H Street: Rising Up From the Riots

40 Years After Devastating Looting, Fires, The Corridor Is Regaining Its Vibrance

Posted April 2, 2008 at 5:59pm

Anwar Saleem was in school four blocks from Union Station 40 years ago, on April 5, 1968, when a call went out over the loudspeaker that students were to head directly to their homes.

Some students already knew the cause of their dismissal: Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., the previous night and unrest was spreading across neighborhoods in the District.

“I remember they came on the loudspeaker and said there had been a disturbance and everyone was to go home,” Saleem said. “I was in seventh-grade music class. I played the drums. And we found out Dr. King had been murdered and we were to go straight home.”

As Stuart Junior High School emptied, the riots that began the previous night were continuing on the U Street Northwest and H Street Northeast corridors. Store windows were being shattered, merchandise was being stolen and buildings were burning.

After stopping by his home a few blocks away from the school, Saleem did exactly what he’d been ordered not to: He went with his friends to H Street to survey the damage.

“I only went into three stores that week,” he said. “I did some looting at the Safeway at Eighth and C streets. All the stores had closed up, and we needed food.”

One store he was in collapsed, he said. He got out, but his friend was killed.

On the 40th anniversary of King’s death, as civil rights leaders hail his memory and cities recall the ensuing mayhem that swept through their streets, Saleem is still active on the corridor. He is the executive director of H Street Main Street, a nonprofit group that advocates for businesses in the neighborhood and fights to reverse the damage that began in 1968 and continued through decades of neglect.

Setting History Straight

It is a misconception, Saleem said, that the 1968 riots involved blacks destroying black-owned businesses. Although the vast majority of residents surrounding H Street were black at the time, he said, most of the businesses were owned by whites who started them in the earlier part of the century. In the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, H Street was a shopping destination for Washingtonians, and in the 1950s, the street featured a few nightclubs that drew national acts like Mae West.

[IMGCAP(1)]Out of the roughly 250 businesses along the corridor in 1968, Saleem could tick off by name the stores owned by blacks. There were no more than 20, he said, for many reasons, including social class and banks refusing to lend to blacks.

One black-owned business was Ross’ Upholstery, on the 500 block of H Street. Walter Ross owned it for years and passed it on to his son at his death. Rioters “didn’t touch his building,” Saleem said.

Rather, it was the white-owned businesses that were targeted. And after the mayhem began, Saleem said, some whites began destroying their own businesses, hoping to reap insurance compensation.

“I don’t remember seeing one firebomb being thrown,” Saleem said. “If it was a business in decline, people burnt their own businesses. People want to put it all on African-Americans, but it was both. Everybody was taking advantage of the situation.”

Sam Smith, a journalist who ran the Capitol East Gazette at the time of the riots, remembers cars filled with police wearing helmets and carrying shotguns driving around Capitol Hill shortly after King’s assassination. The National Guard was also dispatched. The afternoon of April 5, Smith says he walked home from work and passed several people carrying items that appeared to be stolen.

King’s death ignited tension that had been simmering in the District and cities across the country. “For a year and a half of running a neighborhood newspaper, I had observed, and tried to report, a part of the community seething with emotions much of the other part refused to recognize. Now it was worse than even I had thought, and anger, frustration and helplessness washed up on my mind’s shore,” Smith wrote in his memoir.

“The riots were really a rebellion,” Saleem said. “People were getting tired of how they were being treated, tired of fighting for civil rights and fighting for equal treatment.”

Rebuilding — Slowly

The decades after the riots of 1968 were a grim time for H Street. Many buildings were abandoned and real estate prices fell. The street that was known for popular clubs and stores was now decrepit and empty.

“The fact is that nothing happened, and the merchants that were burnt out asked for help from the city to rebuild, and the city refused,” said Jane Freundel Levey, chief program officer and historian for the nonprofit coalition Cultural Tourism DC. “[Buildings] were essentially boarded up and forgotten about.”

“Why the city didn’t do more after the riots remains a mystery to me,” Smith said in an e-mail. “I wrote at the time that the city should provide tax relief — like no property taxes for five years — to get things moving again. I suspect that the owners of the land preferred to sit on it and wait for a better opportunity. In any case, there was a real vacuum here.”

The construction of Hechinger Mall at the corner of 15th and H streets Northeast in the 1970s didn’t help either, Saleem said. The mall was the idea of D.C.’s first mayor, Walter Washington, but Saleem said it drove activity away from H Street’s main drag.

“That took all the money away from H Street,” Saleem said. “The Safeway moved to Hechinger. The post office moved to Hechinger. People didn’t come to the corridor anymore, because they didn’t have to.”

He credits D.C.’s next mayor, Marion Barry, for bringing some activity to H Street when he moved the Department of Employment Services there in the early 1980s. It currently is on the 600 block.

In 1989, Saleem bought property along the corridor and opened a beauty salon, which he still owns today.

Rejuvenation

New life wasn’t truly breathed back into the area until Anthony Williams took the mayor’s office in 1999. Williams had worked in economic development in St. Louis and Boston before coming to D.C., and he made H Street a priority.

“When I came into office as mayor, I saw in H Street tremendous potential, but a mess,” Williams said. “You had a situation where it looked like someone dropped a neutron bomb. The street was there, but the city and the capital markets had neglected the area for so long that it was really in need of substantial investment.”

