It was Thurs, April 4 1968. Sonny was still working at the Wheeler Road High’s Ice Cream store, looking forward to another card party the next weekend. It was a balmy spring day and things were relatively quiet. Suddenly, there appeared to be a commotion outside. Sonny’s ears pricked up. Did a kid get hurt? Was there an accident? He peered out the window and saw people, old and young, rushing out onto the sidewalks with transistor radios in their hands, listening intently, expressions of anger and utter despair on their faces.
Sonny turned on the TV, and stood speechless, horrified. What! Oh, Dear Lord. Dr Martin Luther King, shot! “This just in -- Dr. Martin Luther King had just been shot by a sniper’s bullet at Loraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee,” Walter Cronkite announced.
Sonny’s memories rushed back to a bright and peaceful day on August 28, 1963. He had taken a bus to to downtown and strolled the three mind-numbing miles to the Reflecting Pool to stand in reverence and awe for several hours to hear Dr. King’s memorable “I have a dream” speech. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King delivered the fiery and monumental speech to over 200,000 supporters. Sonny was captivated by the powerful message and Dr. King had transformed the memorial into his own pulpit. The words echoed and reverberated in Sonny’s mind. “And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”
Later that evening, after the news was out that Dr. King had died, things got very dark in DC literally and figuratively. Mr. Stokely Carmichael, Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, asked stores in the entire area to close out of respect for the dead leader. As a committed Black separatist, Carmichael had denounced Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as an “Uncle Tom” and began advocating armed black militancy as the favored means to promote civil rights.
Carmichael’s request soon descended into rioting with willful destruction of property, looting and arson. The unrest was most blatant at the intersection of 14th and U Street NW, the center of a major commercial area in Washington’s black community.
Despite this, the next morning, on Friday, April 5th, Sonny opened up shop not knowing what would transpire that day. The brewing unrest had yet to migrate across the river to Congress Heights and Bellevue. Yet the tension and apprehension were clearly escalating. Sonny hoped and prayed the unrest would stay clearly west of the Anacostia River. But by the afternoon, the crowds, dominated by the youth, ventured out in hordes. Stores were still open, windows were still intact, and display signs were still illuminated. Yet the feeling of foreboding was thick as a blanket. The agitation and hostility mirrored on the faces spelled vengeance. The news from the transistor radios blared out details of the violence that had taken siege of virtually the entire city.
Soon, the angry mobs migrated across the river. They first formed in Anacostia and pressed south, a steady stream advancing towards the neighborhood community of Congress Heights where Sonny lived and pressed on towards Bellevue and Wheeler Road, where Sonny worked.
Initially the unrest consisted of loitering and yelling by the drug and liquor stores and clothing department stores. Then there was littering. Newspapers and torn magazines were strewn everywhere, empty soda cans lay bruised and crushed, and trash cans were turned over, spilling the stench of rotting food in the air. Hatred simmered below the surface as crowds got off the city buses, some coming from Prince George’s County. The angry mobs appeared to grow more violent as they stomped down the roads.
By now a light rain was falling steadily but it did nothing to quell the disorder. The silent rage had turned gradually noisy, with relentless shouting, yelling and running. Things appeared to be getting completely out of control. Still no signs of the police or the National Guard – they were busy focusing their efforts on U Street and 14th and the rest of the city on fire on the other side of the river.
The rage burst into sizzling explosion in a split second. One man, out of control, slammed his fist through a storefront glass door. The glass shattered into tiny fragments, his fist came out bloody and bruised. Another man came behind him and finished up the work with a baseball bat. Meanwhile a mob had gathered around him, some slipping into the store, running right to the cash register. A young man came out with a bag of chips and a soda with a big grin on his face, as if he had just won the lottery.
“Way to go,” someone called out to him.
Youth invaded the stores in scores, taking any and everything they could get their hand on. Hangers overflowing with clothes, radios big and small, even heavy TV sets. A middle-aged woman carried off a case of liquor. A girl in her twenties reached into one of the store windows and came out with some cooking pots and utensils. The mood of the crowd had become bitter and destructive. Windows were being broken on all sides of the intersection. Display signage was ripped out of storefront entrances. It was as if life had lost meaning for the rioters. One could sense the heartbreaking desolation and despair.
