The woman sat amid the tattered charm of her small retail shop in northeast Washington, struggling to describe an urban nightmare. City officials may use the fine phrase "commercial revitalization" to describe what is happening to her area, she said, but for her it has meant official lies, bureaucratic delays and even threats spanning a decade, and ultimately the frustration of her deepest hopes.
"I think they're trying to drive out the small people," she said of city officials. "They'd come by and ask me to sell Then they'd say, 'You're going to sell or else! 'I told 'em, 'I'm too old to start over. Where would I go? What would I do?'"
When officials suggested she apply for a government-backed loan, her answer was she knew people who had done so and then waited months, years with no results. "They (the officials) say little sly things like. "This isn't slavery time, you know. Now here these loans are sitting here waiting and nobody has applied. I say, 'It's worse than slavery time because I can remember before the civil disturbances (in 1968) when I could go up to the bank and sign my name and get $1,000."
Of Washington's three inner-city "riot corridors" that suffered severe damage in disturbances following the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in the spring of 1968, none has been so slow in redeveloping so the roughly 20 blocks of II Street NE stretching east toward the Anacostia River from a point just north of Union Station and only half a dozen blocks from the Capitol buildings.
The problems of rebuilding H Street, which persist at a time when interest has again intensified in Washington and across the country in rebuilding the nation's inner cities, seems dramatic evidence that the revitalization of cities is a much longer and more laborious process than anyone dreamed a decade ago after cities were ripped apart in rioting.
Now it does seem that progress is being made, slowly and painfully, in the H Street area as well as in the Shaw and 14th Street riot corridors, and city planners still talk with hope of a "break point" when there will be "economic takeoff." But for H Street, they say, it's still five or 10 years down the road.
Why so long? Officials too, often wonder why. "It takes forever because these urban renewal processes are slow and cumbersome," reasoned one city official. "It's inherently this way because you're buying people's property and moving them. Serious rights are involved. Then you've got to get the image of an area turned around, and it's hard to find (developers) and to get (federal) money."
Lying along the northern frontier of the vast redevelopment by the private sector that is transforming Capitol Hill, and graced with charming old two-amd three-story buildings of a quality that are seldom built anymore, H Street seems to have an enormous commercial potential. It is bolstered by the growing numbers of middleclass blacks and whites who are moving into the area.
On the east the street is anchored by two large government-sponsored housing projects, mostly for moderate-income families, and by the large plot of land at the intersection of Maryland Avenue and Benning Road where John Hechinger proposed to locate the city's convention center. That proposal was rejected by the major's office, but Hechinger may still go ahead with plans for a major shopping center there.
On the west, the city completed last summer a wide, convenient highway overpass crossing the railroad tracks just north of Union Station. The overpass has made H Street a major commuting route as traffic from the west pours across the overpass, city planners say. Merchants agree that the overpass has brought new business.
Both the local and federal government for nearly a decade have pressed a myriad of programs designed to revitalize the area - encourage middle-class or moderate-income families to move in and encourage business people along the street to refurbish their establishments, or move out and make way for larger developments.
But here the problems begin. Although the number of government programs and bureaucrats administering them for H Street is as mind-boggling as their pace has been slow, the casual stroller down H Street today will see basically a scene of decay, even devastation. Run-down shops are interspersed with boarded-up shells, and still-vacant losts where the city has cleared away burned-out buildings from the riots - along with the hundreds of families who once provided steady customers for the street's merchants.
The woman quoted at the beginning of this article - who asked not to be identified because she fears thugs in the area as well as government retributions - is not alone. At a recent community meeting to "kick off" the community revitalization program. Loree Murray, owner with the rest of her family of a liquor store on H Street, stood up and angrily asked officials , "I would like to know the time frame for government plans). So many people are going out of business . . ."
Lorenzo W. Jacobs Jr., director of the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, answered. "The matter of the time frame will be discussed . . . There will also be an suggest in what time schedule these things will take place . . ."
Mrs. Murray sat down, still angry. Later she said: "Five years ago they told us they were going to build up the area. They promised to help. They have destroyed all the houses that support the businesses and replaced them with nothing. The government has driven the people away . . ."
There were about 40 people at that meeting, but most of them seemed to be officials. Only about a dozen business people from the street were their - and later interviews indicated that dozns of others stayed away in disgust. They have seen it all before.
"They wear you out." said pawnbroker Samuel Weinstein. "That's the thinks officials want to delay things to the small business people will be driven out clearing the way for larger developments.
"I've been out here hoping and struggling and wishing for the past six years," said identified. "The only development I've seen is a few playgrounds for kids that are deteriorating."
Cutty Mitchell, who runs a dry-cleaning shop on the street, said he once applied for a government-backed loan but gave up after 12 weeks. "I knew I had to move fast so I just forgot about it," he said. He managed to obtain a loan from private sources.
R.J. Turner, who has also borrowed money from private sources at rates up to 24 per cent annually in order to refurbish three buildings at 5th and H Streets, listened to the presentations at the meeting and said, "Did you ever hear of overplanning? Sometimes you can't tell the difference between that and no planning at all."
The merchants are not the only onces who are frustrated. "We go home at night and we're so frustrated," said the Rev. Stanley Barry, staff man on the area's quasi-official Project Area Committee that manitors government aid programs. "people will say, 'I don't know, what the hell you're doing.' and that's frustrating. You work until 9 or 11 or 12 at night. You know you're working like hell. You think you're at the gate (to a breakthrough), but suddenly you aren't anywhere."
