Out of the tens of thousands of people planning to attend the unveiling of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and the H Street Festival, few will have the perspective of Anwar Saleem.
Saleem knew King's death to be a trigger not for racial reconciliation, but for violence, and H Street NE—a largely commercial neighborhood northeast of Capitol Hill—as the site that he watched burn in its wake.
“Somewhere in my soul, I always felt that I would be part of the revitalization process,” said Saleem, now the founder and executive director of H Street Main Street, a nonprofit organization formed between the now-burgeoning area’s businesses and residents.
Saleem and a team of engineers were recently invited to see the King memorial before it’s unveiling, as a thank-you from the city for their work in rebuilding the once-ravaged neighborhood. His group is responsible for petitioning the city to revitalize H Street and lay the tracks for a trolley, which is set to arrive in 2013.
Right now, H Street Main Street is hard at work organizing the H Street Festival to market the area’s businesses. The annual event is gaining in popularity; on September 17 it is expected to pack as many as 40,000 eaters, shoppers, and dancers into its six central blocks.
But both the King memorial and the H Street Festival lose their meaning if those who come to enjoy them don’t know their history or “labor pains,” as Saleem puts it.
“You have to respect the womb that bore you,” Saleem said.
Those pains began on April 5, 1968, one day after King was shot in Memphis. At the time, H Street NE was the second largest retail district in the city. Saleem was in the seventh grade at Stuart-Hobson Middle School and was dismissed early that day as the city began to descend into chaos.
Saleem went home first, but then ventured out to meet his friends back on H Street, eager to explore their neighborhood like it was a snow day. The boys chased each other through the empty buildings. But when night fell, the street turned violent and his friend Vernon Marlowe picked the wrong store to explore. Saleem still remembers standing on the corner of 7th and H streets, watching the flames engulf Morton’s department store, expecting Marlowe to come out laughing at any second. But Marlowe never appeared, and the city boarded up the building before his remains were ever identified.
What few remember about the riots, Saleem said, is that those burning and looting businesses were not just angry African-Americans. It was a mixed group of people motivated by the energy of the crowd and selfish greed.
“It wasn’t a black versus white thing.” Saleem said. “You had businesses that would set fire to their own business to collect [insurance].”
Treacherous decades followed for H Street. The same block where Saleem waited outside Morton’s saw the brutal murder of Catherine Fuller, a 48-year-old mother, in broad daylight in 1984. The corridor became a breeding ground for the crack epidemic that gripped African-American men in the 1980s and 1990s and the site of the death of Officer Scott Lewis, who was shot to death in 1995 while assisting a deaf man.
Even in 2004, when Saleem launched the first H Street Festival, many of the old storefronts were boarded up, covered in graffiti, and blocked with piles of trash. Only 2,500 people attended that year. But some of the businesses that are now open and benefiting from the success of H Street’s new hip image haven’t been so quick to applaud Saleem.
It seems gentrification and white flight give birth to many of the same naysayers: those who feel their race has been wronged. Black owners of old businesses blame Saleem’s efforts for the rise in the property taxes and changing the neighborhood too quickly. White owners of new businesses blame Saleem for favoring old tenants and being slow to change the look of the street.
In truth, the high tax rates are charged to businesses old and new, and they come from a city mandate Saleem tried to fight. Property taxes for businesses along H Street have been raised between 200 and 350 percent since revitalization efforts began in 2008. In that time, more than 80 businesses on and around the corridor have been forced to close. Saleem asked the city to grandfather in old businesses or to wait to raise the rates until after revitalization was complete. Neither request was granted.
Saleem said the King statue is beautiful, a vision by the water that reflects “eternal knowledge.” But the statue, like the success of H Street, is merely a milestone in the city’s civil rights journey. What he wants now, he said, is better communication between races. He hopes that the new H Street and the annual festival will launch that kind of dialogue and understanding.
“I believe in the one city concept, that people have to come together and be a melting pot,” Saleem said. “We are not responsible for where we are born or who are mothers are. Everything else is just experiences. We have got to come together to learn about each other’s experiences.”