Amidst all the violence, the High’s Ice Cream store on the corner of Wheeler Road and 12th, was left virtually untouched, although a small group of reckless teenagers stood outside with bats in hand and looks of wild vengeance etched on their faces. Because the local folks loved Sonny and remembered the many times he stayed up late playing cards , they felt that he was one of them. And as long as he was there, they would not harm him or touch his store.
By now, the whole commercial corridor was damaged and looted. Sonny could hear an angry raucous crowd outside, and he watched smoke emanating from the liquor store across the street. His eyes were still glued to the TV, and he watched in disbelief as virtually every commercial building on H Street was burning, some completely to the ground. The rioters became so emboldened, they started attacking firefighters with bottles and rocks. Crowds as large as 20,000 overwhelmed DC, west of Anacostia. The National Guardsmen adorned in helmets and bullet proof vests, sped up and down U Street and Georgia Ave. But the eastern side, told a different story. There, there were only a few Metropolitan DC police officers present, who became quickly overwhelmed by the relentless surge of mobs. As the looting got out of control, the rioters got more brazen. Hundreds were inside the little department store on the corner and were taking everything they could get their hands on, and destroying anything that was affixed to the building.
At any moment, the violence could spill into High’s Ice Cream. In desperation, Sonny called Mr. Hundley at home.
Mr. Hundley was horrified. “Sonny what are you still doing there? It’s become a war zone. You know they burned our store on U Street. Get out right now!” Mr. Hundley ordered.
A violent explosion sliced the conversation. Sonny looked out the window and saw that the department store was engulfed in fire.
“No, boss, I think I should stay. I just want to make sure that your store is in good hands.”
“Who else is there?” Hundley asked.
“Just me and Frances Lewis. (Frances was his employee) We’re OK. No one is messing with us,” Sonny assured him.
“Like hell you will. Get Frances in your car immediately. Lock up and go home!”
“But boss, as long as I’m here, the rioters are not going to break in. The very moment I leave, all hell will break loose—I know it. I can call a ride for Frances but I’ll stay to watch the store.”
Mr. Hundley would have none of it. “If I lose you Sonny, I lose more than a store. I lose an enterprise. Now get the hell out of there, before I have to come there myself to drag you out. ”
“But Mr. Hundley, the people here told me that as long as I’m here, they will not mess with the store or hurt me or Frances.”
Mr. Hundley’s tone became firm. “Look, Sonny, this is no longer a suggestion. This is a direct order from your superior. It is like downtown Saigon at war, and lives are at stake. You were in the service. You understand what a direct order means.”
The sky was filled with smoke and flames and it seemed like the whole world was on fire. The crowds milling outside the High’s Ice Cream store began increasing, and the guys looked meaner and more malicious. Their patience was beginning to wear thin and they were holding back with difficulty. In glint in their eyes gave Sonny a clear message – go now or face the consequences of staying back.
Reluctantly, Sonny closed shop at 7:30pm. The sound of police and fire sirens filled the air, but at a distance. Sonny walked with Frances to his Chevy, and drove down Wheeler Avenue, avoiding the crowds blocking the streets. The rioters recognized Sonny and let him pass, then started creeping towards the store.
Frances Lewis, Sonny’s assistant at the store was in her early twenties, married with three small kids. She lived with her family in northeast Washington DC, but her marriage had much to be desired. This day, as on others, Sonny dropped Frances off at home in his bright yellow and green 66 Studebaker Speedster.
Afterwards, Sonny arrived safely home by 8:00 pm. Ann was home and exhausted by watching the tragic news. She wanted to go to sleep early because she knew she had to go to work the next day. She was concerned how her patients would be handling the news. Sonny tried to comfort her as best as he could, but he himself felt restless and uneasy.
As he tossed and turned in the darkness, the phone rang. Sonny looked at the time. 9.30. Who could it be? Mr. Hundley? The voice on the other end of the line was unmistakable. It was Louise, one of Sonny’s favorite customers.
Louise was obviously distressed. “Mr. Williams, they done broke into your store. They’re all the way inside and getting their hands into the ice cream and everything else they can reach.”
Sonny was immediately concerned. “Anybody hurt?”
“No. Nobody’s hurt.”
Sonny breathed a sigh of relief. “Well OK. Guess I can’t do nothing about it now.”
Sonny did not say so to Louise, but he was glad he had hidden the money that was in the cash register, and he hoped the rioters would not find it.
Then Sonny calls Hundley. “Hi, boss. Got some good news and bad news.”
