Eleven years after the riots, H Street NE, a once prosperous neighborhood shopping district, is a chain reaction waiting to happen.
While builders and bureaucrats unfold plans for major projects that will make prosperity fall in place, businessmen are tired of attending their meetings. Instead, they keep a wary eye on anyone who enters their stores and speak with gambler's optimism about their chances of hanging on.
Some have struck a truce with those who call the sidewalk their home, trading free breakfasts for protection from theft and vandalism.
Those with long memories recall when the sidewalks were jammed with shoppers. But today, they shrug their shoulders when asked about redevelopment plans. It is clear from interviews that H Street's small businessmen will wait for the carpenters and masons before they start thinking about prosperity from a government-sponsored development. As an H Street haberdasher said, "Never believe what you hear and only half of what you see, and then only if you can touch it."
Merchants remember the H Street NE area, a 17-block corridor that runs from North Capitol to Benning Road and the Hechinger Co.'s lumber yard, as a vibrant neighborhood shopping district in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. "It was a very necessary part of the neighborhood," said William Calomiris, a real estate agent and president of the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade when the riots hit.
But the 1960s brought suburban shopping malls with fancy stores, lower prices and free parking just when the income of H Street residents was declining. The area was already in economic trouble when the death of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, sparked three days of rioting and brought flames to areas of the city. H Street was among the hardest hit. Some of its south side buildings were left as shells.
The riots were the proverbial "final straw" said Arnold Mays, acting administrator of the D.C. Development Administration, a subsection of the Department of Housing and community Development, the spearhead for revitalizing H Street and other declining Washington neighborhoods.
There has been little evidence since then of improvements in the commercial area, although the Development Administration has been successful in clearing large tracts of land for construction, like the two blocks between 8th and 10th Streets, where a commercial shopping mall is planned by Orleans Construction Co. of Cleveland.
Groundbreaking for this $8 million or $9 million project, the showpiece of the DHCD's H Street commercial plans, is expected in the near future. However, Orleans company officials remain mute on what it will include, except to indicate that a national chain department store and a large area drug store could be among the clients.
Plans call for the project to occupy a two block area, causing the closure of 9th Street from H to I streets. Besides the commercial development of the Orleans project, which the Development Administration calls "Parcel 7," it will include more than 200 housing units and 17 town houses, said William Bankett, H Street area director for the Development Administration.
In addition, seven other smaller sites have been selected for commercial redevelopment along H Street, Bankett said.
It is Parcel 7 that will "anchor" the south end of the business corridor for future development, Bankett said. The "anchor" at the north end will be the 10-acre Hechinger's mall on the site of the company's lumber yard at the intersection of H Street, Maryland Avenue and Benning Road.
The "anchor" theory sees the Orleans and Hechinger projects attracting shoppers who will, in turn, create enough local sales demand to attract more new businesses and to allow present businessmen to invest in renovations of their stores.
But the little guys on H Street are understandably confused about the future. Since the riots, there have been a handful of plans, from the initial drawings of 1969 to revisions in 1973 and 1976. The latest reports were issued by the Department of Housing and Community Development in February.
The players have changed numberous times. Several consulting groups have given advice on redevelopment, only to be dropped in favor of new voices. In addition, it was during this period that the District received "home rule" and agencies like the Redevelopment Land Agency, which has been responsible for purchasing riot sites for residential and commercial redevelopment, have changed from creatures of congress to subdivisions of the D.C. Development Administration.
Local business owners have orgainized to secure government-insured loans and Small Business Administration funds. But there have been fights within these orgainizations, causing still more splinter groups. Out of this history, the H Street Businessmen's Association has emerged as the principle business spokesman, and the H Street Local Development Corp., a nearcousin since it has a similar membership list, was formed as the agent of the association to secure private and public funding for smail businesses.
Also involved in the redevelopment program are the H Street Project Area Committee (PAC), the neighborhood arm of the Department of Housing and Community Development, and COMPAC, a business group that split from the H Street Businessmen's Associatin.
H Street PAC includes elected representatives of neighborhood organizations on its board of directors, which meets regularly to try to keep businesses informed about project plans. "When people say they don't know what's going on, it's because they don't go to the meetings," said the Rev. Stanley Berry, PAC director for the past seven years.
The plethora of parties responsible for planning H Streets revitalization "is not confusing, but it is defeating," said Ozzie L. Turner, owner of the recently rebuilt Rocket One Hour Cleaners at 408 H St. NE and vice president of the H Street Businessmen's Association. Rocket Clearners was the beneficiary of one of the area's local development corporation SBA loans.
