Jimmy Lee Jones chomped on his cigar stub and adjusted his dark blue sunglasses as he carefully studied the old photograph of his neighborhood at Fourth and K streets NW. He was looking back 40 years to a place alive with people, homes, apartments, stores, bars and a big market.
"All gone now," the 72-year-old Jones declared. And with that, he strode back inside La Demingo, 936 Fourth St. NW, the last bar in the old neighborhood where large parking lots, two new high-rise buildings and the still unfinished Center Leg Freeway are the new neighborhood.
The one-story, brown-and-yellow bar and restaurant -- Southern fried chicken, beans and cornbread the specialty -- about all that remains of the country-old neighborhood that was once home to Italian and southern black immigrants. La Demingo was always a bar patronized mostly by blacks, even when they shared these streets with white, before the neighborhood became nearly all black in the 1950s.
Today, many of La Demingo's regular customers are people who once lived here, people who still come from across town for a beer or a shot at La Demingo, a timeless place that is comfortably unchanged in a neighborhood lost to change -- all of it a result of government policy.
Ten years ago, the eight-lane Center Leg Freeway uprooted hundreds of people and took more than 700 houses and businesses in its sweep along Second and Third streets and New Jersey Avenue NW. It sits unopened, and city officials say it will most likely stay unopened, at least until 1984 and maybe longer. Still more people were uprooted when the city demolished a row of houses along K Street to build a 10-story high-rise for the elderly across the street from the bar.
About the only place at Fourth and K left to come home to today is La Demingo, a closed society where regulars are greeted loudly and warmly, where strangers are met with cool stares.
Here it is easy to remember the days when the New Center Market at Fifth and K sold live chickens downstairs, while people bowled upstairs, when people danced to big band music at the Bingo Club across K Street from the bar, and when the trolley stopped right at the intersection of Fourth and K.
As Jimmy Lee Jones says, all gone now. All Except La Demingo.
But today -- like the Bingo Club, the New Center Market and the trolley -- La Demingo is threatened with extinction, as the changes put in motion by a decade of change continue. This year, in anticipation of selling the land on which La Demingo stands, the landlord will not renew the lease for Mack Shingler, the bar's owner since 1964. La Demingo is located five blocks east of the new Convention Center and one mile northwest of the Capitol, and the downtown real estate boom threatens to gobble up the bar and what remains of Fourth and K.
"They haven't gotten this," says Dorothy Shingler, Mack's stout 46-year-old daughter, whose raucous laugh is like a party in itself while she works as La Demingo's daytime cook and bartender. "When they do, there won't be any place for people to come back to."
Small groups of houses, some still occupied, mix with the vast parking lots which dominate the neighborhood. And on Third Street, across from the highway, vegetable gardens grow in the front yards of the deteriorating, two-story brick houses. Behind Museum Square One, the newly opened highrise for the elderly, dingy brick apartment houses with doors standing open face the street.
About a dozen homeless men -- the "fire can" men, they are called -- gather in the summer shate of a large tree near Third and K. Most of those in the neighborhood who work do so as laborers. Many do not work.
Few people casually walk the streets; police say Fourth and K is known for fights, murders, drug traffic and numbers.
Like dozens of other Washington neighborhoods, Fourth and K may seem a dangerous neighborhood to the commuters who drive through it with doors locked and windows up as they head south on Fourth Street to their jobs downtown. But to Jones and the Shinglers it is home, as it once was to hundreds of others.
I just like the neighborhood," says Jones, the self-proclaimed mayor of Fourth and K, who left South Carolina in 1929 heading for New Jersey. He stopped at Fourth and K and never left. "No matter where I live I always come back to this corner, this bar. . . . This place is important."
La Demingo is a cross between a mom-and-pop grocery store and a ramshackle rural roadhouse. Its walls are painted in variations of red, yellow and orange and at least three layers of cracking linoleum cover its floor. The once red-and-white plastic cloths on the tables in La Demingo's three booths have been scrubbed to a pale pink and white.
Above the chocolate cake and cream pie displayed on the bar, bags of barbecue chips and cheese twists dangled from clothes pins which bite into a sagging cord draped from one end of the bar to the other. On the crowded shelves behind it, are rows of single-shot and half-pint bottles of rum, scotch and whiskey sandwiched among cigarettes, candy bars, Hav-A-Hank handkerchieves, Gem toenail clippers, Firstart fuses, pickled eggs and Day's Work chewing tobacco.
And there's the dinner menu: orders of chicken, pork chops or pigs feet, $3.25; stew beef, short ribs or fish, $3.50; barbecued ribs, steak or roast beef, $4; collard greens, string beans or potato salad, 70 cents extra.