Mr. Hundley listened in silence as Sonny briefed him on the situation. Then he said gravely, “Well, I’m sure glad you and Frances got home safe. We’ll swing by tomorrow and assess the damages.”
Sonny felt despondent. All his hard work had gone up in flames. He was back to square one with having to reorganize everything from scratch.
Fifteen minutes later the phone rang again. “Mr. Williams, they done set it on fire.”
Sonny was shocked speechless. He had just stocked up supplies for the week. He had gotten milk and diapers for the little babies and fresh baked bread for the young and old. Now where would the community go to feed their children. He felt helpless, desperately concerned.
Sonny couldn’t sleep that night. He lay awake on his bed. He could hear the sirens blaring, feel the heat scorching. He went outside a couple of times and looked out at the night sky. He could see fire burning and a haze of sulphur and smoke miles away yet seemed so close. He wanted to run, to rescue his store. But he knew it was hope against hope. By now Highs Ice Cream store on the corner of Wheeler and Mississippi was likely burned down to ashes – all his work, all his love, all his livelihood.
At the crack of dawn, Sonny finally got up and got in the car. Didn’t bother to brush his teeth, didn’t bother to shave. He drove like he had a long way to go; he did because minutes ticked like eternity. It was chilly and the atmosphere was somber, the violence had lost its vigor as the wee hours had come and gone. He could see smoke still rising in the distance. When he arrived at Wheeler Road and Mississippi Avenue, the faces of the National Guardsmen showed weariness anddespair. Barricades were set up on the street. Some places with free standing walls resembled the destruction in Normandy – places that Sonny never got to see in the Army. Now he would see it once and for all. Two National Guardsmen in a jeep were blocking traffic and not allowing people up the hill. Sonny told them that he was the store manager and showed them his ID.
“It’s not structurally safe. The building could collapse at anytime,” the guardsman warned. Sonny then showed the Guardsman his military ID card. It was expired but it was good enough to get waved in.
Sonny had to catch his breath. No amount of preparation could have readied him for the sight of utter chaos and destruction. He thought about the thousands of hours he logged driving trucks and how he had wanted to run an ice cream store to spend more time at home. Then Sonny stepped in, eyes wide open --stunned by the extent of destruction. Every single item of grocery was looted, even the cash register was ripped from the counter. The décor was all but completely burned out; even the chill boxes were completely torn apart He had to recover the last deposit he had put away. He remembered he had carried it down to the basement. As he walked down the steps, he noticed that about two or three inches of water had covered the basement floor. He placed a milk crate just below the center beam of the building at the exact location he remembered having hidden the money. Lo and behold, the money, all $500 of it, was still up there, dry and intact, wrapped safely in an Army field jacket.
However, there was no way to open the store. Too much damage and too much unrest to take a chance. Sonny was forced to stay home for about a week.
During the months thereafter, Mr. Hundley had Sonny managing the High’s Ice Cream stores at Walker Place South East and down Central Avenue just east of Addison South East. At each of these places, Sonny helped to get the service smoothened out and the customers pacified and satisfied. Mr. Hundley had assessed Sonny’s skills as a troubleshooter and intended High’s to achieve maximum benefit from them.
One morning Mr. Hundley called him. “Are you familiar with High’s on South Capitol Street?”
“Yes, I believe so.”
“OK, meet me tomorrow morning at 0800.”
Sonny and Mr. Hundley together met with the white manager, at the parking lot of the South Capitol Street store.
Mr. Hundley did not beat about the bush. He told the manager, “Mr. Williams will be taking over your store. I am transferring you up town to another store.”
Sonny was really going places. After Monroe North East, Wheeler Road, Walker Place and Central Avenue, now it was South Capitol and Atlantic South East.
