The future of Sisterspace and Books on U Street NW comes down to this, after five years of bitter litigation over repairs, maintenance and utility costs and rising rent:
A D.C. Superior Court judge ruled that co-owners Faye Williams and Cassandra Burton have let their lease expire and no longer have any right to the storefront where they have sold books, offered GED classes and organized author readings and community gatherings since 1997.
This week, maybe next, officers from the U.S. Marshals Service are likely to show up to escort Williams and Burton from 1515 U St. They will carry out the books, most written by African Americans, the music and the brightly colored artwork all the items that some black Washingtonians say have helped create an emotional and cultural haven in the city as it was being transformed racially and economically.
The eviction will not go smoothly, if Williams and Burton have their way. There may be retail space available elsewhere on U Street, or a few blocks away, but Williams and Burton say they are not looking to move. They are rallying supporters to stand with them when the marshals arrive -- to refuse to leave the premises, to go to jail if necessary.
Their reasons go beyond the disputes detailed in thousands of pages of court filings. At the heart of their resistance are the changes they see unfolding outside their store in the historic U Street corridor -- for much of the past century the commercial and entertainment heart of the black community but now one of the hot spots of the District's yuppie rebirth.
" 'Chocolate City' is rapidly becoming Condo City, due to the increase of new white realtors and residents who have discovered a new land to colonize," proclaims a flier that Williams and Burton distributed to advertise a community meeting at the store yesterday. "Enough is Enough!"
Legendary African American artists who once frequented U Street, such as Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes, today are memorialized in the names of new loft buildings that are filling up as fast as they are completed.
The benches in a triangular park around the corner, where some older men used to sit, have been removed to create a dog-walking area. Some residents prefer that to the public drinking that sometimes happened there. But to Williams and Burton, it's just another loss.
"Do you really want to put old people out of a park so your dog can" relieve itself? Williams asked bitterly. "Talk about a waste. And an insult to the people who have been in the community for so long."
She and Burton want to buy 1515 U St., even though the owner's attorney insists that it is not for sale.
"We're claiming this building as a center of African American culture," Williams said. "We're not interested in paying another white man another penny."
In fact, rental income from 1515 U St. helps support a 63-year-old black resident of Prince George's County, Cecil O. MacClure. He is the beneficiary of an irrevocable trust set up by his brother, Joseph H. MacClure, who operated a consulting business there and lived in one of the upstairs apartments until he died.
The attorneys who control the trust are white, however, and that -- along with the mood these days on U Street -- makes it easy to depict this particular struggle in racial terms. Hundreds of customers and supporters, including D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) and council members Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), have rallied to the cause.
"I see another black business leaving U Street, as I was told so many closed their doors in the '60s," the Rev. A. Rebecca West wrote in a letter to Superior Court. "We need to keep Sisterspace and Books on U Street."
Author Julianne Malveaux, who lives nearby, also wrote to plead for a reprieve, calling the bookstore "a life force for people struggling to maintain place and space in a neighborhood that is gentrifying."
But the letters were not entered into evidence.
Instead, the most recent rounds of litigation have focused on whether Sisterspace formally renewed its lease two years ago when it wrote to the MacClure trust seeking an extension. By then, Williams and Burton had stopped paying rent to protest what they said was a lack of repairs. The two parties had been fighting in court for more than two years.
Attorneys for the trust told Sisterspace that the rent would more than double if they renewed. Sisterspace never replied. Williams and Burton now say they thought the price would be determined through litigation or a negotiated settlement.
After the original lease expired in October 2002, an attorney for the trust argued that the store's owners were no longer a legal tenant. In May, Superior Court Judge Brooke Hedge agreed and gave the green light to an eviction.
Sisterspace's owners appealed and hoped to stay put while that appeal was pending.
On Monday, Hedge denied the request.
So now Williams and Burton are waiting for the marshals to come and survey the property, as required before any commercial eviction. Once that happens, they have been told, they should call landlord-tenant court or the marshals office every day to see whether their address is on the next day's eviction list.
"We're not packing, and we're not walking out the door," Williams said last week. "They'll just put our stuff out on the street and throw us out with it, I guess."
Williams and Burton say it is no accident that they had their store on U Street. Burton, 53, grew up in Northeast Washington and remembers U Street as a Main Street for black Washingtonians -- the place to get hair done or go to the doctor or dentist, the place to shop if they wanted to support proprietors who looked like them.
On Easter Monday, when black children were excluded from the egg roll at the White House, they would promenade down U Street dressed in their church finery, enjoying penny candy from the storefronts along the way, she said. And as a teenager and young adult, she went on dates to Ben's Chili Bowl, one of a handful of businesses from that era still operating.
Burton remembers the riots, middle-class flight and open-air drug markets that scarred the corridor -- and the years of Metro construction, which blocked access to stores and, in her view, may have done even more damage.
When the recovery began in the early 1990s and she was looking to launch a small consignment shop, "I knew I was going to come back to U Street," Burton said. "Because I just knew U Street was going to become vibrant again with black-owned businesses."
The consignment shop gave way to the bookstore, which moved from the 1300 block of U Street to its current location in 1997. Then the flurry of high-priced residential construction started, and the corridor's rebirth began to vault from bohemian to upscale.
Parts of the corridor continue to pay tribute to its history. Three-quarters of the retail businesses locating in the Ellington building, for example, are minority-owned or community-based. City funds have helped rebuild the Lincoln Theatre and restore the True Reformer Building for use by nonprofit groups.
Because most of the new construction is on lots that were vacant for years, few businesses have been displaced. And although housing prices are skyrocketing, millions of dollars have been allotted to preserve some affordable units.
But Williams and Burton say the street that for so many decades was a refuge for black people is becoming an increasingly uncomfortable place to be.
They wonder why other businesses on the corridor hire firms from the suburbs to wash their windows and take out the trash while Sisterspace pays men who hang out on the street to do that work. At neighborhood improvement meetings, when civic leaders claim success in reducing loitering and other public nuisances, Williams and Burton chafe at the thought of police locking up black men who they greet every day.
"It's one thing to talk about the Black Broadway . . . to be interested in buildings and preserving them. But you've got to also focus on the people," Williams said. "We're saying, yes, we need that past, but we also need to be here in the present and the future."
Lawyer Stephen O. Hessler, who represents the trust, has had plenty to say in court but little to say in public to dispute the women's claim that they are victims of the gentrification wars.
Hessler clerked for an African American lawyer on U Street in the early 1970s. He, too, knows the corridor's history and what is happening there today.
Although he said he was confident of prevailing before the judge, he added, "We're not going to win this one in the court of public opinion. Because it's a landlord, in the wrong place. There are so many people who feel that Sisterspace is being wronged."
"We're not packing, and we're not walking out the door," said Faye Williams, left, with bookstore co-owner Cassandra Burton.