If condominium conversion is Washington's hurricane, the corner of 18th and T streets NW looks like the eye of the storm.
Within half a mile of 18th and T, 49 buildings containing about 600 units are being transfered from rental status or private single-family ownership to condominiums. A City Council staff member who has compiled condominium conversion statistics around the city says the area has become "like a deluge. It used to be Foggy Bottom or Southwest. Now 18th and T is the busiest place in the city."
Conversion around the intersection has jacked the price of the average one-bedroom condominium to about $80,000. Two-bedroom units average $110,000, and some are going for as much as $165,000.
The same units rented for between $150 and $400 a month before renovation and conversion, according to city housing officials. "Those kinds of rents in that neighborhood are gone forever, and so are the people who could pay them," said the City Council Staffer. "It's classic shove-out."
Equally classically, most of the "shovees" are black, many are over 65, and many have lived in the neighborhood 50 years or more, their entire adult lives. Several real estate agents who have specialized in the neighborhood say they expect it to be at least 50-50 racially within five years.
To blacks being forced out, condominium conversion means not just the inconvenience of having to move, but a death blow to what longtime residents remember as one of the city's most stable black "family" neighborhoods.
Here is a look at what conversion around 18th and T means -- to a man who doesn't intend to fight it, a scared woman about to face it, and a man who faced it and lost, but stayed.
No-nonsense Gardner Bishop runs the no-nonsense B&D Barber Shop at 1900 15th St. NW. "Don't look for no unisex haircuts or no wigs in here," he cautions a visitor. "You come in here and get your hair cut the way you always did. Only difference between now and when I started in this neighborhood 50 years ago is the price."
Indeed, a plain haircut was 35 cents when Gardner Bishop first opened a shop around the corner in 1930, and it's $4 today. But for him, and B&D, a far bigger difference is at hand.
Bishop's lease is up. And Morton Press, whose company, Press Realty, owns the three-story brick building in which the barber shop has operated for 20 years, has had it on the market for nearly a year. "My future is spelled condominiums," says Bishop, "and there isn't nothing I can say about it."
Bishop doesn't mind for himself. "I'm 72," he says, as he hurries through a spinach salad at a small table by his front door. "A man can't work forever. aBut I'll tell you, what makes me sad is how the history, the tightness of this community is just going down the drain.
"This used to be where all the blacks who thought of themselves as prominent used to live. You know, messengers for the government, clerks, people who got dressed up on Sundays. . . ." Still, discrimination had its place, even in this high-toned neighborhood.
"There used to be this Japanese grocery on the corner," he recalls. "All the people with Maryland plates would stop on the way out to Silver Spring. But little black kids would try to go in there and he'd stand at the door, saying, 'Nothing you want in here.' Can you believe it? That was when this neighborhood was 100 percent, solid black."
Today, according to mid-1980 city government figures, the most recent available, the area within a half-mile radius of 18th and T is 65 percent black. Seven years ago, it was 95 percent black. But 50 years ago, it was 80 percent white -- mostly Jews and Italians. "I've seen it go from white, to black, and now back to white again," Bishop says.
The white-to-black change came shortly after the Depression. Using low-interest loans underwritten by the federal government, whites who had been living near 18th and T moved to larger homes in Arlington and Montgomery counties in "a white exodus," according to Washington historian Constance McLaughlin Green.
However, the same Federal Housing Act that provided the loans prevented them from being made in ways that would "disrupt neighborhoods." Thus, blacks who could otherwise have qualified for a suburban home could not get financing.
Meanwhile, blacks were flocking to the nearby "Black Broadway" at 14th and U streets for entertainment, and the city's largest black population was concentrated in Shaw, immediately to the east. As vacancies developed around 18th and T, according to Green it was natural that blacks would fill them.
The recent "rewhitening" of the neighborhood has hurt his business, Bishop says, although at least a third of his customers are former residents of the neighborhood who return.
In terms of keeping crime down, however, having whites around has helped, Bishop says.
"Something happens, I call the police, they don't come. A white family calls, and they're all over the place . . . I hate to say it, but it's true. c
"Do I feel squeezed out? You're damn right I do. But I don't really give a damn, because I live in Northeast. It's the people who live around here who do."
Maggie Barry is one of those people -- and she has been since she came to Washington from Stafford County, Va., 68 years ago at the age of 8. For the last eight years, she has rented a basement apartment on the 1700 block of T Street. But Monday, she officially became a "shovee."
Her landlord, Roger Coates, sold her three-story building Monday morning to a developer who plans to turn it into an office building. Under terms of the sale, Maggie Barry, whose only family is Cookie, a snarling German sherpard, and Butch, a tubby spaniel, has six months to find a new place. But she knows that the $155 a month in rent she has been paying will be impossible to duplicate.
"I am so frightened I don't know what I'll do," says Barry, who retired in 1968 after almost 25 years of cleaning offices at the Pentagon.
"I want to stay in this area. And I have to have a place that'll take my dogs. But I only get a $548 [per month] pension. I guess I could pay $200 for a place, but no more. And I've never owned a place, so I wouldn't be interested in condominiums at my age."
Coates, however, was -- and he says it was for his tenants' benefit, not only his own. For the last two years, or since he decided to sell the building, he says he has tried to help the tenants form a group that could buy the building and avoid dislocation. He says two successive tenants' committees could not raise enough cash for a down payment.
I'm not going to tell you I wasn't interested in doing well for myself," said Coates, a 40-year-old management consultant who owns two other buildings in the area. "But I thought it was critical to keep the social considerations in view. Seeing Maggie Barry struggle to find an apartment is one of the things that put gray in my head."
Maggie Barry says her head gets grayer whenever she considers the suburbs, and particularly Prince George's County, where most of her black former neighbors have gone.
"This used to be a neighborhood that felt like home," she says, as she pets Butch, asleep on the living room floor. As a member of her block council and a citizen adviser to the police department, Barry helped create that feeling herself.
But she has seen her six co-tenants change in four years from blacks to all Hispanics. "Now sometimes all you hear on the streets is Spanish," she says. "Why can't an old lady live in someplace that feels like home, in peace?"
They call Henry Henderson "Six," because he is 6 feet, 6 inches tall. But Henderson says they might as well call him "Eight Ball," because that is what he feels he is behind.
Henderson, 67, has worked in the 18th and T area for the last 35 years -- 22 as a metropolitan police officer, 13 as the security guard in the parking lot of 18th and T Liquors. He has also lived in the neighborhood for 41 years -- and a year and a half ago, the condo tide nearly swept him away.
"I was living at 1824 S St. Everybody there was black. I knew Everybody. We never thought it could happen," he says, sporting a tan felt cowboy hat and a button on his left breast that reads: "I Love Kids."
But what happened was the Sagamore, a 16-unit luxury condominium where sales are just finishing up this month -- and where all but one of the new owners is white.
Through "sheer luck," Henderson found another apartment in the neighborhood -- at 1740 18th St. NW, where he pays $190 a month for two bedrooms, only $20 a month for two bedrooms, only $20 a month more than he used to pay on S Street. "But I know, and you know, that the condo thing could happen again," he says.
"The thing that worries me is that the people who have to leave 18th and T have nothing else to turn to. Like that woman over there across the street. See her, sitting against that building there? She lives in and out of people's cars, people's spare rooms. How can she go to the suburbs? She doesn't even know how to get there.
"I can't be bitter," Six says, and I don't think most of the blacks here can. The average black person in the neighborhood knows he had a chance to buy all these years and didn't take it. But what worries me is that it could happen to me twice."