Linda and Wallace Anderson have owned a small greeting card shop for three years. It's in the 1300 block of F in the old downtown. Down the block on both sides, stores stand empty. The outlook for the Andersons' shop is marginal now, but the downtown's future looks optimistic and they would like to stay. It's an open question whether they'll be able to. Their rent will leap by $1,000 a month starting next year.
He is one of this city's leading lawyers. He strides purposefully down K Street, radiating presence, and turns into his firm's offices at 1800 M St. NW. Curtis Smothers, Esq. seems to epitomize the bright black professional who has arrived. He's one of a handful of blacks who have offices in the West End, Washington's newest downtown commercial area. But his is an ironic and somewhat lonely presence. "From a professional standpoint, in terms of the overall picture from 9 to 5, the West End is white," Smothers says.
Washington has a white downtown and a black downtown. It is unfashionable to talk about it - so far is the city removed from the days of segregated restaurants and the inability to try on hats at Garfinckel's. But the separate downtowns do exist.
The white downtown is that golden cluster of office buildings, hotels, and expensive stores west of 15th Street.The Three A's are the main inhabitants - attorneys, trade associations and accountants - and they have come for stronger ties with the federal government.
The black downtown is fast becoming an integrated downtown. It is the area east of 15th Street that died in the last decade and, with huge infusions of federal and private money, stands on the verge of recovery.
You're much more likely to see educated and middle-class whites and blacks west of 15th Street, and working class and poor blacks east of 15th Street. "If you counted white and black faces," said Bob Gray of the Metropolitan Washington board of Trade, "you'd probably come up with seven white and three black faces over here, and seven black and three white faces east of 15th Street."
He adds: "I don't know what accounts for it."
Deja Vu. Years ago, Washington was defined by legal segregation with minutely defined geographical boundaries. Not a lot has changed. Now the question can be asked, will a revived old downtown become the same bastion of white ownership, control and employment as the new downtown? Or can it be developed into an area that is more reflective of this city, for all of the citizens of this city?
A zoning "mistake" fathered the new West End. About 20 years ago, the commissioners made a decision to extend downtown zoning west of 15th Street. That allowed the west ward area to be transformed from residential to office use, and paved the way for the abandonment of a downtown that had once been the city's business and commercial core.
Old downtown was definitely ailing. Whites started fleeing to the suburbs, especially after 1954, and the city gained a black majority. After the 1968 riots, black shoppers went downtown because their traditional shopping areas were burned out. Fear of crime, real and imagined, spread. The land west of Connecticut Avenue was nearer the areas where white executives preferred to live.
The new downtown emerged as white in three ways - employment, ownership and control.
The attorneys, associations and accountants west of Connecticut Avenue mainly hire professionals with experience on the Hill or in regulatory agencies. Most hiring tends to be from mainstream schools, though blacks are available. A black college diploma is a deterrent in these circles. Many of these firms hire one or two blacks to meet the federal government's equal opportunity requirements, but it often is a tossup whether the hire is a "spook by the door" or given as a chance for the person to become a productive team member.
"We probably have more [blacks with degrees] working down there in the post office than any other city," says James Denson, of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. "You'd be surprised at the people with master's degrees operating Metros."
The old downtown has retail stores, many district government employes, and the Federal Triangle - seat of much black employment by the federal government. This accounts for the respective areas' distinct complexions.
As for ownership and control, Smothers sees from his window at 18th and M Streets "nothing but cranes. You are literally creating a white enclave," he says.
The groundwork for new downtown was laid 20 years ago when blacks were picketing to work as clerks in F Street stores. So, perhaps the fact that they own little is no surprise. The city's black elected officials have acted to see that a revitalized downtown will have minority participation. But people like Denson complain that many blacks still are excluded. They tick off a long list of blacks who have not had a chance to be involved in any development teams for the downtown area. The city's Arnold Mays thinks that the complaining is sour grapes. "We have gone out, sought them out, brought them in and worked out deals with them."
Small retailers like the Andersons are rightly nervous as downtown takes off, because the question of getting marginal businesses into new developments hasn't been addressed. But retail business may be the key to really providing some equal opportunity to rank and file city citizens as downtown, including Pennsylvania Avenue, is developed. Along with hotels and similar tourist lures, retail businesses will provide jobs for the city's non-professionals and the low skilled.
"There won't be any jobs for those currently unemployed, but where they will be, retail is best and the convention center is the best of all," says an official of the Federal City Council.
Gray crossed his fingers as he expressed the best hope for the area. "The one thing I most hope will happen is we will really find a melting pot. It belongs to all of us. That is one of the social implications of developing downtown - bringing people together." CAPTION: Picture 1, Alleys, such as this one in the 900 block of F Street, need repairs.; Picture 2, Newness marks this arcade at Connecticut and M, part of the white downtown.; Picture 3, Wallace and Linda Anderson worry what will happen to their shop in a redeveloping old downtown.; Picture 4, Curtis Smothers has a lonely presence in new downtown. Photos by Douglas Chevalier - The Washington Post