Heal H Street

personal experiences of neighborhood decline, gentrification, and shifting culture following the 1968 riots

Not Fully Baked

Bone chilling cold settled on the first days of April, even by Michigan standards. I sat on the floor of the mudroom struggling against my uncooperative over boots. I recall them vividly and I was losing the battle. Folding metal clasps riveted to frayed black rubber – one of the clasps broken and hanging loosely. The boots were far from being a fashion statement, but they had a purpose. I was six years old in 1968 as I waged war with my boots. The mercury was creeping near 40 and I was anxious to play in the melting piles of snow, puddles, and muck. It was my life, and it was normal. For all I knew, the whole world was heading out to enjoy the muddy soup we call a Michigan spring. And best of all, I would return to the warmth of our home knowing one of my mother’s delicious cherry pies, fresh from the oven, would be waiting for me.

Weather defines life for a kid growing up in Michigan. Frost covered grass in autumn turns to brutally cold winters with the inescapable lake effect snow – the snow that keeps the landscape pristinely white between the real snowstorms. If you cut your own firewood, it’ll warm you twice was my father’s mantra. The brilliant white of winter fades to the brown mud of spring, and is finally relieved by long summer days. Boots are discarded for bare feet, and shovels laid to rest as hoes take the watch. A shirtless and shoeless summer is the reward granted by the last day of school.

Weather is not the only defining characteristic of midwestern Michigan. I was too young to know it at the time, but my hometown of Howard City was defined by what wasn’t there as much as what was. Other than a five and dime store, Matson Hardware, a library that would fit in the living room of most homes, a bank, a butcher, and a grocer, fields surrounded us as far as the eye could see. Olsen Knife Company was the only industry. “Fatty Fatty run for your life, here comes Skinny with an Olsen Knife.” In spite of the jingle, I had a crush on Tammy Olsen. Tammy was cute, and she represented something larger because of the family business. With a population of less than 1,000, the prospects for adolescent romance in Howard City were slim, and I was shy. I’m sure Tammy had no idea of my feelings.

German, Polish, and Dutch immigrants built Howard City. There were probably a few Italians adding a little spice, and a smattering of less colorful Scandinavians. The ubiquitous white snow mimicked our lily-white heritage. Learning about people different from us – beyond the expansive corn and soy fields that guarded our remote hamlet, was as likely as seeing a pig fly – and we knew all the pigs. They just weren’t that ambitious.

Africans, Jews, Asians, Arabs, Latinos? About as common as lips on a chicken. I could count the number of black children in my school on one hand. The absence of anything other than my own reflection was not a concern to me. Anything I did not see in my small town was as distant, unknowable and exotic as the images in National Geographic.

And when it came to blacks, things were worse. What I learned about African-Americans came from the jokes, slurs, and stereotypes perpetuated by my family. My only hope for understanding black people was television. But what I saw was similarly unflattering. Images of marches, riots, and violence filled the screen – all accompanied by my father’s bigoted narration. The sum of these experiences was fear. Fear of the violence I associated with blacks, fear of the cities they lived in, and fear of the unknown beyond the last row of corn.

Washington D.C.’s H Street burned while my family cultivated seeds of fear and insecurity. On March 31st, Martin Luther King gave his last sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. During this sermon, King said “I don’t like to predict violence, but if nothing is done between now and June to raise ghetto hope, I feel this summer will not only be as bad but worse than last year.” At 7:12pm on April 4th, radio broadcasts in Washington delivered news that Martin Luther King had been shot at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. Stokely Carmichael led the rioters within hours of the broadcast. The first night of rioting claimed one life and left the shelves of over 150 stores empty from the looting. 200 people were arrested. By the next day, rioting spread to the H Street corridor.

Bobby Poole was there when the rioting started. He was 13 and joined his brother in the looting that swept through H Street. For the predominantly black residents that lived in the neighborhood, H Street was their downtown. It was black Washington’s main shopping district and catered to all their needs. From barbers and clubs, to department stores and car dealerships. It was all there. And it was burning.

Bobby is my neighbor. We often sit on the porch and talk about the history of the neighborhood. Bobby regrets his participation in the riots but confesses he could not see past the emotion of the moment. At the impressionable age of 11 he was not prepared to make the decisions he would today. It was a free-for-all, and he went along although he now knows he participated in the destruction of his own neighborhood.

The 1968 riots were devastating. H Street was physically and emotionally scarred. The physical impacts were immediate and in plain view. The emotional and economic impacts soon surfaced as residents found themselves jobless, and with nowhere to spend their money – if they had it. One of the most successful retail districts in D.C. was destroyed. Most of the lost jobs belonged to black residents. Poverty set in. Crime followed poverty. And crime pushed out businesses and residents who could afford to leave. Business owners found it difficult to hire and retain employees. They feared working in such a dangerous environment. Insurance for crime and fire skyrocketed and was beyond the reach of many merchants. The conspiracy of impacts quickened the losses.

