Two doors protect Viola Burgess from the world; she opens each one a crack at a time. She will speak to a reporter, but "no pictures," she insists. At 1758 U Street NW, her home is three blocks from the drug traffic, and if "people see what you got, (they) might try to break in."
Across the street, her neighbor Eunice Shepherd reluctantly admits a business-suited visitor. "I don't let (developers) in the house," she explains. "Vultures. They send letters, call up. I say, "Don't come in here, this house isn't for sale.' This house (built in 1885) belonged to my parents."
For the many elderly black patricians who live in the U Street area near 14th Street NW, their world has become perverse symbiosis, fear upon fear. When they don't fear the addicts will take their money, they fear that, addicts gone, the developers will take their homes.
"A lot of us feel," said Rev. Raymond B. Kemp, pastor of Saints Paul and Augustine Roman Catholic Church, a community haven at 15th and V streets Nw, "that the only thing standing between us and becoming another Georgetown is that" -- he pointed to a cluster of junkies and hangers-on gathering a few yards from the open window at 1419 V St. NW -- "that, the long gray line." The near-solid mass of ashenfaced addicts along 14th Street left no question about the priest's meaning.
The paradox has created confusion in the area among residents who cannot decide who their enemy is, or who to fight or how. What they do know is that long gray line keeps displacement away.
"I had one guy say to me, "I don't want any development because when the addicts and rats leave, I will not be far behind,'" said Edna Frazier-Cromwell, advisory neighborhood commissioner for the district just east of 14th Street. "He was willing to put up with the discomfort and the drugs, he was so afraid."
The man, like most others, has learned to adjust, either by ignoring or avoiding the alien life style. The range of coexistence includes those who accommodate and those who shun. Viola Burgess sits on one end of the spectrum and takes a bus the three blocks from her home to Walker Memorial Baptist Church, 2020 13th St. NW. "I don't know who these people are," she shrugs, "they could be crazy." Out of the same fear, Eunice Shepherd, a piano teacher, stages her piano recitals in a Georgetown school rather than use one in the immediate area.
Others, like John Snipes, owner of Butch's Place, a do-drop-in candy store at 13th and U streets, make a point of understanding, serving anyone who stumbles in. "It's not my job to get rid of them," said Snipes. "A lot of those guys that are considered junkies are friends of mine, and I got to respect them until they do something that makes them unworthy of respect."
As if on cue, two men entered the store and stood in the corner for several minutes, talking in low voices without buying anything. "That's okay," said Snipes. "This is a community store; everybody knows their place."
For still others, less empathetic, small triumphs fuel their resolve against the people they feel have taken over."I walked right through them today," said Diane Williams, director of the housing office at Saints Paul and Augustine, who lives at 13th and U streets.
"Usually I cross the street, but today I thought, shoot, I live here, I'm not going to cross the street," she said.
The diminutive Frazier-Cromwell, 45, prides herself on a shocking little trick she played when she grew tired of a particular pusher's entreaties on her way home from work. "He said, 'Bam-D!' I said, 'No.' He said, 'Why not?' I said, 'Cause there's too much good heroin in the street.' I thought he was going to fall down. Don't you know he always speaks politely now?"
And some, like Catherine Mason, 65, refuse to behave as if the neighborhood has changed since she moved to the area in 1947. On the evenings when she works at the Jarvis Funeral Home, 1432 U St., she still walks home alone if no one is available to accompany her. "I'm not afraid of them, they don't bother me. I guess I'm used to walking around this neighborhood," said Mason, who moved to the area when she and her family were displaced from Georgetown.
"Maybe I should be scared, since I live on the first floor and they could just come right through my window. Only I always figured that anything coming in here," she taps the glass with her knuckle, "was going to stay in here."
Yet, even those who have learned to live with the drugs are terrified of displacement. To those who fear the rising housing costs, every newcomer in the area is a reminder of how much they have to lose. "Certainly I don't want the drugs, because of what it's doing to the young black people," said Pauline Jones carefully. A Saints Paul and Augustine parishioner, she has lived most of her 70 years in the U Street neighborhood, since the days when "everybody who had anything had it there," she says. "But how would you feel if these were suppossed to be your golden years, and the assessments are going up so high you can't afford to live there?"
Once the houses were so coveted, Jones remembers, that when her family "got so we could (buy) a home" in the neighborhood, they had to scour the side streets. "There was nothing left to buy . . . . When you dressed up, you just naturally went to U Street. Young people today just don't dress up like we did. I dare say we went to three or four formals a month."
Her long-gone U Street meant the Lincoln Colonade for dances, the Lincoln, Booker T. Washington and Old Republican theaters for shows, and Key's Restaurant for a Sunday afternoon date.
Michael Harris, a staff attorney at Howard University, says U Street was "the heartbeat of black activism, all the black organizations were there -- SNCC and SCLC and Pride." Now Harris lives at 13th and W, near Saints Paul and Augustine, where he presides over the Parish Council.
