August 29, 2014

A Stroll Down Memory Lane on Washington's 14th Street

Recently, I resolved to get out for some needed exercise by picking one of DC's neighborhoods for a walking tour every week. Let's start with 14th Street and it's contrast between now and then. I did this walk on Tuesday.

But first some history:

14th Street April 1968

On April 4,1968, civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. His murder sparked unrest that night in Washington, DC. That was Thursday. Over the next few days, violence, looting and arson enveloped the main commercial centers in the African-American neighborhoods. The 14th Street commercial corridor was hit hardest. Most of the smoke you see in the photo on the left is coming from 14th Street.

Washington has always been two cities -- one black, one white. This separation has begun to dissipate somewhat and today's 14th Street is a prime example of that. But that wasn't the case in 1968, when 14th Street was the black community's main street. It suffered the most damage during the 1968 rioting.

Here's a good example of DC's two cities: On Friday, the day after MLK's assassination, my wife and I decided to go ahead with the annual Georgetown house tour we'd signed up for, mainly because it included the Averell Harriman house with its collection of famous impressionist paintings. We saved that for our last house on the tour.

As we headed down N Street toward the Harriman house, tour officials came by to say the tour was shutting down. Everyone was urged to go home as soon as possible because more rioting was underway and President Johnson had called out the National Guard. The federal and district government offices -- and most businesses -- had shut down. Massive traffic gridlock followed as panicked commuters raced home to the suburbs. 

By the end of Friday night, 13,600 federal troops occupied the city. 

On Saturday morning, in response to radio pleas, several of us in our Palisades neighborhood collected boxes of canned goods and other items for people in the city's devastated neighborhoods. We delivered the boxes to a church a few blocks from 14th Street, just outside the riot area. We smelled the smoke and saw many National Guardsmen on the streets.

It was a beautiful spring day. I'll always remember leaving this smoky chaos and driving back into the Palisades, with its green lawns edged with tulips and daffodils. 

14th Street Today

After the 1968 riots, 14th Street made a slow recovery. But in the past decade, it has really taken off. The flight to the suburbs that damaged city life for decades has slowed down. Younger people today, most raised in boring suburbs, want city life. They want to be where "it's happening." And 14th Street is it.

Twenty years ago when there was something BIG to celebrate (like a Redskins Superbowl victory), everyone would head for the intersection of Wisconsin and M Streets in Georgetown. On election night in 2012, the mob of mostly young people celebrating Obama's reelection assembled at the intersection of U and 14th Streets . . . not in Georgetown.

The 14th Street corridor has become a mecca for up-and-coming furniture shops, trendy restaurants, and clothing boutiques. Every few months there's an announcement of plans for construction of a new condo building.

So ,let's take a walk down today's ever-changing 14th Street.

Busboys and Poet's

My original game plan was to have a three-course 14th Street lunch -- appetizer at Busboys and Poets, entree at the new "in" restaurant Le Diplomate, and dessert at Pearl Dive Oyster Palace.

As often happens with my plans, things didn't end up as I'd planned.

The walk got off to a good start at Busboys and Poets. I've been there often since it opened in 2005. The patrons are a mix of white and black, young and old, gay and straight. It's Washington's most fully integrated restaurant.

What's with the name? The name Busboys and Poets pays homage to American poet Langston Hughes, who worked as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel (now a Marriott) in the 1920s, before he gained recognition as a poet.

As soon as I walked into the restaurant, I recognized my friend Martin. A friend for over 30 years, he's now a waiter at Busboys and Poets. I asked to be seated at a table in Martin's service area, and we were able to chat during his free time. Unfortunately, much of the talk was about the recent and sudden death of his sister Annie from a brain tumor.

Here we are in the restaurant's large side room that's used for special events:

One event that took place in this room was the memorial service for my treasured friend Lili. Years ago, Lili got a group of us together to hear Martin perform as a singer and to show support for him as he dealt with some family issues related to his coming out.

I usually start with the Moroccan soup here, but Martin recommended the spinach and wheatberry salad, which was excellent.

This is a typical street scene on 14th Street today: a mix of fancy new condo buildings and older shops waiting for a developer.

Here's another patch waiting for the developers:

Here's Vastu, one of the many furniture stores on 14th Street . . . where I bought my living room couch. Surrounded by condos rather than McMansions, the 14th Street furniture stores show smaller, sleeker furniture than the huge pieces you find in the suburban mall stores.

