1962, is one businessman who is looking forward to the subway. It will help his business, he believes, and provide a convenient way for his customer who has moved to Suburban Maryland to get to his small store.
Travers said the barber shop across the street that moved out when Metro was constructed wasn't able to return when the landlord doubled the rent for the building. Travers, who pays only $126 a month to lease his small shop, currently has a four-year lease and fears rent increases may be in store for him and others businesses. "If my landlord has an opportunity to raise the rent, he'll do it. The name of the game is making money," Travers said.
Archie Alston, who owns a tiny bright orange seafood store on Minnesota Avenue, also expects the subway to be good for business. "I've really been waiting on it," said Alston, who has operated his store for three years.
Not everyone is so optimistic about the subway however.
George R. Turner Jr. operates one of his five beauty supply stores on Minnesota Avenue NE. His shop has been open there for five years when he was forced to close for 22 months because of the construction of the subway, Turner said. Before the construction began, Turner said, his shop had about $8,000 a month in sales. Since he was able to reopen last November, he said, "We haven't come close to that. In other words, we're going to have to rebuilt from scratch."
Turner said if he had continue to operate his shop during the subway construction, Metro would not have been liable for damages, and his insurance company refused to cover him. He decided against relocating his shop because he felt the "rigmarole" he had to go through to get reimbursed for his moving expenses wasn't worth it.
"I got nothing out of it but a headache," Turner said.
And now that the Metrorail is about to open, Turner said he doesn't think it will make much difference to the area. "The subway was not built for the inner city," he said. "It was built for suburbanities."
Residents of the area have mixed feelings about the subway. Carrie Brown moved to Hayes Street NE just off Minnesota Avenue 34 years ago from a third-floor apartment in Adams-Morgan, attracted by the small brick house that had a porch and both front and back yards. At the time, she had three young children and needed space. It was a close-knit community, full of churches and modest frame, detached houses, she recalled. The street she moved on was mostly white then. "But once we [blacks] started moving in, they started moving out," said Brown.
Brown is looking forward to using the subway for business downtown, but her main concern is that her street has not yet been included in the residential permit parking program. "We won't be able to get in our door when the people from Maryland start coming here," she said. "I didn't run from D.C. I've been here with D.C. and all its problems for 30 years. Why should I be inconvenienced?"
A Metro planner said the Minnesota Avenue station, which has "kiss and ride" space for commuters to be dropped by spouses, is expected to draw commuters from Northeast Washington. Most Maryland riders are expected to park and take the train at one of the three new Maryland stations. Some parking spaces are scheduled to be built for the Minnesota Avenue station, the planner said.