Not all the business people on the street are as negative about the future as the majority seem to be however.
Led by Lorraine Alexander, an imaginative, dynamic woman who owns a grocery and carryout at 41th and H Street, a number of them have formed an area business association, a Local Development Corporation for the area - a legal entity through which businesses in the area can receive loans either guaranteed or directly granted by the Small Business Administration.
Also participating in this program by providing Alexander's LDC with 10 per cent seed money for each loan is the District of Columbia Development Corporation a government-funded community development agency that seeks to stimulate housing and commercial development in the city.
Officials say there are millions of dollars available to H Street businesses under this program, and Mrs. Alexander said she hopes to generate interest in it and to combat the negative attitudes among business people that have grown up through the years of government promises that were not followed by action.
The first loan under this program was made last week to a man who hopes to set up a tax-consulting business on the street, and other applications have beem turned in.
"It has been a long, long time trying to get the first loan to go," said Mrs. Alexander. "We're hoping the rest of them won't take that long."
Many business persons on the street, however, view ,rs. Alexander as part of a "clique" seeking to further the interests of a few business, including her own. This is not the view of others who strongly praise her as a pioneer on H Street.
The decline of the H Street area, which was once a bustling commercial center that drew shoppers from all over the region, began about 1960, according to a study for the city by the Real Estate Research Corporation. Average income dropped substantially below that for the city as a whole and the area's overall population declined from 75,000 in 1960 to 62,000 in 1975.
This decline was worsened by the rioting in 1968, in which 90 buildings in the are were destroyed or damaged. By the summer of 1969 the City Council had approved a large urban renewal plan for the corridor, and officials were guessing that the rebuilding of the street could begin in four or five months.
The city's old urban renewal agency, called the Redevelopment Land Agency, purchased about 10 acres of land in the H Street corridor. It was divided into parcels along the street where buildings had been burned or were in bad shape, and in nearby purely residential areas. The idea was to resell these parcels to developers who, with government backing would redevelop them.
Groups called "acquisition teams" went around at that time trying to put together these parcels - and it was the efforts of such a team to acquire her property that the woman quoted at the beginning of this article was complaining about. When her building was later damage by nearby land-clearing operations, the woman became convinced that officials were purposely trying to drive her out.
In all, officials said, the government moved 281 households out of the H Street area, of which 31 were able to move back in after receiving government-backed rehabilitation loans. The government also bought 65 locations, and 37 businesses were moved out of the area. The remaining businesses have been allowed to remain in the government-owned buildings temporarily, paying rent to the city.
Stephen Jonston, community affairs officer for the Department of Housing and Community development, acknowledged that some "marginal businesses" are being squeezed out as a result of this program, but he said that even more would be squeezed out as a result of this program, but he said that even more would be squeezed out without the department's efforts to keep small businesses.
The businesses are being squeezed, according to officials and the merchants themselves, because the net loss of residents in the area has cost them customers. At the same time, the government is asking them to apply for loans to refurbish their businesses in order to attract new resident - loans many of them can't afford until business picks up. It is a vacious cycle.
Another irony, according to the Real Estate Research Corporation study, is that the current influx of higher-income persons into the area hurts, rather than helps, H Street funds were again freed, and key projple tend to shop elsewhere, and will continue to do so until H Street becomes more attractive to them.
A key to the long years of delay on H Street and elsewhere, according to city planner J. Kirkwood White, was the Nixon administration's freezing of federal funds for uban renewal in the wake of several major program failures. It was not until 1974 that the funds were again freed, and key projects in Washington's riot corridors were able to get under way.
As things stand now in the H Street area, one apartment development, the Azeeze-Bates Courts, has been completed at 16th and F Streets NE for more than 100 moderate and low-income families. Another development of 157 garden-type apartments and six town houses is nearing completion at 15th Street and Benning Road, and ground has been broken for 28 town houses at 13th and I Streets. In addition, many of 70 individual houses slated for revovation in the area have been completed and in many cases families have moved in.
Along H Street itself, the largest RLA-owned parcel - two blocks on the south side of the street between 8th and 10th Streets is slated for development into a commercial and residential complex with two 90-foot apartment towers by a group of predominantly black developers. Zoning has already been changed to permit the development, and if federal backing can be obtained, officials say, ground may be broken within three months.
According to Jacobs and other officials who appeared at the meeting, plans are less definite for the other RLA-owned parcels along H Street. THis vagueness is what irritates the business people. THe city must make plans, and developers have to be located for these parcels - a time-consuming process.
Jacob's housing department appears to be moving faster, however, in planning improvements to streets, sidewalks, sewers and other such "street furniture" that will enhance the general area to pave the way for development. City planner White said the city has $40 million this year in federal funds for such improvements, a portion of which will go to H Street.
In the long term, planners see a revitalized H Street serving a growing middle-class population but with significant numbers of moderate-income families remaining in the area. They see the street's businesses being refurbished to serve an essentially local population, but never again rising to be a key commercial center that would draw shoppers from other areas of the city. They see many of the current merchants remaining to benefit from these changes.
How long it will take is anybody's guess. The H Street corridor is "poised for change," according to the Real Estate Research Corporation. White is more cautious. "It's probably entering a period of takeoff," he said, "and it'll be five or 10 years before you said it's finished . . . While progress won't be dramatic, it will be steady."