It was a derelict, destroyed by vandalism and neglect. But yesterday the small shopping center at Wheeler Road and Barnaby Street SE was reborn, a symbol of regeneration in a Congress Heights neighborhood long lacking many ordinary amenities of urban life.
By most accepted standards, the dedication of a four-store center in a far corner of a metropolitan city would be routine. But the ceremony at Wheeler Plaza drew the Ballou High School band and the presence of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. About 75 spectators also were there.
Located amid three public housing projects and a new town house development, Wheeler Plaza's predecessor was the target of depredation by robbers, shoplifters and vandals whose activities forced it to close.
Two years ago, the short-lived Innovative Grant Program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provided $103,000 in seed money to help its restoration. The city government provided $40,000 to help acquire the property, and the Washington Federal Savings and Loan Association granted a $500,000 mortgage to new owner Chester McKenzie.
At yesterday's ceremonial opening, the plaza had two shops operating, a Bojangles chicken restaurant and a liquor store. A grocery and delicatessen and a seafood restaurant were being readied for occupancy. City officials said there is room for expansion on an adjacent site.
Under terms of the federal grant, neighborhood residents had to be hired for the reconstruction and to staff the stores. An estimated 40 permanent jobs are involved.
Calvin Rolark, publisher of The Washington Informer and vice chairman of the city-sponsored nonprofit D.C. Development Corp., serving as master of ceremonies, introduced what he called that "hard fighter" City Council member from Ward 8, his wife, Wilhelmina J. Rolark. She joined the mayor in a ceremonial ribbon cutting.
After the ceremony, Barry went into Bojangles for lunch. Server Ed Lawing said the mayor ordered chicken, pinto beans and orange juice.