The troubled 14th Street NW corridor wore a bright face yesterday, with a day-long street festival allowing thousands of area residents to forget -- if only for a few hours -- the neighborhood's notoriety as the center of the drug trade and prostitution in the nation's capital.
The party began with a parade from Thomas Circle to Spring Road and ended with an afternoon of entertainment and speechmaking at the headquarters of the 14th Street Project Area Committee. It was PAC's sixth annual community Mardi Gras.
Crowds lined the parade route, sitting curbside on telephone books, empty boxes, newspapers, milk crates and lawn chairs.
Young ladies, dressed for the muggy weather in halter tops and short shorts, drew shouts of approval and occasional pursuit from young men in running shorts. Families of three and four generations settled in on street corners for impromptu picnics. Mom-and-pop stores did brisk business in soft drinks, cold beer and half-smokes.
The parade was "a chance to let us see some of our own local talent," said Shellie Williams, who lives on upper 14th Street. "These people appreciate the neighborhood," she said. "I think a community is what you make of it."
Nine-year-old Tanya Williams cheered when the majorette troupe from her school, Harrison Elementary, marched past. People danced along with the Wheels of Fortune, a disco roller skating troupe, and shouted to hear each other over the roar of the Mecca Temple Motor Patrol. The members cut figure eights on their berry-and-white, chrome-encrusted motorcycles.
The biggest roar of all was for the Cardozo High School marching band, which has been invited to play in the Rose Bowl parade in Pasadena, California, next January. The Cardozo band brought up the rear of the parade, with a crowd of hundreds tagging along.
The band played the disco tune "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" and the opening bars of "Battle Hymn of the Republic." The drum corps launched into its trademark syncopated clatter. The streets were soon dancing.
Mayor Marion Barry, who was supposed to arrive at 12:30 p.m. to give the day's keynote address, showed up nearly two hours late. By then, most of the crowd had left, but he told those who remained he would work to "run the drug pushers out of our community."
The mayor said the housing situation in the area had improved but more needed to be done.
"I think rent control is one way of keeping rents down," said Barry, who has expressed doubts about the city's rent control law in the past.
In keeping with the spirit of the day, some neighborhood residents had good things to say about where they live. Dorothy McMillan, a resident of the Clifton Terrace apartment complex at 14th and Clifton streets NW, said many improvements have been made since the city took over the complex from PI Properties, a real estate spinoff of Youth Pride, Inc.
"They've painted the halls and put in front doors, and the security is better -- they try to keep the dope addicts out," McMillan said.
But other residents complained that the neighborhood's drug, prostitution and unemployment problems persist.
"These people with the drugs and prostitution come from other neighborhoods and Maryland to do their thing here," said Duke Williams, who lives near 14th and Chapin streets. "I wish I knew why."
Williams, 49, said he has been out of work since he was laid off his truckdriving job four months ago. His wife, a registered nurse, has kept the family afloat, he said. He hopes to get a hacker's license and drive a taxicab.
"I don't go out. It's dangerous in this neighborhood," said Mary Louise Cook, who has lived on Q Street near 14th for 12 years. "If they could get the girls off the streets at night, it might be better. They're not from around here, you know, they come in from Maryland."
As she spoke, two barefoot young women sashayed past, one wearing a cream-colored see-through dress, the other in the shortest of shorts.
Cook fixed them with a stare. "Prostitutes," she said. "Bah."
The PAC serves as a liaison between the city and the community on urban renewal, and is funded through the city.