The next week, Sonny and Frances started working in the store on South Capitol and Atlantic St SE. The working relationship between Sonny and Frances had thrived through three High’s locations. It was a platonic relationship where Frances looked up to Sonny not just as a boss, but as an older brother. Neither of them realized the gradual change of their relationship from friendship to intimacy. Sonny was the quintessential workaholic. After all, his store was not just his job, it was his life, his everything. And his employees, he treated like family. He was now seeing a lot more of Frances than Ann. The realization exploded one summer night, when Sonny stayed late to stock the shelves. Frances was beside him helping him; after all he was her ride. They were packing the shelves and conversing on a comfortable topic – the children and how they were doing in school. She got close to him handed him the goods as he stacked them neatly one by one on the shelves working from the very top. The next moment, when Sonny came down the steps, Frances suddenly felt dizzy, felt a whirling sensation like a carnival ride. She drew in her breath then closed her eyes. Then she started to fall, fall as if someone was there to catch her. Sonny was there. His arms extended, gently reaching out to touch her. Then he couldn’t resist, started to caress her hair, brush her skin soft like whipped butter. Then he felt the burn, deep from within, the urge to feel, the urge to kiss, the urge to lust. Then he made his move—his lips next to her--first her neck, then her ears, then her eyes soft like shadow, finally her lips, warm and full. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind, Sonny wanted it all to stop. Images of Ann raced through his mind. Of Ann patiently waiting and staying up for her loved one until he got home. He thought of the fact that he was Frances’ supervisor, that she trusted him like he was her brother. But In that moment of desire, he thrust it all away, thrust it for something new, something fresh, something compassionate. At that moment, all he could think of was this warm, passionate woman in his arms and how much they wanted each other. The next thing he knew, he was tearing off her blouse and kissing her breasts. He swept her down on the floor beside the canned goods, the goods that just a moment before they were stacking away, the goods that meant a lot to the young mother and child, the goods that at this moment stood in the way. As they made love among the cans of food, memories of Ms. K jumping on top of Sonny when he was 19 years old driving the bus to the distance, flashed in his mind. He had waited so many years, now a week seemed like eternity. Then he thought about the affair of Bill Withington down the road on Portland Street. How the women would gossip and how even the men would scorn. How Bill’s wife was so dedicated, watched the kids, cleaned the house, up, down, every nook and cranny. How Bill would be out almost every night on King Street in a different bar, with a different woman each night it seemed. How Bill W. would take his date to the back seat of his 1960 Chevy Bel Air and make love with her all throughout the night. Make her howl through the night as he kissed that lip from the bottom up. How his neighbors would turn the blind and look down in disgust. How he would sneak in through the backdoor with a bottle of Smirnoff in hand. The next Sunday, you would see Bill and Gloria in church. Wouldn’t say a thing to them except “Hi, how are your kids.” Wouldn’t look at the discorn in her face, wouldn’t even care to look anymore. And Sonny felt sad, felt like he needed to say something, do something, hold a hand or lend a ear. But in the end it was none of his business. He always wanted to know how it felt to cheat. He had done it before in the truckstops and motels but in a sense that was different – there was no affection, it was a one-night fling out of town and out of sight.
As the hot summer days flew by, Sonny’s romance with Frances grew stronger., He was distracted by her nearness, and was constantly aroused by his feelings for her. He grasped every opportunity he could, to make love to her. When he went home to Ann in the night, he found her preoccupied with her career and busy caring for the three patients who livedwith them. Even though he was crazily infatuated with Frances, he knew he loved Ann dearly. She was the mother of his kids, it was a completely different kind of love and he felt very little remorse. .
Then during the Christmas holidays, when they were starting to pick up a seasonal rush, Sonny hired another helper named Norma. For Sonny, there were now two desirable women vying for his attention, not one. Eventually, jealousy would make its appearance. One night, after Sonny dropped Norma home from work, Frances became livid as she got out from the back seat. “Bye-bye, you dumb fool! Are you going to screw her like you screwed me earlier today? ” She stomped toward her house in a fury. She did not return to work, and Sonny maintained his pride and did not call her to plead with her to come back.
Since Frances’ abrupt departure, Norma tried to fit into her shoes but failed miserably because of her tardiness. Some time later, Sonny fired her as she proved utterly unsatisfactory.
The Sixties, it seemed, were the years of permissibility and promiscuity, when extramarital love affairs were considered acceptable, and marital fidelity took a back seat. Along with the abandonment of conservatism there was also a departure from what was considered decent in society. The Woodstock Music and Art Fair, with topless women frolicking in the mud and smoking pot, was a historic event held in the rural town of Bethel, New York for four days in 1969 which symbolized the “hippie era” of the 1960s At that time, there was no stigma of STDs or HIV/AIDS. Preceding the era of women’s rights, the concept of sexual harassment was virtually unheard of, and there were more substantial issues such as civil rights to wrangle over, rather than sexual relations with a subordinate or coworker. Even in Congress Heights, stories abound of women’s liberalism and female topless parties.
