It’s been almost a decade since I moved from Washington, DC, where I’d been living for six years, back to St. Louis, where I hadn’t lived in a full decade. I’m grateful for the time I spent there, but having visited again in December of 2012 (yes, these are some old photos), I realized that I no longer fit in with what my former home had become. 14th Street NW, devastated by the MLK riots in 1968, was a bombed out wasteland when I first moved to Washington. Blackened walls on surviving neighbors memorialized the buildings destroyed over 40 years ago on that fading commercial strip ravaged by arsonists. It took forty years to recover from that destruction.
In those vacant lots left by the rioters, “luxury condominiums” have sprung up, with prices so high that even Ladue residents would sweat if they saw the price tags. Yes, 14th Street is being “gentrified,” however you want to define that term, and while I don’t advocate leaving vacant lots empty forever, something about what Washington, DC has become since I moved makes me sad. I watched with a heavy heart as a homeless African-American man, clearly suffering from emotional problems, sought to attract the attention of the well-dressed people rushing up and down 14th Street. He almost seemed to be saying,
“This has been my street for decades; would you please just acknowledge that I exist?”
And likewise, and I know this is cynical, but I know some of those passersby were thinking,
“Why isn’t he gone yet? I paid a lot for my condo and don’t want him around.”
The old places I used to go to, like El Paraiso, a Salvadoran restaurant where I’d eat late at night, is long gone, priced out of existence along the once empty blocks of 14th Street around U Street NW, where the riots began in 1868.
And something now bothers me about the row after row of brightly painted houses, which were never for the most part painted when originally built. I suppose not everyone can have beautiful St. Louis brick. But I remember the lower income people, mostly African-American, that once walked these streets back when I lived here. U Street and 14th Street were considered “sketchy” which I can assure you is simply enlightened East Coast code for “black.” Luckily for the people paying $500,000 for a 1500 square foot rowhouse, “those people” are being run out. Oh and yes, I assure you that people on the East Coast are just as racist as us redneck Midwesterners: just read this recent article.
And in their place: a tame, expensive, suburban-chain purgatory of a city with rapidly diminishing local character. I hate seeing all of the vacant buildings in St. Louis, but I hate a city that is only reserved for high-paid government employees even more.
I remember riding the bus up Florida Avenue, which was abandoned and “sketchy” back when I lived off of North Capitol. I distinctly remember the unique building below on the left sitting empty with boarded up and broken windows. It was painted black the last time I saw it, and now has mellowed a bit. It was a rich red brick color when I knew it back in 2002-3.
Even the formerly forgotten neighborhood of LeDroit Park, the stately area of Second Empire mansions that once held the most wealthy African-American residents of the District, has been found; seen below.
Below, this stretch of Northwest Washington close to Northeast, is even being taken over as well. I used to walk these streets and most of the houses would be cinder-blocked up and abandoned, trashed and forlorn.
Around the corner on the 500-600 block of M Street NW, I remember walking by this apartment building below back in 2002-3, and it was a burned out wreck. It was chopped up into a bunch of condos, which I’m sure go for at least $200,000. I’m serious. I remember the day the women showed up to paint the ornate detail still present. You can’t see daylight through the front door anymore.
Further down M Street, at least a little patina survives in the marking of an Italianate worker’s cottage that once stood here.
But my God, the church finally got its stinking parking lot. I spoke at the meeting where the mostly suburban congregation demanded off street parking. They talked about how they wanted to make the neighborhood “like Georgetown,” in other words white and wealthy. I guess they won. They tore down the historic buildings that stood here. Out of the 168 hours in a week, I bet it gets used for at most 4 hours.
But thank God for Chinese-Americans; at least they still know how to hold on against the inexorable rise in property values.
I was pleased to see that very little had changed in Chinatown, an area that has now shrunk to about three blocks worth of houses, most dating to before the Civil War. Gentrification certainly hasn’t arrived here.
The luxury condos rise in the background, but the grit and patina, and fully occupied buildings with everyday people living in them, are holding on.
Update: Burma is now closed.
And why is that good? Because places like Burma, a Burmese restaurant that introduced me to some of the most unique food in the world, can still survive, even as chain restaurants destroy the vitality and diversity of the District.
The building is a dump, but the food is amazing. Isn’t that the way it always is?
The man still makes noodles in the window below.
But campy corporate BS is creeping in a little; along 7th Street, all corporations have to translate their signs into Mandarin. Hooters became “Owl Restaurant.”
And oh yes, last but not least the German Cultural Center, in a building that sat empty and bombed out for the entire time I lived in DC. It’s become this ridiculously bourgeois, sanitized outpost of Germany, in what has become a ridiculously bourgeois, sanitized American City.
I wandered in while a reception was going on. I suppose I look German enough not to look out of place in this setting. I was pleased to see that the curators had knelt down low enough to let a proletarian beer brewer from St. Louis to be accepted on the “Staircase of Notable Germans,” right next to such inoffensive heavyweights such as Wernher von Braun and Albert Einstein.
I found myself growing increasingly annoyed at the smiling faces and polite, inane conversation. I am a decades-long student of German language, culture and history, and love my German heritage and friends. But this cultural center, like Washington, DC in general, offends me philosophically. The world has never been, and will never be, free from suffering, poverty and injustice. I condemn those who seek to pretend it doesn’t exist, to force it across a river, or hide behind “revitalization” in order to justify the removal of “undesirables.” I wanted to walk up to the hostess and ask her why such historically complex German figures such as Frederick the Great, Otto von Bismarck or Kaiser Wilhelm II were not included, and watch as her face blanched,
“Oh heavens, we don’t recognize that kind of German around here!”
And now that I think about it, why is Wernher von Braun included on a staircase in the company of Bach and Beethoven? Didn’t he design the first cruise missiles that killed thousands of innocent English civilians in World War II, not to speak of using slave labor? What the hell are the standards of that staircase anyway? Why isn’t there a display case at the German Cultural Center dedicated to Prussian militarism? Pretending the bad part of German history doesn’t exist is insulting to the good part. And the same is true for St. Louis.
So let’s learn from the mistakes of others, and remember that our city, as it seeks to be reborn, must include everyone, including “those people.” Anything less is an injustice, and the kind of city I don’t want to call home.