Cyrus Vance and John Hechinger are rolling down H Street NE in a black limousine. Fires are burning around them; packs of black teen- agers are running up the street as police sirens wail. It is April 1968, and Vance and Hechinger are cruising through a spasm of rioting in the nation's capital.
Hechinger, chairman of the appointed city council, and Vance, head of a White House task force on riots, are looking at the goings-on firsthand when Vance takes a moment to point through the rolled-up window at one of Hechinger's stores. Hechinger looks over and nods politely. Then he does a double-take:
"I couldn't believe it," he remembers. "There were people riding in forklifts looting my warehouse. With my forklifts."
Looters on foot and on forklift were tearing up H Street that day, hauling away the guts of a business district that was second only to downtown Washington in producing tax revenues and jobs. That April day the looters took the life out of H Street.
To walk down H Street today, 13 years later, is to walk past vacant lots, boarded-up stores, and to watch your back as unemployed young men mill around. H Street has never been put back together.
It is not alone in its ruin. Seventh Street NW --another street once filled with stores, night life and people who brought dollars and vitality to the city--is still a charred skeleton of its past. So is 14th Street NW, once a bubbling strip of life, day and night. Now all that bubbles up are the hookers and junkies.
These streets were once the way that Connecticut Avenue is today. But politicians and city planners have ignored them and offered talk but no real action. In doing so they have ignored the heartbeat of the city, allowing it to weaken.
In the dusty caskets of H Street, 7th Street and 14th Street lies the hope that the city will once again be more than a downtown of glass boxes full of government workers, lawyers, accountants and lobbyists from the suburbs.
Had the H Streets been rebuilt, more of the young black middle class that is fleeing Washington (as quickly as the white middle-class once fled) would find attractive city neighborhoods. Instead, there are only people who are willing to take a chance on living in a bad neighborhood or are interested in speculation.
"Before the riots, when people would say they were going downtown," says Rev. Stanley Barry, president of the H Street Project Area Committee, "they meant they were going to H Street."
That vibrant H Street had 90 buildings destroyed or nearly destroyed in the riots. Morton's department store was burned down, killing one person. Mortimer Lebowitz had operated Morton's H Street store since 1955, but after the riots he never reopened it.
"It was a good store, and business was getting better and better," he remembers. "After we were burned out, the environment was completely hostile to business. There was a sense of hostility from the community there to business renewal. Our black managers told us not to bother reopening because they could feel the hostility too. It was difficult because it was hard to get fire insurance in that area. No one, black or white, was making it easy to get started again on H Street."
The city government with its urban renewal plans went into H Street after the riots and began buying land wholesale, 10 acres in all, clearing out the few remaining businesses and homes as thoroughly as the rioters had cleared out the first batch. The lots the city purchased were to be sold to developers, who would be given government assistance in bringing life back to H Street. But then the planning started. How much housing should be included, the planners and community activists debated; how many businesses and what kind of businesses owned by people of what race? The planning became drivel that left the government-bought parcels undeveloped.
The government purchase that was intended to help businesses come back to H Street pushed people and their homes out of the area, taking away the market for businesses that tried to remain. The purchases left the area with empty lots and boarded-up buildings, looking like a ghetto, repelling young home buyers who might have revitalized H Street. The only government success on H Street since the riots was some subsidized housing built for poor people, a humanitarian act but one that did nothing to make H Street the self-sustaining, bustling street that could contribute to the city treasury as it once did. Until last May business redevelopment of H Street was a failure. Then the Hechinger's mall opened with an enlarged Hechinger's store and a plaza of record shops, a supermarket and other stores.
The mall was built with the city's first Urban Development Action Grant; another is being sought for H Street to help with business development at the other end of the 15-block strip. The UDAG grant alone will not do the trick of rebuilding H Street. Hechinger's grant was for only $3.2 million of a $20 million project; it will take money and the belief that H Street is a market to be tapped.
"The population around here is good and solid middle-class," Hechinger says. "These people want stores. We are talking about an area with an average household income of about $19,000. . . . Right now I think we have the biggest urban mall in the country that is not located in a downtown section, and there is room to grow."
Hechinger's mall looks to be doing well; it draws raves from the neighborhood. "It is the anchor that could help the whole H Street corridor come back," says Lorraine Alexander, a former delicatessen and nightclub owner on H Street who is now trying to develop a small mall of her own if the city can get the second UDAG grant."That Hechinger's mall is the first really hopeful sign we've had since the riots."
Even with its one gem, H Street remains a stark failure in business revitalization after all these years. The city government, now engrossed in planning for a new downtown with hotels and shopping malls, has ignored H Street and other true pulse centers of life in the District.
Downtown Washington will come back without government help. That is a sure bet with the White House, the Capitol, Federal Triangle and Metro downtown, and with the convention center going up.
Where the real challenge lies is in pumping life back into the H Streets. If this whole city -- not just the downtowns and the Georgetowns -- is going to work, then the answer is to be found in making Washington's old main streets work again.