FROM THE RED-BRICK tiled subway station at East Capitol Street and Benning Road NE a fiesta of new fast-food eateries and convenience stores spreads before me. Near the landmark Shrimp Boat Restaurant stands a new Church's Fried Chicken, a new Gino's, a new Burger King and a spanking new 7-Eleven.
Some folks would call this the greening of Far Northeast, new symbols of fledgling prosperity that have come with the subway. These new fast-food eateries provide jobs, fill once-vacant lots with new enterprise, and give hope to some that prosperity at long reach this outermost quadrant.
But to other people out there, the area has become kind of a poor man's burgerland and they see these new outlets as symbols of the losing battle for family stability. That's because Far Northeast has the city's highest concentration of youth and many are now eating a steady diet of fast food. Some residents fear this is reinforcing the dissolution of family ties that for many people already were fragile.
Maybe the people with this worry are old fashioned. Maybe it struck something of a sympathetic chord with me because I'm old fashioned enough to share this feeling. I still think a family meal around a table now and then is one of those aids to family life that, once given up, hurts the communication process irreparably. And, like everything else, poor communication strikes extra hard and deep in families -- like many in Far Northeast -- where turmoil, trauma, conflict, dislocation and absence of tradition already exist.
"Look at them," says Vera Thompson, a crime prevention coordinator and mother of four as we walk into a McDonald's on Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue. She gazes around at a group of teen-agers, small boys and young family groups within the brightly colored interior. "The Safeway out here had closed down, but we're getting more fast food places. I see young parents where the oldest in the family is a grandmother of 30 or 35. She identifies with her daughter in many activities and the youngest is left with the easiest way out. That means fast foods."
As if to prove her point, four boys, aged 9 to 12, engage in noisy horseplay as they munch apple pies and Big Macs. "We're having half-smokes for dinner and my sister is cooking," says the 11-year-old. A clerk tells them to quiet down. "She's the mother figure," says Vera Thompson with a furious zip of her black ski jacket as she steps out into the cold.
Admittedly, it's kind of sad the way things are going, and it's a sign of changing times for everybody. But this is where the 1980s have left us. Half of America's women work and fast food is an easy way out for more than just the poor. But the problem is heightened when there is a high concentration of people who don't know enough about nutrition and come to depend on fast food.
Of course, these outlets are what people want. In our own family, our children love cheeseburgers and fries as much as coq au vin. My teen-age daughter, the Saturday McDonald's employe, would never forgive me if I come out as totally against fast food. And there is a lot to be said for picking up a hot, cheap meal. But in Far Northeast, it's a doubleedged sword.
"We want to employ youth, we want revitalization," says James Gregg, longtime director of Sign of the Times, an arts program on 56th Streen NE. "But I'd say that with housing and unemployment, family breakdown is one of our most serious problems out here. And the sad thing is that the old businesses can't get any money for renovation but all the new businesses can."
Northeast Washington is like the communities where many of us grew up -- it has poverty, some middle-class people, too much bad housing and too little good housing. The institutions that are a community's stabilizing force -- schools, churches, organizations, family -- are struggling. But residents like Thompson and Gregg are not cursing the unwed mothers and the elderly. They're not turning their backs on the welfare recipients. They just happen to think that the new "haven" that Far Northeast is becoming for fast-food outlets is making matters worse, not better.
Of course they're stuck with their mixed blessings. The residents who are in tough economic circumstances and who fear a conservative government's response to their plight aren't of a mind to put up a fight even if they want one. Even in affluent areas, getting rid of a fast food store once it has decided to locate in a neighborhood is like trying to stop a rampaging bull. Residents who fight all the way to court have been known to lose the battle. How much less is the chance when people lack strong, organized citizens groups to fight.
So, Far Northeast will go on being a burgeoning burgerland. No Safeway -- but convenience stores where a pound of bacon costs $3. Symbol of good times to some. Symbol of family breakdown to others.
I think one reason these people are so upset is that they feel so isolated and powerless that even "progress" is threatening. But the bottom line is a good one -- concern about family life. For in the economic hard times that are ahead for us all, the family will be the basic building block that will be the foundation for survival.