Two decades ago, as Mildred Rush was raising her 10 children, there was one place she went to shop -- H Street NE, a short distance from her home on Ames Place.
"We didn't have to go downtown," the retired school teacher recalled. "Everything was here. When my children were small, they thought this was downtown."
But the H Street business community was virtually destroyed in 1968 during the riots. Several dozen stores were burned and gutted, while another 60 have been boarded since then. By necessity, Rush and thousands of other Northeast Washington residents have had to do their shopping elsewhere, often in the Maryland suburbs.
Yesterday, Rush came back to H Street, not for nostalgia, but for a celebration of one of the decaying street's brighter moments -- the opening of a new High's Dairy Store at the intersection of 11th and H streets.
Glitzy, up-scale shops are opened routinely in suburban malls and on such city thoroughfares as K Street NW and Connecticut Avenue NW, but progress on H Street NE is a crisp-looking, brick-and-cinder-block High's convenience store. Such an opening even warranted embossed invitations.
"I've seen it change from lots of stores," Rush said, "to no stores to coming back. There have been lots of promises for H Street redevelopment . We need more than just this store. It's going to take time, but it does seem to be moving."
Rush was among about 200 community residents, city officials and others who gathered on the sidewalk in front of the balloon-festooned store to watch Mayor Marion Barry cut a red ribbon for the official opening, although its doors have been open for business since Aug. 31.
For its part, High's gave away typical convenience store fare -- Twinkies, fruit punch and miniature loaves of Wonder bread.
While the city government's Redevelopment Land Agency has had difficulty attracting developers for several vacant lots along the strip, Barry drew cheers with the declaration that "there's going to be a series of ribbon-cuttings on H Street . . . . We are going to redevelop H Street."
Later, while munching on a Twinkie, he acknowledged that redevelopment of the commercial corridor is not only "long overdue," but also a thorny problem.
"In a free enterprise system, you've got to find ways to induce development," the mayor said. "Strip shopping is not as lucrative as it used to be. H Street is a victim of that. The American public has gotten out of the habit of walking up and down a street to shop . But we're going to get it done in spite of that."
The Hechinger Mall, with its large hardware store, a Safeway grocery store and other smaller shops, has anchored the east end of H Street for the last four years. The city is now considering proposals submitted by developers for construction of small shopping centers along H Street, including off-street parking and grocery stores, on the larger vacant parcels.
The city has started to tear up the strip's concrete sidewalks and replace them with red bricks, a touch to lend at least an uptown cosmetic facelift to a downtrodden neighborhood. In addition, the District has hired an architect to design a common facade for the 11 stores on the north side of the 800 block, an effort that might be repeated elsewhere if it proves successful in enhancing the community.
Dr. Arthur Williams, an oral surgeon who heads both the neighborhood's Community Business Advancement Corp. and the H Street Community Development Corp., said the High's opening "is a beginning in the right direction. They sell food that people really want."
Wilmer Connor, a retired 68-year-old Government Printing Office bindery operator, said he and his wife used to shop frequently on H Street. But now he and numerous other community residents are again optimistic.
"I see improvement a whole lot," he said. "There have been a lot of promises. Here lately, it looks like they're getting started."