Meanwhile, life took a different turn for Sonny, when he managed the Seven Eleven store as a franchisee in 1972. At his very last High’s Ice Cream store, one spring day, a well-dressed gentleman in a two-piece suit approached Sonny and asked him if he was interested in being a manager for a Seven Eleven store. The man himself was a manager at another Seven Eleven in NW DC. Sonny took him aside to discuss the proposal and thereafter agreed to go out the next day and check out the location. When Sonny saw the store on Benning Road, and observed in what bad shape it was, he blatantly rejected the offer.
T“Wait a minute,” the gentlemen insisted. “ I have a brand new location opening up on Sheriff Road and Belham Drive. Do you want to take a look?
So, Sonny went along with him and checked out the neighborhood. There appeared to be many truckers going to the Safeway warehouse. Sonny was still not convinced. He wanted some time to ponder over the proposal and also to discuss it with Ann. He drove Ann by there and they checked out the neighborhood once more and he stepped back to allow Ann to decide. She did not take long to make up her mind and the next day Sonny was ready to write a $3,000 check to Seven Eleven to purchase the franchise. Then he informed his decision to Mr. Hundley, Manager for Highs Ice Cream. Mr. Hundley was stunned, to say the least and he begged Sonny to stay. After five years, five stores and a destructive fire. But Sonny seemed firm in his decision to move on. He said that for the past 5 years, he had been overworked and underpaid. Mr. Hundley offered him a raise. “I’m sorry, Mr. Hundley,. it’s way too late,” said Sonny.
But things were by no means hunky dory. Sonny was plunged into a tough, stressful situation from the start. Even for a brand new store, he couldn’t find a decent woman to work the cash register. He wished he still had Frances with him. Not for the romance, although that was good, too. He needed her to run the store. One day, a pretty young woman named Louise Hilton applied for the cashier’s position. She seemed very attractive and Sonny was tempted to hire her. Images of Frances ran through his mind. He was hopeful. Even as this issue sorted itself out, Sonny was bothered by dishonest employees who were stealing from the store. $10 here $20 there. They were also indisciplined workers, with tardy attendance or unexplained absences. In the end, Sonny was compelled to cover for them and this job started wearing him out. He regretted having left his relatively easy job at High’s. He had a good thing going and he had left it for uncertainty. After a year, he felt he could not endure any more. He quit Seven Eleven.
What would he do? Sonny was a good truck driver and he loved that job. He would drive trucks for a living. Sonny had a good job as manager of truck drivers and made about $20,000 per annum which was a decent salary in the late 1960s. Ann had a steady job at St Elizabeths as a dietician. They owned a home and two cars, one of which was a Chrysler. Sonny was living a regular middle-class American life in far southeast DC.
Yet, the riots had utterly devastated DC’s inner city economy, and for years, the commercial district of U Street never fully recovered. Millions of dollars worth of property had been damaged, which included many commercial establishments and homes. With the loss of businesses, thousands of jobs were lost and insurance rates soared.
As Sonny reflected on the history of the area, the situation seemed as poignant as it was arresting.
Washington DC used to be a small, sleepy town until the war. After World War II, a huge influx of day laborers and federal government workers flowed into DC – working class families nearby from Hampton, Virginia and the Carolinas and as far south as Georgia and Alabama and as far north as New York. Families who came looking for a better job, for a better life for better Constitutional privileges.
They settled throughout the city – the middle class mostly in garden-style apartment buildings or if they could afford it, in quaint, brick-front single family homes in the northwest quadrant and the lower income in the tenements and slums of southwest, by the waterfront.
With the District relentlessly trying to rebuild its diminished image in places like Adams-Morgan, the Southwest Waterfront, and other traditional black neighborhoods, the lower income residents became the casualty, and got shoved into the less socially mobile Anacostia.
With the passing of the anti-tenement law in southwest along with the changes in the zoning laws in the far southeast stretches of Congress Heights and Anacostia, this once sleepy town became inexorably divided into two distinct parts; one area housed those who had the means to escape their locality, the other housed those who wished they could. Over the years, the poor oppressed DC residents on one side of the 14th Street corridor do not cross over to the more affluent areas because they tacitly accept this division as a cultural reality.
In the 1920s, Anacostia was rural; it accounted for only 5% of the total city population, yet possessed 40% of the District's vacant land. However, Anacostia's population saw a 56% growth rate from 1920-26. Yet during that time, only four apartment buildings were constructed there, compared to 1,820 detached and row houses. Clearly, Anacostia was a place intended for homeowners.