Saleem recalls meeting with Williams soon after the mayor took office to map a vision for H Street.

“He knew that I was a player on H Street, and we sat down for two hours in my shop,” Saleem said. “Then we walked down the corridor, and he said he thought it’d be a good project.”

Williams’ administration added H Street to its “Great Streets” program, which opened the area up to public investment and assisted in private development. The city broke ground this year on a three-year streetscape project that will eventually bring a trolley line to carry passengers from Union Station down H Street to Benning Road and across the Anacostia River.

H Street Main Street, the nonprofit group that Saleem runs, was established in 2002 to help businesses on the corridor. Saleem advises businesses on how to maintain their buildings, improve their credit and thrive on H Street.

Williams and Saleem had a vision for a three-part corridor, with “urban living” between Third and Seventh streets, retail between Seventh and 12th streets, and arts and entertainment between 13th and 15th streets.

That vision is already taking shape.

Nightlife Returns

Joe Englert, who owns several Capitol Hill bars, first arrived in the neighborhood in 2003. On a tip from a friend, Englert bought a boarded up building at 12th and H streets Northeast for $120,000.

“There was nothing around there. It was really decrepit. The streets were terrible, so I decided, nobody goes to one thing, there has to be many things,” Englert said. “So why not have a couple different properties? Then I started searching around, and there were places for sale, and at that point, they were attainable.”

His first building would become the Palace of Wonders, a bar that specializes in vaudeville shows, flame dancers and other circus-like performances.

As Englert acquired more properties on H Street, he began selling them to friends and business partners, helping to grow the bar scene on the corridor. Palace of Wonders was one such bar. Over the years, Englert has taken time to meet with many people interested in opening up shop on H Street, relating his experiences and advising them on available buildings.

Frank Hankins, owner of SOVA, a new bar and coffee shop located on the 1300 block, met with Englert to discuss his business idea. Englert gave Hankins a tip on an available space near one of his other bars, the Rock and Roll Hotel, and a year and a half later that spot became SOVA.

“I owe a lot of thanks to Joe Englert, more than I could ever imagine,” Hankins wrote in an e-mail. “We’ve formed a great friendship and business relationship, he’s a great source of information and research, and he’s just as involved in seeing that I do well as [he is in] himself.”

Asked why he’s so quick to help others acquire space on the street, Englert said, “Why not have a really good neighbor?”

This has been an objective of Englert’s as he opens more bars on the street. He said he makes every effort to use soundproof glass and make sure his establishments don’t intrude on residents. For the most part, he said, people have been happy to see him revitalizing the road.

“Ninety-nine percent of them are great. For the most part, most people are very reasonable,” Englert said. “There’s always like a couple of people who are not going to be happy no matter what you do.”

He added that almost every building he has been in has been abandoned since the 1980s or before. “[H Street] was a big old moat with 158 abandoned buildings when I came in there,” he said.

Englert currently owns five bars on the strip: The Argonaut, Rock and Roll Hotel, Dr. Granville Moore’s, The Red and The Black and the soon-to-be-opened H Street Country Club. He hopes to open a few restaurants, though he thinks further development on the street will be difficult because real estate costs have skyrocketed over the past few years.

“The landlords are too greedy,” he said. “Unless the economy tanks … to the point where people are saying I’ll take $500,000 for this building instead of my mythical million, it’s going to be hard to make things happen.”

Moving Forward

Jair Lynch, president and chief executive officer of Jair Lynch Cos., a real estate development business, said that while the U Street corridor has recovered from the riots and become a popular nighttime spot, it might take longer for H Street to reach that point.

“14th Street and U Street were able to take significant steps forward because there was significant public land access,” Lynch said.

U Street’s Metro stop and coffeehouse Busboys and Poets were both built on public land, he said.

“H Street doesn’t have that, and the question will be, are the private owners so fractured … will they not be able to create something that will shoot you in the arm?” he said.

Another concern of Lynch’s is the lack of public transportation to the street. U Street did not truly come alive until the Metro station opened on the corner of 13th and U streets Northwest in 1991. The trolley would likely have a similar benefit for H Street, he said.

Hankins is excited about the changes he has seen on the corridor already. Just two years ago, he said, many Capitol Hill residents wouldn’t set foot on H Street.

“It’s very exciting to be here on H Street at the beginning of this renaissance, and I think that this feeling is shared not only by the business owners or others who have property on H Street. I know that the people in the neighborhood feel the same excitement,” he said. “It’s the great people that live in this neighborhood that make H Street what it is and what it will be.”

Soon there may be a new crop of residents on the corridor. Abdo Development, known for restoring several historical buildings in D.C.’s West End, is developing the former Capitol Children’s Museum on the 300 block of H Street into luxury condominiums, drawing such famous clientele as Williams and Black Entertainment Television co-founder Sheila Crump Johnson.

This neighborhood — on the verge of housing a former mayor and a billionaire — is a far cry from the one devastated by the riots Saleem saw in 1968.

“This is personal for me because I witnessed the riots,” Saleem said. “I don’t want it said that African-Americans tore it up and aren’t helping rebuild it. We can help with the planning and rebuilding.”

Hankins seems confident the corridor will grow with restaurants, stores and housing.

“I think that H Street in 10 years will be the most desired destination for entertainment in the city,” he said. “When you’re tired of the same old retail that you find in the majority of other areas of the city, you’ll think of H Street.”

Torey Van Oot contributed to this report.