William Odrick's lived in the same house since 1932. He's 80. Eleanor Johnson's lived two doors away since 1964. She's 14. Between their attached homes stands another turn-of-the-century brick row house. It's boarded up Stamped on a piece of plywood nailed over the front door are the words: "U.S. Government Property. No trespassing." Down the block, on both sides of the street, are empty, blackened hulls of buildings, all bearing the same signs of ownership. The clusters of families who live in the midst of this wreckage, like the Odricks and Johnsons, don't own their homes. They all pay rent as they have for years and years, to the same slum landlord - Uncle Sam. They live on Bates Street, in sight of the Capitol.
It had been 16 years since I first visited Bates Street. A lot of pain and a lot of progress over those passing years, but Bates Street remains Bates Street. Only worse. It was supposed to be better of course. The government to renovate them. Urban renewal. It just never said so after buying the homes and promising happened.
"I tell you the changes are not too good see," says William Odrick."After they had that riot , that's what killed the whole thing. You remember the riots? Fires and guys running and stealing liquor and windows broke and ducking in and out of the houses. Well those houses were hulled out by the government. What they was supposed to do was remodel 'em. sell 'em. But they left 'em like this. Been like this for years. See, not only in this area, but in others."
Odrick and his few neighbors can't tell you what's going to happen on their block, or why nothing has happened over the years. All they can say is what they see. All they can describe is how they live. They are not encouraged.
They were spending the Fourth of July sitting out on their front steps attempting to escape the stifling heat and humidity.
"They done torn the inside of the houses out so they can remodel "em." said Eleanor Johnson, "but they haven't remodeled "em yet, so they just leave 'em. That's not building nothing but rats and mice. They probably dead, and one or another of the houses goes won't be satisfied until the people be found to cave in."
She rememers the riots, too, although she was only 5 at the time. The sound of the sirens remains most vivid in her mind. That and a few indelible scenes:
"People was getting killed and beat in the head and stores was getting burned open and people couldn't walk and police was around here everywhere. They was destroying houses knocking down doors, everything. If you had stuff in the furniture layaways, that's gone. And the people that owned the stores, they're gone. Now it's worse. Like food prices gone up. Like can't find any kind of jobs around. Like no stores anymore. Like the curfew, and you can't get in the drug store to get a prescription after 5 o'clock less you're 18 or older. Like where the Embassy Dairy was: First they said they was gonna make it apartments there. Then they was gonna make it a playgorund.Now there's nothing but weeds about this high over there. they tear down the buildings and fill the vacant lots in with weeds."
Bates Street lies only a few blocks from the Capitol and City Hall's not that much farther away. But the problems with Bates Street is that no one seems to know - or to care - that it's there. The people don't exist. What exists is a plan.
Back in 1969 the Redevelopment Land Agency, the District of Columbia's urban renewal office, drew plans calling for the renovation of most of the 176 rowhouses on the Square 552. Bates Street runs through the middle of that square. The next year the government began buying up the homes and in 1973 "a program for Bates Street" was even published. "Redesign and rehabilitation of these buildings is feasable under existing federal programs, if groups of 25 to 50 buildings are rehabilitated at one time," it read, in part.
Then Stalemate. Another agency, Washington's Model Cities Commission, had a different idea: Bates Street wasn't worth saving. It was too far gone. The buildings should be demolished and the area cleared for new construction. After months of squabbling, the government reached a decision. It would renovate. Rehabilitation was the future for Bates Street.
Now it's four years later, and nothing. The Redevelopment Land Agency itself no longer exists: it has been swallowed by the District of Columbia's Housing and Community Development Department.
A Harold Wendt, acting administrator, was the person to talk to about Bates Street, the secretary said on the phone yesterday. call 724-3706. He was'nt in. Try the "rehab office," Ben Carter or Marcus Dahser. Call 724-8856. Not in. The person to contact is aJim Blackwell. He's the project coordinator. On leave. Try Salvatore Cicero. "Sal Cicero we call him, he's got an office down the hall, but I haven't seen him this morning." Call 724-8851. Not in. An assistant, however. Lewis Symre, was helpful.
One of the problems apparently had been the Housing and Urban Development Department, the U.S. agency that dispenses the dough for the cities to do their urban renewal. It's regulations required "a whole series of apporvals" - from the community property owners, from the District government from the people qualified to do the work. But now, at long last. I'm told the rehabilitation will began. When? Maybe later this summer. All new systems, new roots, new heating, new pumbing. That's what was sid four years ago, too.
Lamuel Fleet will believe that when he sees it. At the age of 77 he's seen it all, and from where he sits none of it seems to get better. He had been listening to young Eleanor Johnson recalling the riots of '68. When she finished, he recalled problems of his own.
I'll tell you about being black," he said."I knowed all the positions. I did the work, but I did'nt get the pay to be a mechanic. BecauseI was a black man, because my skin was black, see. I hax to stay in my group.
"See, that's the story. See, if we jump out here and start killing the white people they will bring all the Marines, the Army, everything. 'Cause that's what happened after the first World War when I was working down at the Treasury.
"I can't understand the United States. They make us fight for our country, and then we go back in that same ditch we come from. Now why? Let us move up a little bit. We don't want to move into heaven, but we want to move in a way that every man can live and enjoy himself. See that's my problem."
And it's stillthe problem on Bates Street.