I remember that my main worry in calling the D.C. Council together to adopt a memorial resolution to Martin Luther King Jr. was whether this rather innocuous tribute would interfere with the private suffering of my colleague, Council Vice Chairman Walter Fauntroy, who was one of Dr. King's closest associates. The worry went even beyond that, to whether to expose Walter to a public forum when you could not anticipate the actions of crazies who had already senselessly destroyed America's most prominent man of peace.
After the meeting, I went back to my office on the fifth floor of city hall and looked out the windows that faced 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue and, to my consternation, saw huge billows of smoke rising in the general direction of 7th Street and 14th Street NW. My God, my city was burning--erupting with flames in every direction. The phones were wild. The White House was on half the lines. It was chaos.
I was assigned to Cyrus Vance, who was deputized by Lyndon B. Johnson to represent the president in trying to contain what we came to realize was a full-scale riot similar to those that had hit other American cities earlier--the kind that many had rationalized would have little chance of occurring in our stable, more middle- class community.
We were wrong.
The two of us traveled by car through the ravaged streets. National Guard and Army troops at barricades had to be given a password before they would let you move during the curfew.
I saw lots of burning. I never saw anybody start a fire. But that ride was a dream out of Dante's "Inferno": leaping flames with shadowy people jumping in and out of buildings--looters gone wild. Not the brick-throwers, not the Molotov-cocktail-throwers--by then they had departed--but the scavengers.
As we came down H Street NE, with fire truck hoses stretching across the debris like speed bumps every 100 feet, we were passed through the barricades at the corner of Maryland Avenue and Benning Road when what to my tired eyes did appear but the Hechinger Company warehouse being looted in the most efficient manner. The looters were driving our fork lifts in and out of the building, helping themselves wholesale. It only hurt when I tried to laugh.
By the first of June, two months later, in accordance with previous plans, we opened on the same spot a store five times as large as the one that was looted. It was an act of faith that we have never regretted. My family and our company executives believed that the riots were a aberration of the most severe sort--pent-up frustrations that I had witnessed daily for six months from the podium of the council chamber: at the highway planning hearings (white man's roads through black people's homes) and police community relations hearings (justifiable homicide). Washington had exploded, but we trusted that it was over, spent and that it was a good bet it would never happen again.
For the next 10 years, our dream of doing something important on our site anchoring that burned-out H Street corridor was met with rejection by prospective businesses, real estate developers and financial types.
Finally, in 1981, we opened a 200,000-square- foot mall with the encouragement of the mayor and his staff and a federal UDAG loan. It contains the largest Safeway in America, a large suburban- type Hechinger store and 20 other businesses.
The northeast area of our city, containing almost a quarter-million people, was the most underserved quadrant, with only a few drug stores, grossly inadequate food markets and no amenities whatsoever for commercial activities. The solid citizens who make up this part of the city were as shocked by the momentary insanity of the riots as the president of the United States, and their patience for the rebuilding of the H Street corridor has been severely strained.
We hope the Hechingter Mall will serve as a flagship for the restoration of H Street NE, which 20 years ago was second only to downtown Washington in commercial vitality.
We have more plans for our gateway site since our purchase of the Sears building; and we think this kind of commitment will work for the benefit of others along H Street, 14th Street and 7th Street and that, although it is long overdue, there are some projects well enough along that it will indeed be done.