"It's a Catch-22," Harris said. "One of my biggest fears is that the black people will lose this area, that in five of six years it'll look like Georgetown. One of these days we're going to look up and the junkies aren't going to be there and we're going to be in trouble.
"Then, on the other hand, I think, if this were a white neighborhood, there wouldn't be 300 junkies shooting up on this corner," Harris said. "If Saints Paul and Augustine were a white Catholic school, there wouldn't be shootouts with white children playing in the playground."
After receiving their latest property assessments several weeks ago, some of the residents refuse to believe that the junkies keep anyone out.ANC Commissioner Frazier Cromwell, for example, bought her home at the corner of 13th and U five years ago. The proposed assessment for her home for fiscal year 1982 increased 29 percent over 1981, to more than $75,000. With four of 19 homes along the 2000 block of 13th Street up for sale -- despite their half-block proximity to the U Street drug traffic -- proposed increases in assessments along the block average 64.5 percent.
Like her neighbor John Snipes, who keeps a sign tacked onto his cabinet window ("If the 'ghetto' is so bad!!! Then why is everyone breaking their neck to move here?"), Frazier-Cromwell believes that redevelopment merely runs in cycles and the cycle points to U Street as more developers run out of more easily renovated neighborhoods. Realtors, however, tell a different story.
"You're never going to cross 14th Street," ventured Kevin A. Ambrose, a real estate agent trying to sell condominiums at 1761 U St NW. "(U Street) is a great area to buy in; in five years the whole block's going to be renovated -- from 18th to 15th. The corner of 14th and U? Well, you know, during a hot summer, that's a wild place," said Ambrose, who expects to sell his four one-bedroom condominiums for $70,000 to $77,000 each.
Ellen-Deane Cummins, a broker who works with Morgan & O'Neill Inc., recently bought four shells along the 1500 block of U Street NW for $80,000, $100,000 and $120,000. She said she will turn them into rental units, presently in short supply in the District, but she has not yet renovated them. Nor is she sure what she can charge. By contrast, a spokeswoman for the Blake House condominium, at the corner of 17th and U streets NW, said that eight of 12 units had been sold for $67,900 to $104,000 after only six weeks on the market.
"I would say the trend of this area is upward instead of downward," Cummins said. "That's why I bought here, obviously. But who knows what will be there in five years?"
Ambrose thinks he does. "I think 14th and U's going to be like that this 4th of July and I think it's going to be like that July 4, 1990," he said. "How many houses can you renovate? How many people are going to buy a house at 15th and U?" The area's post-riot taint from 1968, coupled with the long, tacit support of risque activities that created wealth for the area during the peak of the Jazz Age, made U Street the natural place for dealers to set up their more deadly wares.
Also, say police, the area provides ready access to suburban customers via the 14th Street Bridge, as well as a haven for addict or dealer friends who provide a place for drug users to go.
Lt. Ronald Harvey, director of the 3rd District police Drug Enforcement Unit, explained, "It's not the fact that it's their turf. . . . It's either the clientele that lives there, or there's someplace to go cut the drugs. You need a convenient meeting place, a place with a bathroom, that's warm when its cold, and where everybody has a legitimate reason for being there.
"If you buy up all the houses and don't have any junkies living there, the problem doesn't go away," Harvey added. "But it moves to wherever they are."
Within the past year, area organizations have tried to fill the leadership vacuum by focusing activities on ways to fight both the drugs and the disappearance of moderate-income housing in the area. Spurred by the death of a police officer on 14th Street last February and his alleged assailant three days later, one group, the 14th and U Coalition, was formed last May to cope with the problems of drug abuse and displacement.
Headed by Frazier-Cromwell, Rev. Kemp and members of local community groups, the coalition developed a proposal to renovate an abandoned light industrial site -- the old Thompson's Plaza that takes up a square block between 11th, 12th, V and W streets NW -- by working with the owner to develop moderate-income housing.
The proposal, which would provide low-income housing, a market-rate cooperative, some commercial space and a cut-rate housing rehabilitation loan fund for longtime residents, depends upon a combination of private investment and federal money from the newly trimmed Urban Development Action Grant program.
The funds for the program were recently slashed under Reagan's proposed budget, but the private consultant for the project is still hopeful. "It's not a unique idea, but it would be a very special thing for Washington," said James Edmondson, president of Edmondson & Associates. "Washington has not been at the forefront of applying for these things. But they're learning how to use them."
Meanwhile, U Street residents continue to cope -- and to choose, said Michael Harris, of his preference for living with the junkies rather than in another Georgetown: "You get cynical, you get callous, you get used to walking through 30 or 40 people. I call them the other congregation -- you have the church people and them. But when it's cleared away, the junkies are gone, you're going to have Georgetown. Maybe I'm cynical," Harris said. "I'd rather have the junkies."