In 1968, H. Street NE was brought to its knees by thousands of angry blacks who looked and set afire the small shops, restaurants and other businesses that line the once-posh avenue.
Frightened merchants closed their stores. Property owners could not sell their buildings. H Street went through a quick and seemingly final decline.
Today, H Street remains a monument to the troubles of urban America. Empty, boarded up stores and vacant pieces of property intersperse with the carry-out restaurants, banks, liquor stores, laundromats and other commercial enterprises that continue to cater to the poor and middle class families who live within walking distance.
Unemployment runs high among those who live near H Street. Men and teen-aged youths can be found at almost any time of the day or night standing on the corners, passing time as time passes them.
Since last month, a young white man has been spending more and more time among the unemployed blacks who spend their days at the corner of 5th and H Streets NE. The young man's name is R. J. Turner and he buys, sells and renovates Capitol Hill real estate.
He recently paid $77,000 for three vacant, boarded-up buildings at the corner of 5th and H., buildings which Turner hopes to renovate (at a cost of more than $150,000) into a posh restaurant (to be called Turner's Folly), offices and eight apartments. Some of the formerly idle neighborhood residents have been hired to assit in the renovation.
Like other inner city neighborhoods, change is coming to H Street NE. If Turner's vision becomes reality, his new development will become the anchor for another major expansion of Capitol Hill.
"Really what motivated me," Turner said yesterday, "was I like the buildings, I liked the architecture, I liked the location, I needed office space and it's close to home."
Home for Turner is Capitol Hill - the key factor for any understanding of the forces that may ultimately change H Street from its present depressed state into a revitalized commercial section of the city.
Turner says that Capitol Hill is so popular that is is "bursting at the seams. People are paying "ridiculous prices" for renovated houses and unrenovated "shells" farther and farther from the Capitol building.
The next logical extension of the Hill's expansion is H Street Turner believes, because it is the only remaining commercial area within walking distance of the young, affluent singles and couples who are moving to the Hill.
Hechinger's has announced plans to build a shopping center at the intersectionof H Street, Maryland Avenue and Benning Road NE. Turner believes the new shopping center will anchor one end of H Street while his project will begin revitalization of the other end.
Turner has run into serious obstacles from banks and other lenders who cannot believe that H Street will change. They still remember the 1968 riots.
But Turner believes H Street has a future and he has put a lot of money on the line to back up his beliefs. His project will be good for H Street, good for the city "and good for me," he said.