The Spectacle Blog

DC’s H Street project plays with an entire neighborhoods at a price

By on 7.26.11 | 7:53AM

There are plenty of things to love about Washington, D.C.'s "transitioning" H Street neighborhood, like Granville Moore's, a Belgian mussel joint with a spectacular beer selection. But H Street wasn't always this way. In fact, it was a pretty murky place 30 years ago:

The city had a long way to go when the redevelopment process began. Like a number of D.C. neighborhoods, the corridor was devastated by riots that erupted after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

For years afterward, 30 percent of the buildings on H Street were boarded up or left vacant, according to the nonprofit H Street Community Development Corp.

Eugenia Kim, 59, a novelist, remembers her first week on 12th and G streets Northeast in 1984. She was greeted with the news that a middle-aged woman named Catherine Fuller had been robbed, sodomized and killed in the neighborhood.

Thankfully, things have gotten better, albeit slowly. Mayor Anthony Williams announced a plan to "revitalize" H Street, providing it with office buildings, residential units, retail, and even a streetcar line. As the Post writes: "The opening of the $13 million streetcar line between Union Station and Benning Road has been pushed back, but if all goes according to the current plan, trolleys will start rolling in 2013." Mussels for everybody, right?

Well, here's a textbook example of how government spending can displace the market. The same article notes that Salim Newman, born and raised on H Street, has been the owner of a shop on the corridor since 2006:

When construction began on the streetcar line, Newman, 40, said he watched many of his friends' businesses close their doors because of the construction and lack of parking: a beauty shop, a perfume store and a carryout place.

...

Nat Carter, 63, manager of Smokey's Barbershop and Oldies, isn't leaving, despite the fact that construction of the streetcar line pushed profits so low that "now we are just getting by."

Kim, the novelist, has taken her son for haircuts at Smokey's, which has been around since 1961. She says if people such as Carter stick around, H Street will retain its "real rootedness."

That's a pretty strong "if." Development in any area should be welcomed, but these were small businesses that had to stand on their own two legs without the lobbying efforts of larger developers. I might sound like I'm saying it's bad that this area is developing -- I don't know, it could be good, it could be bad -- but Salim Newman tells us that the businesses that had finally started to develop in the area have already been displaced by bigger players who got in when the political atmosphere was just right to give them the incentives to do so. In many ways, this is a more subtle version of eminent domain.

The planners hope that the consequences will be outweighed by the opportunity provided by the new jobs that sweep in. Maybe it's worth it -- in the end.

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