Here's the Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center of the Whitman-Walker Clinic. W-W became a big part of my life during the 1980s when the AIDS crisis took center stage in the gay and lesbian community.

I took the photo below at the dedication of the Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center in 1993. Sitting on Elizabeth's right is Jim Graham, who became president of W-W's board in 1981 and within three years became the clinic's first executive director. He held that position until 1999, when he resigned to run for election to the DC Council representing Ward 4. He remained on the council until this year, when he was defeated in the Democratic Party's primary.

In her remarks at the dedication, Liz paid tribute to the gay couple standing next to her on the podium. The actor/activist said that their financial contribution to the clinic had "made me look like a piker." Years later, I read that the older (and wealthier) of the two had been killed by his younger partner when he tried to end the relationship.

When Jim Graham became executive director of Whitman-Walker in 1984, my great pal Dusty Cunningham succeeded him as president of the board. The two of them worked (and fought) together to transform Whitman-Walker into one of the nation's premier organizations in the fight against AIDS.

 Earlier this year, I wrote a tribute  to Dusty who died of AIDS in 1988.

The man at the podium is Jeff Ackman who back then was president of the Whitman-Walker Clinic's board of directors. Dr. Ackman recently was named dean of the George Washington Hospital's School of Medicine.

Back to my walk.... I headed down 14th Street, looking forward to my lunch entree at Le Diplomate. They aren't open for lunch on weekdays. At least I got to take a picture of this bust of a fellow -- I was told -- who was the first winner of the Tour de France. I guess in those days they biked in suit and tie.

So, on to the third restaurant, the Pearl Dive Oyster Palace. I'd been there only once before. The night Lili died, I had joined her family for dinner there. When she was 94, Lili left her apartment on upper Connecticut Avenue and moved into the Residences at Thomas Circle, a central city senior residence. It's the same one I would have moved into had I carried out my crazy decision -- after I was diagnosed with Parkinson's -- to sell my wonderful house.

Lili stayed at the Thomas Circle residences for only a few months before she died. But, being Lili, she had tried many of the 14th Street restaurants, and Pearl Dive Oyster Palace was her favorite.

Here it is. But as you might guess from its empty sidewalk cafe, it wasn't open for weekday lunch, either.

These eateries don't serve lunch for a good reason. The 14th Street corridor doesn't have nearby office buildings with swarms of workers looking for places to eat lunch. I didn't even see many people on the street during my weekday walk. But I often walk past Pearl Dive on my Studio Theatre evenings, and the outdoor area always is packed with people.

Fortunately right next door is Rice, a good Thai restaurant I've been to several times . . .  and it's open for lunch. Luckily, I got there just before the kitchen closed at 3pm.

After this late lunch and -- for me -- long walk, I hailed a cab. Half an hour later, I was in bed for my afternoon nap.

I enjoyed the lunchtime walk. I'll no doubt do it again in another neighborhood.


Brian said...

Brings back memories. I was on riot duty at Ft Belvoir.

Anonymous said...

Have been meaning to comment many times over the 4.5 years I've been reading your fantabulous blog.

Thanks to a recent post of yours, I'm currently reading "Super Brain"--a seminal book--by Rudi Tanzi and Deepak Chopra, as well as watching a number of their YouTube videos. Many other of your writings--plus your outlook on life generally--have helped me as I advocate for a dear friend who has late-stage dementia and is living in a skilled nursing facility in the District.

If you're available any Wednesday or Thursday afternoon and have an interest, I'd be pleased to accompany you around my home of nearly 35 years, the Foggy Bottom/West End neighborhood. We have the fourth iteration of our award-winning Foggy Bottom Outdoor Sculpture exhibit going on in the FB Historic District until mid-October and some of the best restaurants in DC. And I can whisk you to and from the Palisades in my trusty chariot.

Let me know if you are interested.

Elizabeth Elliott
Foggy Bottom

John Schappi said...

Thanks Elizabeth. I'm almost as familiar with Foggy Bottom as with the Palisades. BNA, my employer for 40 years, was just the other side of Penn. Ave., between M and N.

I appreciate your offer to show me around. But, as I keep telling family and friends, I find that for any extended walking, I need to do it alone to be sure I don't overextend myself. Even when walking with people who say they'd be glad to walk at my pace, I know I would exert myself more than I should just so I don't hold others back.

I'm full of quirks!