I CAN NOW shop and eat and go to the movies on Eighth Street SE. A little less than 20 years ago I was afraid to stand there in the day and wait for the bus.
The revival of the area behind the Capitol, which began in the 1960s, continues and has brought with it a wave of new shops. But that revival is not at all universal. It has not reached H Street NE, once the city's third-busiest commercial area.
Since the late 1960s gentrification has steadily moved east from the Capitol. The rows and rows of two- and three-story, turn-of-the-century brick houses on the south side of East Capitol Street first attracted the urban pioneers. As more and more blocks became saturated with the newcomers, new restaurants and stores gradually started appearing on Pennsylvania Avenue nearest the Capitol and on Eighth Street SE.
But the new restaurants and shops on Pennsylvania Avenue stop abruptly at 11th Street. To the east the old Pennsylvania Avenue still lives. Gentrification continues to spread east of 11th Street, but this area is still considered a frontier by real estate agents and to many of the whites living there. Most of the black families there consider it a pleasant stable neighborhood consisting mainly of homeowners.
The latest commercial strip to come alive, thanks to gentrification, is on Massachusetts Avenue NE. between First and Fourth Streets. For years these four blocks included boarded up buildings, a few small businesses and homes. That changed in 1977 when American Cafe opened its first and only outlet west of Wisconsin Avenue in a previously unsightly building at Second and Mass. It was a sign that these blocks were now considered safe for Georgetown-type businesses.
Four years later Bob's Ice Cream moved in across the street. (Its only two other outlets are west of Rock Creek Park.) A new office building has been completed in the next block and there are a growing number of nice new restaurants.
The coming of these stores meant that the surrounding blocks were also entirely white. If there were any doubt, you could tell that by looking at the patio of the American Cafe on any summer evening.
Gentrification is now lapping at H Street. It has progressed as far as F Street. But H street is sort of a DMZ. While gentrification is slowly approaching from the south the north side of H is still solidly black.
Most of the young men convicted of the brutal murder of Catherine Fuller lived in these blocks, which are characterized by a mixture of modest two-story flat-front brick homes and bay-windowed Victorian- style homes.
The only signs of gentrification near H Street exist among the 30 stores at the first Hechinger Mall, which opened in l981. The Door Store, which had no outlets east of Wisconsin Avenue was one of the mall's original tenants.
In recent years The Athlete's Foot and a Godfather's Pizza have opened in the mall. The shoe store's only other city outlet is in Georgetown and the pizza store's only other city address is upper Wisconsin Avenue. The Safeway, the largest on the East Coast, has lobsters, a greater variety of cheeses than could be found at the Giant on Wisconsin Avenue, and shelves of gourmet delicacies.
The city thinks it can revitalize H Street. It has had that thought since the riots and such thinking has only produced a handful of small shops. City officials are saying now that the coming of the second Hechinger Mall about two blocks from the eastern end of H Street will spark renewed interest in the street and trigger the long-awaited redevelopment. That's puzzling because many of these same city officials said a few years ago that the first Hechinger Mall had drained off a lot of business from H Street, and perhaps the city needed to rethink its plans for H Street as a commercial core.
Neither Hechinger Mall nor the city's promise to put government offices in small building near Sixth and H will generate much spinoff development. Private developers and businessmen, like those who have revitalized Capitol Hill, will stay clear of H street until its surrounding blocks are awash in yuppies, preferably white yuppies.
One lonely exception to this pattern of revitalization is a new mall at Fourth Street and Rhode Island Avenue NE., which includes a Safeway, Peoples Drug and the city's first Zayre's. The developers of this shopping center were willing to take a chance on a predominantly black community of Northeast Washington.
This kind of development -- with black consumers in mind -- appears to be unique. It has not occurred on Capitol Hill and it has not happened on H Street. It is unlikely that it will occur there. If the past is any guide, revitalization will come to H Street only when gentrification crosses the frontier.