"What ya want?" Dorothy shouts to a customer.
"Food," he mumbles, as he lounges across a table.
"That don't tell me nothing," she laughs.
"T-bone," he says, raising his voice.
"No, I ain't cooking no more steaks! It's too hot!" Dorothy bellows, her hoarse laugh echoing around the room. She heads for the freezer.
La Demingo is small, about 20 paces from front door to rear kitchen in length, about five steps from the bar to window in width. It is usually half-filled with people on weekdays and crowded every night.
But on Wednesday, when Shingler opens the back room for his "disco night" -- complete with disc jockey and pulsating lights -- he draws his biggest crowd, a younger crowd than usual, say, in their 30s, and 40s. Disco night is a modern twist at Le Demingo. But the bar's atmosphere -- the off-color humor, the lifelong nicknames, the men who have mixed Old Grand Dad whiskey with ginger ale every day for years, the subtle symbols of familiarity and friendship -- remain unchanged, like the memories.
Jimmy Lee Jones, for instance, recalls the swing dance music at the Bingo Club on K Street, where in the 1930s he wore his custom-made $25 suit. For Shingler, it is his job during the 40s at the Terminal Ice House at Third and K streets and a drink at Le Demingo every day afterwards that he remembers. It is school days in a neighborhood so safe that Dorothy Shingler remembers they didn't lock the screen door of her house on New Jersey Avenue, where the unused highway now sits.
"It was all houses through here, all along New Jersey and K," says Jones, waving his hand over the new expanse of parking lots. "Most everybody [came] from South Carolina. There used to be Italians, too. They were from K to North Capitol to New Jersey. Third was all colored back then. By 1950, it was all colored. Ah, make that black. But in 1930, everybody was right together. It was a real nice neighborhood in 1930. And in 1950."
Mack Shingler, a big, stern man with graying hair who easily keeps his sometimes rowdy customers in line, arrived in Washington from North Carolina in 1938.
"Everything was blooming here in the forties. There were a lot of bars, and a lot of work at the restaurants, construction, laundry and the market," Shingler recalls. "The trolley car stopped right here at Fourth and K."
The massive New Center Market at Fifth and K streets, built in 1875 and now an empty shell, was the heart of the neighborhood. Like the six other city markets, it was run by farmers, grocers and butchers who opened their stalls early in the morning and sold fresh fish, baked goods, vegetables, fruits and flowers.
Dorothy Shingler often went shopping for her mother back in the 1940s. She would walk along K Street, where only whites lived in those days. "At the market there were black stands and white stands," she says. "But you could to to either. There was a live chicken stand, and the man would save me the chicken feet every week. He was white, a nice guy. He knew we liked the feet. We made a kind of stew out of them."
The integration of schools and housing inthe 1950s sent whites fleeing to the suburbs, leaving few around Fourth and K. But those changes did not reshape the geography of the old neighborhood. That was left to the Center Leg Freeway.
First conceived in 1950 as part of a 17-mile loop, the highway was to speed suburban workers to and from their city jobs, to revitalize the sagging downtown. Bishop Smallwood Williams of the Bible Way Church at 1130 New Jersey Ave. and the Rev. Jospeh Spigolon of the Italian Holy Rosary Church at Third and F streets pleaded for their churches at a public hearing in 1963 and succeeded in getting the highway to swing past them. No one else from Fourth and K protested, and few others were so fortunate as the preachers.
"You take a black person with no connections, you may want to protest but who the hell do you go to?," asks James (Skip) Holt, 44, as he sits in La Demingo. " . . . It's the same thing as having a gun in your back. You had to move."
Holt is a cement mason who lived in an apartment building at 900 First St. It was taken by the highway. So was the masons' hall at New Jersey and L streets where he was a member, as was his father for 41 years. Holt was forced out, but as a cement mason he returned to help build the very highway that had taken his home.
"I had to go to work," he says.
Holt pours another glass of wine from his bottle of Reunite. It is late afternoon and the little bar is lit by the sunlight filtering through windows that have not been washed in some time. Dorothy, who finished work at 3 o'clock, is drinking scotch with friends at the bar.
A rerun of The Mary Tyler Moore Show is on TV and the jukebox is blaring. Dorothy is arguing loudly, as is her way, with a customer they call Stonewall Jackson, who insists on eating his dinner outside. Angry, he walks out the door carrying his beans and cornbread in a brown bag, and Dorothy looks around her, thoroughly enjoying the dispute which has turned the heads of the half-dozen people in the bar.
"We should make a movie down here at this corner," she yells.
What would she call it?
"'In the Ghetto,'" she bellows, as the screen door slams shut behind Stonewall Jackson and the last barroom at Fourth and K is engulfed in laughter.