As Anacostia's population grew by 50%, when the District as a whole experienced a mere 6% population rise due to the movement of blacks into formerly white neighborhoods, and relocation from the more expensive central city to the relatively cheaper and more spacious environs in Anacostia. However, the expansion of the federal government, urban renewal projects elsewhere in the city, and public housing always gave a boost to such movement. At the same time, zoning changes in Anacostia led to the construction of several apartment buildings, subsidized public housing to accommodate displaced low-income families. Among the largest such apartment buildings was the Frederick Douglas Housing on Alabama Avenue with 448 units and Valley Green and Skytown on Wheeler Road with 330 units.
Besides the lower-income Blacks moving to the far southeast, DC was experiencing another type of demographic shift. In 1950, the Washington, DC population had hit 802,000, but in the decades that followed, it declined considerably, the result of an exodus to the suburbs that was typical of older cities in many parts of the country. As the years passed, the area became overwhelmingly black, mostly because the white population sought out new neighborhoods to the north in Montgomery County, Maryland, to the southwest in Arlington and Fairfax counties in Virginia and to the southeast in Charles and Calvert Counties in Southern Maryland – places that typically excluded African Americans.
Most of this population decline was attributed to "white flight" following the desegregation of the city's school system in the wake of 1954's Brown v. Board of Education. Furthermore, coupled with the development of freeways and suburbs, Washington became a predominantly black city, with about 200,000 blacks moving into the city in the 1950s. One freeway, especially, the Suitland Parkway, built on swamp land to provide quick access for foreign dignitaries flying into Andrews Air Force Base into the city. The sad truth is that the freeway, as practical as it was, severely divided the city becoming more segregated and compartmentalized.
Meanwhile the segregation of schools and busing had a huge impact on DC’s demographic shift. Within ten years of the Brown decision, the schools were 90% black; Anacostia's white population plummeted from 82% in 1950 to only 37% white in 1967. On the flip side, where Washington DC had historically been 25% African American, it climbed to 70% black. As the suburbs around the District began to develop and white residents left in droves, many small shops closed and the shop owners followed their customers to the suburbs.
What was more, the hundred thousand or so whites moving out, subtly disrupted the internal power structure of the black community. The low income Blacks were considered the black equivalent of poor white trash. Many of them lived in neighborhoods that struggled in grinding poverty and crime since the late 1960s, when thousands of poor families were relocated to public housing from other parts of the District. This move sent many black and white middle-class families fleeing to the suburbs like northern Virginia and southern Maryland. This was the first suburban migration wave.
Since then, there has been a second suburban migration wave, with African-American families moving out of DC to sleepy suburbs like Prince George's County (PG county). This has led to striking diversity in once overwhelmingly white suburbs. PG County, for instance, 84% white in 1970 to only 29% white today. Currently, 69% of PG County residents are African Americans, and it is one of the few suburban counties that are majority black. It was ironical that, white families, who relocated to the suburbs to get away from the uncongenial atmosphere of living among African Americans, were forced to move again, this time to distant Calvert County. It seemed strange that it should be so, as Calvert County, in 1970, was racially diverse, with 37% of its residents being African-American. However, with the second white flight, Calvert County became markedly less diverse and, today has only 12% blacks in the community. One blatant sign of the transformation is that in the past, Calvert County was a Democratic stronghold, while today, it is solidly Republican.
As these migration waves washed over the demographics of Washington DC, the city population became increasingly black, until the 1980s. Yet, lately, a change can be detected . For instance, in 1980, where the Washington population was 70% African American; today it is down to 59%. The white population has marginally increased to 31%, but the greatest gains have been among other racial and ethnic groups.
An enterprising restaurateur named Wilson opened a soul-food restaurant, the Florida Avenue Grill, an often-crowded restaurant, in 1944, on the corner of Florida Avenue and 11th Street, in Northwest Washington. Eighteen years ago, when Wilosn’s son, Lacey Wilson Jr., began working at the Grill full time, the neighborhood was saturated with well-kept houses and well-fed, happy children. Today, the Grill stands alone in an otherwise vacant lot. In the short time since the District was granted home rule in 1974, Washington went from the promised land to no-man's-land.
"Most of the families who lived here have moved out to Maryland," says Wilson, himself a refugee to "the peace and quiet" of suburban Virginia. Those who stayed in the neighborhood, according to Wilson, are trapped in houses that have lost 30% of their value in the last eight years.