One example of how early groundwork on plans to revive the street was cast aside was recalled by D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy in a recent interview.
Fauntroy had helped to engineer a redevelopment plan for the Shaw area in the late 1960s as an outgrowth of his work as pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Chruch at 1433 V St. NW. The plan was orchestrated carefully by the Model Inner Cities Community Organization, which Fauntroy formed, and much of the construction has been completed in the past few years.
As a result of the Shaw project, Fauntroy was asked to undertake planning for the reconstruction of the H Street and 14th Street riot areas under the Nixon administration in 1969.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then Nixon's urban adviser, had urged Nixon to give the Shaw plan $29 million as one of his first acts of office so that the buildings might be completed by the time he stood for reelection in 1972, Fauntroy said.
In the meantime, Nixon also was advised to drop Fauntroy from the vicechairmanship of the D.C. City Council to which he had been appointed by Lyndon Johnson in 1967. Fauntroy said his insistence on community autonomy, his civil rights activities and his political strength at a time when home-rule was on the horizon "made some people feel insecure."
Inner City Planning Associates, a community-based group of planners, architects and builders, received a $600,000 grant from the Ford Foundation for H Street planning.
The organization contacted local citizens for comment and presented a preliminary plan to the city government, but the bottom dropped out of its involvement.
"Before I could finish I was dropped and Inner City Planning Associates was dropped," Fauntroy said. Not only was it a personal blow to Fauntroy, but he believes that the change in signals impeded redevelopment.
"The bottom line is, it's hard to take someone else's car and drive it," he said. "After we had done half the work and done the surveys, they cut-off funding . . . The government was not prepared to implement it."
At that point, H Street became a victim of home rule, which brought an elected government to the city in 1970 and which set the bureaucracy into slow motion during the transition period.
By that time Walter Washington, who had been appointed mayor in 1968, had been elected on his own right, but many sources say he seemed unenthusiastic about the H Street plan (Fauntroy became the first elected delegate to Congress in 1970 and said he was never again consulted about H Street, despite his experience and his current committee work in housing, redevelopment, banking and finance.)
Another early consultant was the National Development Corp., a private, nonprofit organization that helps cities to organize economic redevelopment programs. Its area showpiece is Baltimore's Old Town Mall. Washington officials visited the mall and subsequently arranged a $10,000 HUD grant for the council to assist H Street businessment and to advise the city on devising a "blueprint" for the area. This pilot project resulted in advice to the H Street Businessmen's Association that helped them get government and private financing for the Tax Service Center at 418 H St. NE and the Rocket Cleaners.
But the council's director, John Sower, said there was "very little follwup" by the Washington administration on its recommendation, and a year and a half ago it, too, was dropped.
Under the Carter administration's unban renewal program, however, Sower said the council has "sophisticated" projects in 25 large cities unsing HUD, Economic Development Administration and SBA funding. Sower said he made a presentation to Mayor Marion Barry in early April for a city-wide neighborhood revitalization program that would include H Street. He is optimistic the Barry administration will follow such a program.
"Washington is beginning to start in these kinds of sophisticated planning programs," Sower said.
"Sophisticated" is a stage that Lorraine Alexander, president of the 76 member H Street Businessmen's Association, admits she hasn't reached. Formed in 1973, the association has had to learn to cope with government regulations and the advice of people like Sower to help its members. "It's been a learning process for all of us," Alexander, owner of a delicatessen and a contracting business, said. High on the agenda, she remembers, was learning to approach city authorities as a group. The result has been a drop in crime in the past few years, she said, because of increased police patrols, although crime remains a big problem in the area.
The hard part, however, has been getting financing for local merchants. The association, which formed a local development corporation in 1976 to secure SBA and bank financing to help businessmen refurbish and buy their stores, has had success with the tax service and cleaners. It is working on loan packages for a half-dozen projects now, including two restaurants, another laundromat, a beauty salon and a liquor store, she said.
She is tired of business people who won't join the association to push for more development. "There's three kinds of people, you know, the doer, the non-doer and the watcher. We're doers. We feel we will have to be able to give services and be competitive businessmen to attract customers, but it can be done."
It has not been easy for H Street businesses to get financing. Turner of Rocket Cleaners said his SBA success story came after years of being turned down by area banks, including the bank where he did all of his business.
