It doesn't seem so special.
From Benning Road near East Captiol Street, it looks like just another Metro subway stop, a pond of freshly poured concrete, dotted with trees and bushes on islands of peat, its banks littered with beer cans and chicken bones. b
But down the long, steep escalator beneath the intersection lies an Orwellian palace of transportation, a concrete honeycomb linked by speeding silver rail cars to the city downtown.
Benning Road has its lifeline now. And although it wasn't always that way, the residents are now amazed -- happily so.
"Praise the Lord, the subway's finally here," said Gertrude Burke, 48, a cleaning woman at the Smithsonian Institute.
She never thought it would happen. "I mean, they talked about putting it in for a long time, but I figured it would probably fall through because I know those white folks that run things usually don't care much about the people who live out here in Northeast . . .You can bet I'll be riding it every day."
Come Sunday, the Washington area's planned 101-mile subway system will be 3.52 miles closer to completion with the opening of the final three stations along the eastern end of the Blue Line. The Addison Road extension, as it is called, was constructed at a cost of $179 million and includes the Benning Road Station in the District and the Capitol Heights and Addison Road stations, both in Prince George's County.
Running from the present Stadium-Armory Station east along elevated tracks over the RFK Stadium parking lot, the extension splits off from the existing Orange Line and then dives below Benning Road just after crossing the Anacostia River. The Benning Road Station, constructed under the busy intersections of Benning Road, East Capitol Street, Central Avenue and 14th Street, is expected to boost Metro ridership by about 7,400 trips per weekday.
Above ground the station lies near the timeworn Benco Shopping Center, nestled between the historic Shrimp Boat carry-out (home of what residents say are the best chitterlings, minced barbeque sandwiches and home-fried chicken wings in the area) and the Chef's Table Restaurant (with its $8.95 all-you-can-eat buffet dinner the specality). Several businesses moved away during the station's five-year construction period, but now others are coming in to replace them.
The new station will serve the predominantly black, low-to-middle-income populace that lives in the high-rise apartments, government-owned housing and $70,000 detached brick homes of the area, whisking retirees to downtown shopping, young professionals to office buildings and blue-collar workers to government buildings on Capitol Hill.
The station's ceremonial opening on Saturday -- it does not open officially for passenger service until Sunday -- will be complete with spirited music by the Fletcher-Johnson Junior High School band, a song by second-grader Tyrese Scott from J.C. Nalle Elementary School and a continental breakfast of Danish and coffee served at the local Burger King.
"We're pretty excited about Metro," says Willie Hardy, Ward 7 City Council member and a neighborhood resident. "It should have a big impact on the area. There will be new business development, and with the Benco Shopping Center revitalization, it should help a lot."
Ann Hollis, owner of the Burger King across the street from the station, says, "I expect business to increase by 15 to 20 percent."
Says James Onley, advisory neighborhood commissioner: "The new station will make available the kind of quick, economic transportation that the residents in this area have been waiting years for. . . . It's also helping with business. There were about 15 small businesses in the area before; now they've built a Burger King and a Gino's, and they're working on a 7-Eleven and a Church's Fried Chicken."
Feelings were not always so enthusiastic. Onley says that initially residents were worried that the already heavily congested area would get worse during rush hours, endangering elderly and youthful pedestrians crisscrossing the streets.
There were other fears. "People were kind of worried," Onley said, "that because Metro hasn't provided a parking lot, commuters would park on the residential streets and apartment parking lots, and the residents wouldn't be able to find spaces in front of their own house. . . . And there's always the worry that increased access to the ara will bring in people who will just roam around and cause trouble."
Another advisory neighborhood commissioner, Jean McNeil, said, "If you were to look at what happened to communities when they get Metro, they become popular. After awhile the neighborhood changes totally and the longtime residents -- we have lots of people who have lived here for generations -- get forced out. We don't want to see the characteristic increase of property values, gutting out homes and displacement of the neighbors, for a more cosmopolitan type of people. We're going to work hard to keep that from happening."
In the five years since ground was broken for the Benning Road Station, says Chef's Table owner Bud Westbrook, many of the owners of small businesses along Benning Road have "had terrible years."
Westbrook said that high, plywood barriers blocked his restaurant from the view of passersby, and he frequently squabbled with construction workers, who parked their cars and heavy machinery in his parking lot and once knocked down his sign.
"When the construction began, there were about six restaurants on the block," Westbrook said."There was a carry-out, a cocktail lounge, Chinese restaurant, deli and a liquor store. There was another gas station, a dry cleaners . . . and a laundromat. They all either lost their leases or gave up.
"I will never know how bad the construction hurt me, how many people all the dirt and the mud and the boards kept away. I had to borrow money to keep the place open, but I'm glad I was able to survive it.
"I know it was worth it. The future looks real good," Westbrook said.