When Jim Kitchen says he can't see the light at the end of the tunnel, he speaks both literally and figuratively.
For five years now, according to Kitchen, the home furnishing center he manages, Bargaintown, has languished along with other retail stores on construction-scarred Seventh Street NW, white Metro workers tunneled a new subway path between C and F streets NW.
The worst is finally about over, and merchants on the street - after organizing for their very survival, Kitchen says - are getting ready shortly to "put Seventh Street back on its feet again."
Seventh Street, historically a major artery into what was Washington's first commercial district before the Civil War, is today a collection of both seedy and venerable shoe, clothing, furniture, discount and snack shops that have seen better times.
Once a road traveled by Montgomery County farmers bringing their produce down to the city wharves or to the old market at Seventh and Pennsylvania Avenue, the street is now blocked by bulldozers, wooden barricades and chunks of dug-up pavement.
A little more than a year ago the 300, 400 and 500 blocks of Seventh Street were virtually impassable as a result of Metro construction. Store windows and steps fell in, and "the whole street and sidewalks were sunk and buckled," said Kitchen.
Merchants along the street estimate they have lost thousands of dollars of business because the Metro work blocked pedestrian and vehicular access to their stores for months at a time and discouraged shopping. Several stores were forced to shut down or relocate.
"Business was affected very terribly," said Patrick Carralochoa, general manager of Fashion Discounts and National Sales, two stores on the street. His store sign announcing slashed prices is no sales gimmick, said Corralochoa, adding that he is "forced to go under what I should sell for."
Customer access is vital, explained Gilbert Tebeleff, who manages the 50-year-old Boyce & Lewis family shoe store up the block from Bargaintown.
"The more people walking the street, the better for business," he said. "If you don't have foot traffic, you're in trouble."
Compounding the problem, Tebeleff said is the fact the buses have been rerouted away from the street, and the nearby Lansburgh's and Kann's department stores have closed down.
The irony of the situation is not lost on merchants, who had long looked forward to Metro's arrival downtown as a way to revitalize a sluggish retail area.
"We knew there would be problems [during construction], bue we had no idea of the time it was going to take," said Kitchen, who complained the project "took twice as long as it should have."
To make matters worse, he said, the Metro workers "didn't take into consideration how this construction was affecting our business." There were many days after the street had been torn up when the "bulldozers just sat there" unused, recalled Kitchen. "It just seemed like they were in no hurry to finish and clean up."
Finally, about a year ago, exasperated merchants from such Seventh Street stores as the Hub Furniture Co., Hecht's, S. S. Kresge Co., Morton's, Kinney Shoes and Lerner Shops got together to form the Seventh Street Business Association.
The organization according to the association's president, Kitchen, enabled the merchants to get "more attention" from Metro and city officials than they were getting as individuals. The group successfully appealed to the city to stop subway construction during the most recent Easter and Christmas shopping seasons.
The construction caused actual physical damage to the premises and merchandise of some stores along the street. Metro took full responsibility for the damage and is reimbursing owners for the repairs, but the experience was unnerving for some merchants.
The windows kept falling in, and we sometimes had to come down here two or three times in the night when the alarm would go off," said Jerome Dempsey, manager of the Big and Tall Men's Shop clothing store. "We'll be glad when they finish."
Metro is currently repaying the street and putting in new sidewalks.
When the work is finished, the merchants association plans to put together a special advertising campaign and really go out and promote this street again," said Kitchen.
Metro spokesman Cody Pfanstiehl said he sympathized with the merchants but felt the subway's construction was completed in that area as quickly as possible given the environmental, traffic and other restrictions imposed on the workers. The need to relocate gas and electric utility lines also delayed the project, he said.
The Metro construction under the street is part of preparations for the new mid-city Yellow Line, which is expected to begin operation in 1981 and will run south from the Gallery Place Station at Seventh and G streets NW to L'Enfant Plaza, and connect with lines to Virginia.
In addition, according to John Fondersmith, chief of special projects for the D.C. Municipal Planning Office, the city's master scheme calls for turning the area between Seventh and Ninth streets and E Street and Pennsylvania Avenue into a "super block" complex of apartments, offices and retail stores.
All of this sounds just fine to the merchants of Seventh Street, who think they have waited long enough for some encouraging business news.
If you're ever dealt with merchants you know we bounce back," said Kitchen. "I'm looking forward to a good Christmas once the street is open."