Gershon Fishbein, 65, publisher of three Washington-based newsletters, says Massachusetts Avenue is one of his favorite areas of the city. He says it has a little bit of everything -- neighborhoods, the Capitol, the embassies, a jail and a stadium. Here Fishbein, who now lives in Silver Spring, recalls growing up in the city. The District Weekly welcomes such reminiscences.
I'm in love with Massachusetts Avenue and have reason to believe the feeling is mutual. Mostly good things have happened to me there.
In 1928, while I waited for a bus on the corner of 20th Street and the avenue, a nice old lady bought me an ice cream cone.
But maybe it started in 1933 when I was hitchhiking on Massachusetts Avenue at 5 a.m. and a man in a red Model T gave me a lift to Griffith Stadium so I could stand in line at the Fifth Street entrance for the bleacher seats that went on sale at 5:30 for the fifth and (sadly for the Washington Senators) final game of the World Series against the New York Giants.
I had saved part of my lunch money for six weeks to finance a $1.10 bleacher ticket. What better way for a 12-year-old to spend his money, even if it meant playing hooky for a day?
When you hit 65 and all of your life is spent in the Washington area (except World War II service in Europe), the memories flood your mind like the water used to fill the street in the 1930s at Peace Cross off Bladensburg Road.
In December when my family gathered here for its first-ever reunion, stories of the 1920s and 1930s in Washington were taped. We old-timers laughed a lot and the youngsters shook their heads in disbelief.
For me, life began in 1921 at 412 Fifth St. NW, where lawyers now hang out waiting their calls in court across the street and where Meyer Weinstein will have bond ready for the miscreants. But in those days, it was one of the centers of a thriving Jewish community, and many an entrepreneurial kingmaker of later years can trace his roots to the neighborhood.
My family had only recently migrated northward -- as refugee families tend to do within many cities. They came from 4 1/2 Street SW, where residents in run-down homes wore their ethnicity on their sleeves. Mom-and-pop grocery stores abounded, peddlers plied the streets in their pushcarts and the aroma of a pot roast or chicken came from every open window.
The spiritual needs of all were entrusted to Rabbi Yoelson, who led the Sabbath services, gave the children their Hebrew lessons and circumcised the newborn boys. The world beyond knew his son as Al Jolson, who gave up a career as a cantor's assistant to become a jazz singer.
My mother and her brothers and sisters had arrived at Union Station on March 4, 1913, carrying their worldly possessions in cardboard boxes. Their first view of Washington filled them with awe and confusion. A parade was in progress and bands were playing everywhere.
One of them found the courage to ask a passer-by what was going on. He fixed them with an incredulous stare, which made them feel even more the greenhorns they were.
"Don't you know it's Woodrow Wilson's inauguration?" he asked in disbelief that any American would not know that much. But they were not yet Americans. That would come later.
Together they trudged to 913 E St. NW, where a year earlier my uncle had bought a grocery store. The family found its first home behind and above the store.
Only six years earlier, the family had arrived in Baltimore from Russia, part of a wave of immigrants fleeing persecution who came after the turn of the century. Unable to speak English and knowing no one, they had walked from the boat to find lodging in rooms a few blocks from the port.
In 1924, we moved to the Petworth section of Northwest. An endless procession of out-of-town relatives came to live with us or to visit. One such visitor was a second-story man, entering the house by climbing up the rainspout.
Although my grandfather was a Hebrew teacher and our upbringing was Orthodox, our friends were of all faiths. We played on synagogue grounds and on the grass in Grant Circle, where St. Gabriel's Church was being built.
Our favorite mode of transportation was roller skating. Hockey sticks swinging wildly in our hands, we often skated downtown and back on 13th Street. On Sunday afternoons, we could be found at the York Theater on Georgia Avenue.
By 1932, we were living in the Brightwood section of Northwest. The full impact of the Depression was just beginning to be felt. Although this city of government workers was largely spared the economic devastation found in industrial towns, I have vivid memories of long lines of men standing in line to apply for a single job, which paid $15 a week. Other men sat on the curb, their faces buried in newspapers in a tableau of despair.
I had always harbored an ambition to be a newspaperman. In 1938, at the age of 16, I presented myself in The Washington Post Mom-and-pop grocery stores abounded, peddlers plied the streets with their pushcarts, and the aroma of a pot roast or chicken came from every open window.
sports department and was introduced to Shirley Povich, the columnist whose very name caused my young friends to turn green with envy. I cited such impressive experience as sports editor of the Central High School newspaper. Much to my surprise, he said yes -- at 25 cents an inch of published material.
After six months of covering high school sports, I was told by the sports editor that the paper would no longer use "stringers." I suddenly realized what hit me: I had been fired; gently, but still fired. I feared my newspaper career was over.
But after a year at George Washington University, I returned to the Post and this time was put on the sports staff at the regular beginning scale of $25 a week. Before and after World War II, my seven years as a reporter and editor there were among the happiest of my life.
After nearly 50 years in the news business in Washington, I look back on a city that has changed drastically. Contrary to the views of some historical revisionists, it was never a "sleepy southern city." Relaxed would be a better word to describe its pace and tone before World War II.
And it lacked many of the characteristics of southern cities of that period. True, we attended segregated schools and most large restaurants would not serve blacks. But others did not refuse them service. I know because my friend Paul ate dinner with me on several occasions at first-class restaurants without incident.
It was doubtless a conservative town. Its economic and political direction was dictated by the D.C. Board of Trade and brought to public attention by the Evening Star. The business establishment and the city's leading newspaper at the time were virtually indistinguishable. Together, they shaped our opinions as well as our job options.
Now, as then, Washington is essentially a white-collar city that lives on paper work and where thousands of office workers rarely see the product of their labor.
Yet it is a city where intelligence still counts. It is where I, and thousands like me, grew up in the warmth of a family that came here as bewildered immigrants during Woodrow Wilson's parade and stayed to be part of a small town that became a big city, but, with all its faults, remained hospitable to good ideas and good people.