He has been in operation at the same address since 1966 but took a total loss after a fire in April 1973. He was turned down for loans locally but says he managed to borrow the money elsewhere and reopened in August 1973.
One banker refused him a $5,000 loan, saying the bank could not make any loans on H Street because it was a high-risk area.
"He said that he'd lend me the $5,000 if I wanted to buy a Cadillac. That was highly insulting. I wanted to smack him down the street," Turner said.
Turner and the local development corporation secured an SBA loan for $111,000 for his H Street drycleaning operation and has received federal backing for operations in Southwest Washington and Bethesda. In addition, he notes that private lending institutions like the Bank of Columbia also have indicated a willingness to back H Street businesses.
Mays, of the city Development Administration, said he expects banks will be lending money in the H Street area because of the very active residential real estate market on nearby Capitol Hill. "It's inevitable that H Street conditions will improve," Mays said, because the real estate development will induce more commercial activity.
Larger projects like Hechinger's mall also have been the beneficiary of federal funding. Hechinger's received a $3 million grant from HUD's Urban Development grant program in January.
The company also will spend $10 million of its own funds, according to president John M. Hechinger. The mall could be in operation by 1981.Plans for the 200,000-square foot project are expected to be complted within six to nine months and construction is expected to take 18 months to two years.
A new Hechinger's hardware center will take up 65,000 square feet of the shopping center, and Hechingers said a 55,000-square-foot supermarket and a 10,000-square-foot drug store will be located in the mall.
Hechinger said a commercial leasing firm is lining up tenants now and that there "has been considerable interest from a variety of retailers" including banks, savings and loan associations and some businesses now on H Street.
The mall will be "a magnet development that will encourage people to invest in the area," Hechinger said. "Our $13 million investment is an act of faith, showing that others can take the chance and that it isn't really a chance."
He said criticism of the Hechinger center for taking business away from the rest of the area, while not generating shopping elsewhere along the street, "is contrary to commercial development.
"H Street will come alive. There are already signs that there is substantial progress," he said.
Before anyone could realistrically expect such progress in commercial development, however, the area needed renovation of its housing, Mays said.
"Housing always has to come first in these situations," he said. "It's a life-or-death thing with people. There's always places for them to shop and do that but there's not always a place for them to have a roof over their heads."
Mays said H Street will have to develop a different character than it had years ago. It once drew nearby residents who came on foot, but now use the automobile. Adequate off-street parking will have to be provided on H Street, where street parking is scarce. The Hechinger, Orleans and other DHCD plans have off-street parking.
At the same time, the traditional "mon and pop" stores of areas like H Street find the increased rents that new commercial development will bring impossible to pay.
He expects the "back to the city movement" and changing shopping habits to benefit neighborhood commercial districts like H Street, however. High gas prices will make shoppers think twice about heading for suburban shoppping malls to save a few dollars, he believes.
The H Street area has seen eight publicly financed housing developments built since the riots. A variety of programs - some to give rental assistance and others to help low-income people buy town houses - have been used.
While most have involved sponsorship by the D.C. government, some, like the Delta Housing Corp., have used private sponsors. The Delta project, sponsored by the Washington, D.C., Alumni Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, a poredominantly black sorority with a national base, is a high-rise apartment house for the elderly at Florida Avenue and Bladensburg Road across from Hechinger's.
Delta is awaiting HUD approval of the site and a zoning clearance for the 10-story building, Alice T. Davis, the Washington chapter president, said. Plans call for up to 150 units on 1.7 acres. Delta has received a $5.2 million HUD grant and has applied for an additional $200,000 to $250,000 from HUD, Groundbreaking is expected this summer and the project could be opened by 1980 because it is a modular, prefabricated building.
Delta, Hechinger, Orleans and the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development are the big links in the kind of chain reaction that will bring H Street back. But they are big plans that still leave the area's small business owners feeling left out.
Fauntroy said he thinks the new administration will be able to get the H Street plan going. However, he cautioned, "Before you do this you have to have the involvement of the people. The people along H Street really don't see themselves as part of this picture. That's the only way we got Shaw. Obviously that hasn't been done on H Street." CAPTION: Picture 1, Alfred Hughs, Helen Mabry at shoe store; Picture 2, Tax Service Center left a forwarding address. by Gerald Martineau-The Washington Post; Picture 3, The old Atlas Theater in 1300 block of H Street NE. By Gerald Martineau-The Washington Post; Picture 4, Parking and entrance to Hechinger's store. by Gerald Martineau-The Washington Post