My family lived for 12 years in LeDroit Park on V Street NW. In the late 1950s I grew up there, in a low-income neighborhood among domestic workers, handymen, bookies and government employes.
Excluding a few private homes, the majority of the residents lived, as did my family, in public housing. Poverty did not dampen the spirit of my youth and I have pleasant memories as well as painful ones. One of the nicer recollections is of trips to Mr. Albert's grocery store on the corner of Fourth and V. There, for 25 cents, my friends and I purchased a variety of candies, including Mary Janes, Jawbreakers and Chocolate Kisses.
When a sweet tooth wasn't begging, we bought balloons that we filled with water and tossed from a third-floor window of the apartment building where we lived. Playmates standing below were splattered and then retaliated by squirting us with water guns.
This proved to be a welcome relief from the heat on summer days, especially since the only swimming pool in our community was at Banneker Junior High School, a six-block walk. Swimming there required skillful maneuvering because usually there was standing room only.
The nearest playground was two blocks from where we lived, and across the street from Lucretia Mott Elementary School. Local bullies congregated at the playground, so to avoid confrontations my friends and I played in an alley near our apartment. There we amused ourselves by shooting marbles, playing jacks, jumping double Dutch or competing in our favorite game: kickball.
Next to the apartment building where we lived was a crab apple tree, which we burdened with ropes and tire swings. We also picked the tiny apples by the bagful and used them to pelt each other during war games. Sometimes the tree retaliated against our intrusions. Once, when my cousin tried to climb it, her sneaker-clad foot slipped, and her thigh was gashed by a broken branch. She was rushed to Freedmen's Hospital, where a doctor used 12 stitches to close the wound.
Honeysuckle vines grew all over our neighborhood, and bees swarmed them. We used jelly jars to trap the bees, and competed to see who would catch the most.
In the middle of our block was Guildfield Baptist Church. A girlfriend who lived next to the church had a pet cat, which I coveted. Public housing residents were denied the right to have pets (excluding roaches).
One of our favorite Halloween rituals was enjoyed at the house of an elderly lady who answered our cries of "trick or treat" by allowing us to reach into a box full of pennies and grab as many as we could hold.
The only time that white people (other than policemen and firemen) came onto our neighborhood was to attend events at Griffith Stadium, which was a block away. They created money-making ventures for local fellows who were tipped by drivers for directing them to vacant parking spaces. Prior to the start of Washington Senators baseball games, or performances by the Ringling Brothers' circus, men who lived on our street could be seen directing drivers to private lots, alleys and back yards. Our play area, which could hold more than half a dozen vehicles, was always one of the first places to fill up.
Some drivers refused to tip for parking, but most did, feeling that a few dollars would "insure" their cars. Drivers who didn't tip often returned from the stadium to find flat tires, or worse.
On weekends my buddies and I went to the Sylvan Theater at First and Rhode Island Avenue, where admission was 50 cents. Our alternative to the Sylvan was the Howard Theater. We arrived there early, so we usually got front-row seats for the live performances. That enabled us to catch neckties and other memorabilia tossed by great artists like Smokey Robinson & The Miracles; Diana Ross & The Supremes and Marvin Gaye. We also saw such featured comedians as Flip Wilson, Moms Mabley and Pigmeat Markham.
Money was scarce, and when our parents had none to spare we earned cash by gathering empty soft drink bottles, which we returned to the stores for refunds. On other occasions we went through to neighborhood and collected old newspapers, which we loaded onto a rickety wagon and hauled to the Georgia Avenue junkyard, across the street from what is now the Howard Inn.
Sometimes when we were bored or broke we stood in the hallway of the apartment building and watched the men shoot craps. This observation seldom lasted long, because soon after we arrived the participants would order us to move on.
Many Howard University students used our play area as a shortcut to and from classes. I got to know some of them who since have made names for themselves.
One day, as my pals and I played kickball, someone accidentally kicked the ball onto the roof of a house. Since we didn't know anyone with a ladder, retrieving our ball became a major problem. One of the Howard students approached. We saw him almost daily and he seldom passed without a friendly smile or wave. He asked why we weren't playing kickball and we pointed to the roof.
Though I've since forgotten how he managed it, he set his books aside and got our ball. Before he left, we thanked him and asked his name.
"Stokely," he replied.
In 1964 my family moved out of LeDroit Park. A few years later, while watching television, I recognized the face of the young man on the screen as the student who had taken time between classes to get our ball. His name was Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Today, Guildfield Church and the private houses on the old block have been demolished. My alma mater, Lucretia Mott, stands boarded up and the playground is a parking lot. Freedmen's Hospital is no longer a hospital but instead houses the Howard University TV station.
In addition, Howard has several new buildings in the neighborhood, including a new hospital. Griffith Stadium was demolished and sporting events moved to RFK Stadium. Banneker is now the city's academic high school.