Affectionately called the "mayor of Second Street and Florida Avenue NW," Ben Martin surveys his neighborhood from the windows of his second-story apartment.
On any day you will find people standing in front of his gray stone apartment building shouting, "Mr. mayor -- Ben Martin." He raises a window to see who is down below. The mayor of Second Street and Florida Avenue wants to see who you are before you gain admittance.
Seventy-three-year-old Benjamin P. Martin, a retired Government Printing Office printer, is a genuine LeDroit Park institution, a constant fixture who is loved and respected by past and present residents of a community that has changed drastically over the years. Several generations of children have had the run of his bachelor apartment; their parents have called him a godsend.
"We call him the mayor all right," said William Early, a former city police officer who owns the Aida TV Sales and Repair Shop in the 200 block of Florida Avenue NW. "We love his honesty and dependability. He's a real throwback to the old days."
The "mayor" takes praise well. With just the slightest nod of his head and a twinkle in his eyes, Martin, a gruff man with a street-corner knowledge of Washington's history, remembers the days when Second Street and Florida Avenue, his home for 39 years, was part of LeDroit Park. When the Joint Committee on Landmarks designated LeDroit Park an historic area and redrew the community's boundaries in 1974, it excluded the few blocks south of Rhode Island Avenue where Martin lives and called the area Bloomingdale. He and other old-timers, however, still refer to their neighborhood as LeDroit Park.
Martin's drawl is southern, reflecting his Richland County, S.C., roots. His anecdotes about civil rights and life in Washington are full of wise and wonderful insights.
His apartment is comfortable and, like himself, well worn. Under framed pictures of best friends, favorite dogs and pinups, Martin weaves a spellbinding tale.
In the halcyon days of LeDroit Park, Martin said, from the turn of the century through World War II and into the turbulent 1960s, some of Washington's most prominent black families lived in LeDroit Park under the watchful eyes of Ben Martin. Families with names such as Risher, Jones, Pratt, Wiliford, Gregory, Evans, Gaskins, Parks and Whippey added splendor to a fine old neighborhood with three- and four-story brownstones near Howard University. Distinguished scholars from the university visited these families regularly for soirees over petit fours and blended whiskey. In those days the area was green. Willowy trees bending gracefully over Florida Avenue gave it an Old World charm.
Today LeDroit Park looks as grim as the economic hard times that affect it daily. Crime is rampant, as is drug use along the Seventh Street-Georgia Avneue corridor, which is the western boundary of LeDroit Park. Many of its grand homes have been torn down or are in tragic disrepair. The greenery is not as lush, and on Florida Avenue every other tree box is minus a graceful elm or oak.
Martin's apartment building sits on one corner of the intersection of Second Street and Florida Avenue NW. The other corners are lined with large three- and four-story houses and a scattering of small family businesses. Older residents are settled on their porches chatting comfortably, watching children play in the street or on the sidewalk. But an underlying tension surfaces when police helicopters, often searching for criminals, buzz by overhead.
Older residents who have stayed here keep their yards and homes well tended, clinging doggedly to the values and traditions of another era. They say they stay for a variety of reasons: because this is home, where their children and grandchildren have grown to adulthood; because there may be nowhere else to go; because the high price of housing makes it difficult for them to buy elsewhere.
They stay, but they complain about reduced city services, intermittent trash collection, little or no street repair and -- the prime concern of almost everyone -- a significant increase in crime.
Crime is the greatest fear here, and many look to Martin as a source of protection. On the subject of crime, the "mayor" turns cynical.
"There was a time you couldn't find a youngster who would hurt old people," Martin said. "Not so today. They just be mean, for no good cause. I was sitting on the steps not long ago and three young boys walked by. One of 'em hollered up to me, 'Hey ole man, you better not be sittin' here when we get back.' I didn't say nothing. Just kept staring at 'em, but believe me I was ready. Long as he don't put his foot on them steps he be safe as a government check. But if he make a move up them steps, I'd a blown him away. Just as simple as that. Cause I can't whip him, and I can't outrun him, but I guarantee you -- I will stop him!"
Martin has hunted and fished all his life. His small apartment, with windows affording a panoramic view of Second Street and Florida Avenue, reflects one of those great loves. Two pistols, a rifle and several shotguns are all within grabbing range. His philosophy for the l980s: "You can't have too many guns. And I got all mine registered . If they disarm the old folks, it would be like declaring open season. I've never had to shoot nobody, thank God, but I've come pretty close round here."
He looks out of the window sadly when he talks about his old buddy Murphy, dead now several years. Murphy, whose first name no one seems to remember, ran afoul of some young boys right below Martin's window and the "mayor" fired a few rounds to scare the thugs away.
"They was just beating on him for no reason," Martin said. "Murph didn't have no money to speak of. When I started shooting they ran. Ole Murph never recovered from that beating; up and died a few years after that."
Residents take Martin's gruffness in stride because to some he's their protector, a job he takes seriously. He usually can be found puttering around the neighborhood checking doors and windows or strolling down a trash-strewn alley brandishing his African ebony walking stick. Older residents insist that police refuse to respond fast enough to their calls so they band together for mutual protection. Ben Martin is a good source of help to call on, they say.
In a lilting Jamaican cadence, Iris Gill talks about her neighbor. "He really is a gentle old man. We give him our keys if we go out of town. He's just really good about watching out for everyone." Said Second Street resident Dorothy Evans: "He brought my mail when I couldn't get out." Her next-door neighbor Florence Gaskins added, "It really is the little things that count. I'm older now and I can't close my garage door. Ben helps me every day with that."
Martin said: "I mind my own business and I look out for people, is that so hard to understand?"
Those who know him say his attachment to his community isn't difficult to understand at all. Joan Risher Moreno, who grew up on Florida Avenue during LeDroit Park's grander days, said she will never forget the area's past.
"My Aunt Dot still lives on Second Street and I feel safer knowing Mr. Martin is looking out for her," Moreno said. "I took my daughter to meet him. I had to make her know this grand old man from my childhood days. You can't say anything bad about him. He's our very own institution, and that's the end of that."