The 1970s through the 90s saw the depth of decline as businesses shuttered their doors and residents moved to the suburbs. Meanwhile, back in Michigan I was learning valuable life lessons as the demise of H Street took hold. My fear of black people and the violence I associated with them came into sharp focus at a basketball game. We were playing in a tournament in Grand Rapids – the big city as viewed from our cornfield bastion. A mysterious force transfixed us as we looked over at the opposing team. They were all black. The tension on our faces was obvious to Coach Keith Grannis. As we huddled before the opening tip-off, Coach Grannis uttered the first words that began to break down the years of cultural and racial dysfunction that shaped my life. “They are basketball players just like you. They want to win – just like you. This is just another game.”

My perspective on race expanded in the 1980s while the view down H Street grew darker. I attended college at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Blacks were represented at only a slightly higher ratio than my hometown. But my college experience as well as my career in the Coast Guard taught me to judge people based on their character and merits, not where they come from or the color of their skin. There were times when my development took leaps forward. It usually involved unforgettable pain.

A good friend called out my racist upbringing in one indelible episode. Craig Gilbert was my Swab Summer roommate. Swab Summer is the Coast Guard Academy version of boot camp. Craig was a good friend and did his best to help me learn to sail so I could impress my high school sweetheart when she visited. It was a sweltering hot day on the banks of the Thames River in Connecticut when I let one of the racial slurs of my youth slip. Craig has an uncommonly quick wit, a sharp tongue, and a moral compass that points true north. I felt the impact of gale force winds as he verbally dismantled me for the indiscretion. I had disappointed a friend. I was sickened by the rebuke and my own insensitivity. It sticks with me to this day.

By the late 1990s, the neighborhoods surrounding H Street began to recover as affluent young people abandoned the suburbs in favor of the convenience offered by city living. It began on Capitol Hill and gradually radiated outward. The “transitional” zone quickly crept up on the South side of H Street. The neighborhood was emerging from a dark time, but my demons were still hard at work.

In 2004 I was sitting in a conference room with the Chief of Staff of the Trinidad and Tobago Defense Force. I was the only white person at the table. Whatever racial issues I still harbored could not be ignored or tucked away for later internal debate. I was working at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas Venezuela with responsibility for the Eastern Caribbean. Meetings like the one with Brigadier Ancil Antoine in Trinidad were routine. I was completely immersed in cultures unlike my own – seemingly light-years from the days of sitting on a tractor in Michigan. Unlike the formative moment on the banks of the Thames River with Craig Gilbert, the impact was subtle. It was a gradual process rather than a significant emotional event. I worked in the unfamiliar Venezuelan culture daily and traveled to the islands each month. As time passed, I saw less color and language distinction. More and more I saw people rather than color.

I left Venezuela, retired from the Coast Guard, and moved just a block off H Street in 2007. My wife and I bought our home on the sharp edge of the transition zone. And it was still not safe. In the three years following, our house was robbed three times, and my son’s scooter was hacked off a post and stolen. But the neighborhood was changing quickly. New businesses began to sprout on H Street at a dizzying pace. Homes were sold and renovated. Like the houses being flipped, the race and income demographics inverted. Crime steadily decreased.

It was shortly after arriving that I met Bobby. Our conversations started with deep philosophical musings over Washington football. Soon we were talking about the history of the neighborhood, the 1968 riots, the decline of the neighborhood, and the ongoing gentrification. I knew little of the history. It was fascinating, and I paid close attention. It was then that I realized I was a gentrifier – a concept I found only vaguely familiar. Not only am I a gentrifier, but my presence – just being here – is affecting the culture and fabric of the neighborhood. My influence, and that of other like me is tied to economics, race, and the history that brought us to this point. Both my history, and that of H Street.

Like my racially disturbing upbringing in the 1960s that shaped my life for decades, the H Street of today is defined by the 1968 riots. I have changed, and so has H Street. H Street and the surrounding neighborhoods are on the rise. However, our parallel growth has diverged. Mine was on a slow but steady path of growth as I worked through issues of race. H Street is rising from the ashes, but the culture of the neighborhood is shifting and many long-term residents can no longer afford to live here. I cannot reverse the economic trend and affordability of the neighborhood. However, I can exercise compassion and empathy for those who remain. I can adjust to the emerging culture rather than impose on it. I can be a good neighbor.

Not everything I learned as a child growing up in Michigan put me on a course of lifelong recovery. Many of the lessons from my youth help me understand the H Street neighborhood and ways I can support the culture. My parents, teachers and coaches taught me the value of hard work, and more importantly how to work with others. My grandfather was a model of integrity. My community showed me the virtues of a simple life…something not well understood inside the D.C. beltway. My mother insisted on good manners. My grandmother commanded respect for elders by the calm force of her presence. My Aunt Esther showed me kindness and the virtues of a sense of humor. And working in the fields that guarded my town left a lifelong appreciation of creating something with my bare hands.

H Street was built on the backs of honest hardworking people. It was decimated in a moment of passion. It is being rebuilt by the deep pockets of wealthy investors. The compassion of new residents will determine if the neighborhood culture thrives or disappears. My hope is to live up to the expectations of my neighbor Bobby when he said. “you will grow with the neighborhood, and the neighborhood will grow with you.”

The final chapter of H Street revitalization is yet unwritten. “It’s not yet fully baked” is something I hear from my neighbors – both black and white. Let’s hope it’s as good as my mother’s cherry pie when we pull it out of the oven.

Decline of the Neighborhood

The Impacts of Gentrification

Whole Foods Comes to H Street