THE LAST TIME Ronald Reagan gave a performance in the black community was in New York's South Bronx, and the then-candidate played to boos and jeers from the skeptical men and women who gathered around him on a debris-strewn lot, in front of a gutted building.
But I want to offer him a reprieve, an opportunity for a performance that almost certainly would be met with cheers. I want to present him to the South Bronx of Washington -- H Street NE. What better place for the president-elect to stage his proposed inner-city "enterprise zones" than H Street? If the zones work on H Street (zones are depressed urban areas where taxes would be greatly reduced and regulations relaxed to encourage industry and new jobs), it might help allay the fear of some blacks that they sound suspiciously like further economic ghettoization.
And what better way to show up his Democratic predecessor?Jimmy Carter promised federally financed housing and a job training center in the South Bronx. Mr. Reagan chided him for his failure to deliver. Well, Rosalynn Carter made some early promises to H. Street. They bombed. H Street is practically virgin territory. But he advised that the people want a program in which local residents benefit.
On the streets jutting off H Street, there are plenty of people still jobless, badly educated and housed, poor as church mice and getting poorer. Remind any congressman who object that H Street is only a holler from the Capitol and that frustrated, hopeless people holler real loud.
You see, the people on H Street are losing hope of getting help via the usual route. They've been hearing promises since 1968. That's when Martin Luther King was killed and the blacks set out to avenge that murder and H Street was one of three corridors in Washington that lay in smoking ruins, as dead as the hopes of the people who set the fires.
The dozen years since have been frustrating and confusing swirl of renewal plans, major projects and revisions, all promising prosperity to the businessmen and hope to the people who live nearby. There is only scattered evidence of development along most of the 15 blocks of the corridor: a 10-acre Hechinger's mall at the east end of the corridor and cleared ground for another mall between 8th and 10th Streets. But the boarded up small stores in block after block elsewhere suggest that the land is still largely unchanged since 1968, waiting for development to come.
Meanwhile, listen to some of the voices from H Street:
The Small Businessman: Eathen Hook sits in one of his four barber's chairs, his feet planted amid piles of soft hair. He's worked in his little barbershop since 1956, in the process earning a reputation as one of the best barbers on the strip. Yet his 24 years of struggle have failed to deliver on his small dream, to own the building where he works.
"What is needed," Hook says, "is more business loans to the average little man who has been struggling here before and since the riots. Government claims they're going to put so much money for the small business people, but you can't get any of the money to rehabilitate or buy." He pauses to finger a cigar stub.
"They say you've got to have a certain amount of money in order to borrow. When H Street gets completed, we're still left in the hole. The changes are not for the small business people. Everything coming out here is large. It isn't helping people who have been struggling since 1968, who have been carrying things on, keeping things alive. They can go and build a new country in 10 years. They can't build H Street in 12 years?"
The Street Vendor: Bernard Tillman, a tall, strong-looking man of 33, has been selling hats on one of the corners of 8th and H for several years. The hats go from $1 to $6. He's seen the clentele go from all black to racially mixed. "Capitol Hill people are moving in," he says. "Blacks are moving out. It's the same thing, you know. But this is my neighborhood. I take it as it comes. The youths are not doing too much buying these days because they're not working."
The Locals: Betty Gallaway is an attractive, big-boned woman. She tugs on the collar of the padded blue coat. "This place gives me a sense of security. I'm relaxed here. The people are good people. I grew up here."
Delores Pollard, 12, is a sixth grader at Goding Elementary School. "I love it [H Street]. It's just fun. You see people laughing. It's just a whole lot of fun." But her aunt, Ernestine Jones, disagrees. "I don't like it. It's too much fighting, robbing and killing. But I don't let that keep me from going out."
So the people are survivors. They recognize that high notes of promise often end with them singing the blues. Striding along H Street, one sees a crazy quilt of vignettes: two men at the bus stop act out the Sugar Ray-Duran fight, a young man in a long dark overcoat rocks back and forth, a big group of people line up at the Family Liquor stocking up for the holidays, and the sound of a blues tune wafts through a doorway:
All night long.
As you cross the bridge to leave H Street, there is a clear view of a million dollar boondoggle -- the National Visitor Center parking garage -- and suddenly the small town of H Street is gone.
H Street is the perfect stage for Ronald Reagan, the actor-turned-president. They're ready for the performance.