Edward Archie's dry cleaning business on Seventh Street NW survived the riots of the '60s and the drug trafficking of the '70s, but the Metro construction of the '80s is slowly strangling it.
"We are getting ready to close," Archie said as he watched construction workers dig a 70-foot-deep trench in front of his Tuxedo Valet at 1715 Seventh St. NW. "My customers can see me but they can't get to me. I am a prisoner in my own store."
Archie said that he had lost 50 percent of his 40-year-old business since Metro construction started at his front door in October, and that he now can't afford to pay his one employe, his son Tommy.
Archie, president of the Shaw Business and Professional Association, is one of about two dozen small-business operators struggling to survive because subway construction along nine blocks of Seventh Street has reduced their business by up to half, they say.
The once traffic-laden blocks between New York Avenue and T Street NW now resemble a frontier town. Earthmovers and other heavy construction equipment have replaced the cars. Customers pick their way over wooden planks, around mud puddles and through construction debris.
The O Street Market, which houses a Giant grocery store and several smaller merchants, has felt the impact along with its neighbors, the nearby barber shops, beauty salons, small groceries and restaurants.
Everett Lucas Jr., longtime owner of Variety Market at 1511 Seventh St. NW, is quick to produce a thick file of letters he has written to Metro and the city government trying to get either a low-interest loan or a grant to help him through the construction period, which started on his block a year ago.
So far he has had no success, and he is losing $300 to $400 a day, he said. His store, a collection of canned goods, snack food and baseball hats, is open 13 hours a day, seven days a week.
"I'm doing everything I can to stay in business," he said. "I even started making home deliveries to try and get my old customers back and maybe find some new ones."
Seventh Street, which is the commercial spine of the Shaw neighborhood, is the latest commercial area to suffer through subway construction. Al Spencer, construction chief for the Green Line, the subway line causing the disruptions, said he saw the same problems 10 years ago when Metro construction disrupted the businesses along G Street in downtown.
"Most all of those G Street stores are gone now," he said. "Those small businesses suffer the construction, but they never seem to get the benefits. Big developers come in after the stations open and buy up the block and force them out."
He added, "The prospect of them being there when it is all over is very small."
Victor Sarmast, office manager of the 50-year-old Ruppert Real Estate Inc. at 1017 Seventh St. NW, has endured three years of the noisy, dusty upheaval at his front door.
He throws up his arms in disgust when he looks at the eight-foot cement-and-wood barrier that separates the sidewalk outside his office from the wood-planked road.
"This whole thing has put the screws to our business," Sarmast said. "Our tenants can't park to run in to see us and we can't get deliveries of dry wall, which we need for renovations."
The local merchants met with Spencer and other Metro officials in February to ask for signs saying that businesses were still open in the blocks closed to automobiles and to ask for financial help.
They got the signs, but no money.
"The focus of their complaints is a need for economic assistance, and we have no provision for that," Spencer said. "We are hopeful the city will come through with some kind of a grant program for them."
The absence of street traffic has brought increased crime to some of the businesses along Seventh Street because police cannot patrol the blocks and there is little foot traffic to deter burglaries, some owners said.
C.W. Williams, owner of W&W Liquors at the corner of Seventh and Q streets, said that she had her first break-in last month.
"It is pitch dark here at night," she said. "They came through the [brick] wall and stole a lot of our stock."
The Green Line is expected to be in operation by mid-1990, Spencer said.
"Back in the '40s and the '50s, business was real good," said Archie, who was born and raised in Shaw and now lives atop his dry cleaning company. He rarely gives receipts because he knows all his customers, he said. "But things went down after the riots. Everything was boarded up around here. Then here comes the Giant [at the O Street Market] and we start to look good again.
"We got rid of those [drug] dealers," he said. "You know, they used to sell right in front of my door. But now I look out there, and what do we have? Metro. I have Metro at my door. It is just plain awful."