Whenever I'm in Northwest Washington, it seems I always manage to drive through Sixth Street. This is the street where I was reared in the late 1950s. I've taken my family through Sixth Street to point out places from my childhood, but it seems practically everything has changed.
Even Shaw Junior High School, which I attended, has become a senior citizens building. I lived at 1339 Sixth St. until 1966.
Ours was a neighborhood of large houses. Some of these houses were converted into small apartments or single rooms for rent. The families on the block had medium-sized front yards where they cultivated azalea bushes and small flower gardens.
I remember the 1300 block of Sixth Street as a family block. Everyone loved and cared about each other. We knew each other on a first-name basis. When my father died suddenly in November 1959, the neighbors came with food and condolences. Since his death was so close to Thanksgiving, the "Safeway Boys Group" (the little guys who carried your groceries for 10 cents) collected money and brought my family a turkey with all the trimmings. Whenever I think of this my eyes swell with tears.
Sixth Street is in the heart of the inner-city. In those days we didn't know that some people considered our area a ghetto. To us kids it was a fun place to be. In our block was the Robinson Funeral Home. Next door to the funeral home was a vacant lot that we used as our football and kickball field and also our basketball and dodgeball court.
We didn't have Atari's or other computerized toys, so we often improvised and made some of our own playthings. Some of the best skateboards were made of a piece of wood, some nails and the wheels off an old pair of skates. We used to jump rope for hours with our mom's clothesline. We drew hop-scotch squares on the sidewalk with chalk and used a rock as a marker.
For 25 cents at the Peter Pan five and dime, which was at Seventh and P streets, you could purchase a set of jacks or a bat and ball. Each of these toys meant hours of fun. Boys on our block had marble shooting contests to see who captured the "aggie."
There was a Chinese laundry on the corner of Sixth and N streets, where my mom used to send her linen and my father's white shirts.
Next door to the laundry was the Mann's Beauty Salon, where most of the neighborhood girls got their first haircuts and "waves" all for the sum of $1.75. On the other side of Sixth and N was Beiser's Market, where for 10 cents you could purchase a bottle of Coke. Next to Beiser's was the Safeway store, which was destroyed in the 1968 riots.
Now most of the block has been replaced by low-income apartments and vacant lots. The majority of the neighbors moved away long ago. The only remaining landmarks of the old neighborhood are the First Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church, at Sixth and N streets, the United House of Prayer, at Sixth and M and the John F. Kennedy Playground at Seventh and P.
I remember the wonderful hours I spent at First Rising Mount Zion, listening to the Rev. Ernest Gibson deliver inspiring messages on Sunday mornings or spending my summers learning about the Bible and doing creative arts in their vacation Bible school.
Anyone who ever lived or visited Sixth Street won't ever forget the parades put on by the members of the House of Prayer. The parades in late summer always attracted people from different parts of the city.
The John F. Kennedy Playground is a disappointment to me now. I remember the vacant lot that was used for abandoned cars was totally renovated to build this playground. I was at the dedication program and got to shake Robert F. Kennedy's hand. When the playground opened it was full of new toys and equipment. I spent many hours with my friends climbing on the red painted firewagon, the model of a jet fighter and running the obstacle course. Looking at it now, age and debris have taken their toll.
Our block also was convenient to everything. When we went clothes shopping, downtown was only a 10 minute walk away. So was the Main Public Library, then located at Seventh and K streets. We used the library often when school reports were due. The Safeway store made grocery shopping easy for families without cars (which was practically everyone).
On Seventh Street, which was one block over, we had Midway drugstore (where I brought my first pair of red fox stockings), Spot Beckers shoe stores, the Seventh and O Streets lunchroom (where my father used to work), Carmen's Liquor store that delivered to the neighborhood and a photo shop that developed your pictures while you waited.
Further down at Seventh and P was the Broadway Theatre. On Sundays the admission was 20 cents for children and 40 cents for adults. For this price you could see the movie an unlimited number of times.
One of my favorite places was the original "O" Street Market. Early on Saturday mornings, my mom and I would get our brown paper shopping bag and walk the one block to the market. Mom shopped there often and everyone knew "Mrs. Wilson" and her daughters. After we visited our regular stands and made our purchases, for a treat mom would let me stop by the stand that sold freshly made potato chips. Our last stop was always the Heller's Bakery, where we purchased our weekly coconut cake for Sunday's dessert. The market had a country atmosphere. There was even a fish market and stands that had pickles in a barrel. I have visited the new market, but it doesn't compare to the old one. It's too modern.
As my sisters and I grew older, we abandoned the Broadway on Sunday afternoons. Instead we spent our time at the world famous Howard Theatre. This was the place where all top black entertainers came to perform. For $1.50 you could see such stars as Chuck Jackson, Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey and the Miracles, The Manhattans, Clay Tyson and Marvin Gaye. All on one show.
Whenever he was in town "Mr. Dynamite," James Brown, had a show all his own. On Saturday mornings, he would put on a teenagers-only show for 50 cents. Sometimes the line for the show would stretch from Seventh and T to Sixth and S.
When I went to Cardozo High School, after school we would walk home past the Howard looking for stars coming out of the stage door. I still have an autographed picture of the Four Tops. I just happened to catch one of them on a lucky afternoon when I was 15. It saddens me now to see the Howard all boarded up and defaced with graffiti. Something should be done to preserve one of our famous black theaters. It was recently done for the Apollo in New York, why not the Howard in D.C.
I moved away from Sixth Street in 1966 to far Northeast Washington. Growing up on Sixth Street to me was one of the happiest times of my life and I wouldn't trade all my memories for anything in this world.