Harry Shapiro, 80, has been bounced around downtown Washington so often in the past few years that he feels like a new kid on the block instead of the merchant who sold bowlers and Stetsons on the corner of 13th and G streets NW for 58 years.
The first time Shapiro was forced to pack his fedoras and relocate was six years ago. The Metro was coming through and his storefront in the Homer Building was slated for the wrecker's ball. He relocated the shop, called Maison's, at 1210 G St. NW and did a brisk business in toppers.
Last year, the District forced Shapiro to move again, to 1215 G St. NW. In the midst of that move last month, another letter from the Redevelopment Land Agency notified him that by June 1 his "new" shop would fall to make way for the latest complex of hotels and department stores planned for the north side of G Street NW from 11th to 13th streets.
Shapiro is tired of urban renewal, which has made him a storefront gypsy and driven rents 10 times higher than he can afford. He and 11 other veteran downtown merchants recently decided to hire a lawyer to fight the District.
Monday night, Shapiro came to a public meeting of the Housing and Community Development Department to tell the Oliver T. Carr Co., the project's codeveloper, about his rights.
"You have no right to move me out," he told Betts Abel, Carr's project manager, after the meeting in the Martin Luther King Memorial Library. "You can build around me. Just leave me alone. I think I can stand to work till I'm 88."
Abel tried to reassure Shapiro. "Everybody has a stake in downtown revitalization," she said.
But Shapiro's attorney, Ralph Werner, said the merchants might take their stake to court. "We're going to fight," he told Abel. "They're not going to get displaced."
Werner, former general counsel for the Redevelopment Land Agency, said the merchants are supposed to be protected under the District's Downtown Urban Renewal Plan. With the force of law, that plan directs developers of new projects to allocate 25 percent of their space for small businesses, Werner said. Moreover, the plan directs the developer to assist small businesses in relocating should they be displaced, he added.
"The businessmen aren't out to kill the plan," he explained. "They want what's due them -- relocation assistance and assurance they won't be moved prematurely."
Monday night's meeting was designed to placate the merchants.Architects from the Melvin Mitchell firm unveiled a plastic model of the proposed complex. City planners waved pointers over floor-plan displays. About 20 storekeepers listened for 45 minutes until the presentation reached the topic of relocation.
"The business of relocation is a difficult job," said James Kerr, director of development for D.C.'s Department of Housing and Community Development.
"Any way we can help, we will. We're keenly concerned about losing businesses and jobs to the outlying area. We haven't systematically excluded any group from coming back."
At that point Ivan Hall, 59, wheeled to the front of the meeting. Confined to a wheelchair, the severely crippled watchmaker -- who has done business downtown for 40 years -- wanted to find out where he would be able to move after the June 1 deadline. "I have to get back to my wife, who's alone at the store (at 704 11th St. NW), guarding it from bums living upstairs in the abandoned building," he said.
Christopher Wiggins, chief of D.C's business resources division, told Hall that his case presented special problems. "We're trying to relocate you at an agreeable rent," Wiggins said. Hall wasn't mollified.
"That's just a gimmick," he shot back. "If you can't find me a place, then tell me and get it over with."
As Hall rolled himself out of the meeting, Vernard R. Gray of the Maya Gallery, 720 11th St. NW, took the floor. "I don't believe it's (relocation) going to happen in a orderly way. Our lives are at stake. We have to open our doors every day." The merchants applauded until Kerr called for order. "We need to stop for a moment and take a good look, from Mayor Marion Barry on down," Gray said.
At the end of the meeting, Kerr said he pleased that the merchants had informed him of their worries and added he believes there is a need for more meetings.
But at 704 11th St. NW later that night, Hall and his wife Edna sat in their watchmaker shop unconvinced of the Districts good will. With their 11-year-old German shepherd, King, they stood watch and talked of their troubles. Clocks ticked. The room smelled of mildew from water that doused a fire last week on the second floor.
Last April 13, burglars cleaned out their store. In the early morning two Sundays ago, Hall said, police caught a group of thieves who had tripped a burglar alarm while trying to break in through the floor. The couple and King kept vigil Saturday night, and finally went to their home in Aldelphi, Md., on Sunday for some sleep. When they arrived at the shop Monday, they discovered that the ceiling had fallen into the back storage room and the floor was covered with water.
"I called all day to the District, but they say they don't want to fix this building," Hall said. Finally, two city workmen came by and promised to patch the ceiling.
Hall said that business is booming and that he has enough work for three watchmakers. But he pointed out that he charges only $18.50 for each watch he repairs and slightly more for each clock.
"How many watches would I have to fix to pay $3,500 a month rent?" he asked.
Hall said the impending eviction could be his last.
"i'll have to get me a tin cup or go on public assistance," he said. "I've never taken a nickel in my life, though I could have for 40 years.
"I just want to be left alone to make my own living."