Once, Georgia Avenue was alive, the Pennsysylvania Avenue of black Washington. Young men and women strutted to the Kenyon Grill for beer and chicken; politicians marched into Billy Simpson's restaruant for gumbo and gab. A few venerable monuments such as Howard University, Howard University (once Freedmen's) Hospital, and the Industrial Bank remain. But elsewhere, much of the spirit is gone. Today, a midday bus trip down the artery that tunnels its way straight through the heart of the city is a tour past signs of hard times and hopelessness. The upwardly spiraling unemployment rate may may sound bad when it's announced on TV and in the papers. Riding down Georgia Avenue, it feels bad.
A trio of men stand at the corner of Georgia and Missouri avenues, looking as if they are waiting to board the bus when it slows to a stop. They do not. Instead, they simply continue leaning aginst the window of the University Pharmacy. One seems to be staring across the street at the facades of the lumber yard and a business machines company. The other two stand with hands shoved deep in their pockets, their gazes unfocused, with an air of nothing to do and nowhere to go.
The barbershop just north of the busy Missouri Avenue intersection is empty, and the barber sits staring glumly out of the window. No business today.
At the Industrial Bank, there is a quiet inside that contrasts with the agitaton across the street where a group of nine or 10 men behind the Colony Liquor store are bunched together, arguing, jumping around and shoving, while the gas station manager across the street casts an angry eye.
At Hamilton Street, a quintet of young men in sweat pants and shirts are hanging out at the lot where a sign says Bob's Retail Motors. They are sitting on car hoods.
Further down the avenue, activity of another sort resumes. Men are baby-sitting children. A tall man who looks to be in his twenties walks a toddler. Near Girard Street, three middle-aged men in work clothes and hats sit on a front porch. One with a short cigar holds a baby on his lap and keeps a watchful eye out for another girl playing in the yard. Farther down, a strong-looking man in a plaid jacket with a flowered diaper bag on his shoulder lifts a flowered stroller, baby and all, onto the bus.
Along the street the idleness engulfs women as well. At Arkansas Avenue, and further down on Allison Street, women with palms pressed against folded laps sit on porches. At Webster Street, groups strain against the wind, as if for the slightest whisper of opportunity. At Iowa Avenue, one young man among a group of kibitzing older teens locks his jaw in a defensive brooding hold and gives an envious stare to a Seven-Up delivery man decked in a bright green uniform.
The mood shifts abruptly at Howard University. The sluggishness subsides for the three blocks spanning the campus. Here the steps are speedy and have conviction. Here the faces with tight anger verging on hunger fade. The look of positiveness and direction ends just as abruptly at the edge of the campus, where begins the sweet rich smell of bread baking in the Wonder Bread factory.
Nervous energy is exuded at Popeye's Chicken restaurant, where a husky young men stands near the parking lot tapping his foot against the ground as his partner stares down the avenue, his leg shaking impatiently.
With the economy the country's number one domestic issue, the people who cannot find work are America's most serious problem.
Black joblessness rose this month to a record 17.3 percent nationwide. The general teenage unemployment rate was the highest in history at 22.3 percent, with the black teenage rate as high as50 percent in some Washington neighborhoods, as well as in other big cities.
The clumps of men idle on America's street corners are the economic problems made manifest. Georgia Avenue is an important symbol of the general problem of people who have nothing to do and nowhere to go.
The message of from the street corners is impatience--and tension. These men and women are isolated from the mainstream on D.C.'s Main Street U.S.A. The country must bring them into the mainstream if this nation is to thrive.