Thus, the story of Anacostia is a story of urban renewal and the expansion of bureaucracy on one side of the river, and the creation of racialized public housing ghettos on the other. The (indirect) role of the federal government in the creation of ghettos elsewhere in the country through loans, the Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954, and subsidies for infrastructure improvements connecting city to suburb has been well documented by Arnold Hirsch, George Lipsitz, Douglas Massey, and Nancy Denton among others. They show that the federal government provided the funds and the necessary legislation for local authorities to create racialized ghettos.
The NCHA and private developers constructed 1,300 units of subsidized public housing in the 1950s and 60s for residents displaced by highway and other development projects in the city and 5,800 families were on the waiting list for public housing in D.C. in 1965. Yet, unfortunately, public facilities did not keep pace with the glut of apartment construction in Anacostia. Inadequate health care facilities in the 1970s forced residents to make arduous trips across the river to the D.C. General Hospital and public health clinics; Anacostia schools in 1970 were filled 83% over capacity; and the Anacostia subway station was among the lowest priority projects during Metro construction during the 1970s. Local residents pleaded with Metro officials to review this decision in light of the lack of work opportunities in Anacostia; fewer direct bus routes to the District, compared with other outlying areas; the topography and street design of Anacostia, which made extensive bus service impractical; and the fact that it would serve 160,000 people. In 1972 the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation challenged Metro's plans to bypass the community entirely and provide direct service to Suitland, Maryland. Although the Anacostia station was retained, it remained one of the last to be built in the initial stages of Metro construction. Rather than renovate buildings like the Congress Park Apartments that comprised 684 apartments in 80 buildings, was built in 1950 and abandoned less than twenty years later, private developers and the National Capital Housing Authority continued to build shabby public housing.
The explosion of apartment construction in Anacostia far exceeded the need for public housing in the 1960s. In 1970, in the Anacostia/Barry's Farm area, one third of the total housing was less than 10-years old garden apartments, which translated into a significant number of foreclosed and abandoned properties. By 1970, the vacancy rate in Anacostia was 4.5%, compared with the District rate of 2.8%. The low income African Americans started moving into Anacostia in droves when the city razed all the tenements and low income housing in Southwest DC and built coops and condos.
Subsequently, the District started housing projects in Anacostia like there was no tomorrow. When the low income people came into the scene, the utility services abruptly stopped. The schools, the trash, the utilities, jobs—they all went downhill and practically disappeared as if the area across the Anacostia River was another country with separate borders and the people spoke an alien language.
Four years later, in 1968, virtually all the shops in Anacostia and many on the other side of the river, were destroyed, during the riots that followed Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. Black people were outraged that the city did not close shops in honor of Dr. King, like they did during President Kennedy’s death. Most of these shops were located at Nichols Ave. Ironically, 12 years later, the street was renamed MLK but it took many many years after that for the area to recover both economically and socially. The tragedy is that Dr King had succeeded in life and like Malcolm X was gunned down. Such deaths of high profile public figures are deeply ingrained in the psyches of the black male population. To them, Dr King’s death symbolized the fact that no man in Anacostia was safe.
In this situation, Sonny and Anne were pioneers in seeking out a life in Anacostia. In the early 1960s, middle income blacks started moving into the area. They, like Sonny and Anne, were in search of the American dream. Buy their own home, raise kids, work for a steady, secure government job and retire by age 50. Sonny had already worked for the government as a member of the 3rd Armored Calvary in the U.S. Army, and now, he was an entrepreneur. He had survived a riot and taken a hit with the loss of his Seven Eleven. But Sonny would recover. But by 1990, he retired and wanted to stay home with Anne. By that time, the kids were in high school. John the eldest son was living in North Carolina with his own family.
Meantime, 1990 was the heyday for crime in Anacostia. The area turned so rough that even the police were hesitant to make their rounds. Not even the safe confines of a squad car was a sanctuary from all the madness. No one in their right minds ventured outside after dark. Sonny witnessed firsthand the social horror that was so entrenched in inner-city Anacostia.
The community was known as the murder capital of the world. Night after night, the news media in DC painted ugly pictures of a homicide-ridden city caught in the desperate clutches of depression, death and decay. From the Freeway Phantom murders.
First there was heroin. Heroin was organized crime and it was the big boys. But they didn’t deal with the woman or child.