'I still see the scars': Memories of 1968 obscure progress

Washington has seen dramatic population and economic shifts in the past half-century

By Theresa Vargas
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON (AP) — For 50 years, friends and relatives have advised Larry Rosen to forget about the riots.

But as the 94-year-old sat one recent afternoon in a Maryland retirement home, sifting through a pile of old photographs, he said his reply remains the same: “It’s hard to forget.”

The photos show the pharmacy he owned on 14th Street in Northwest Washington before and after the April 1968 civil unrest. In one, Rosen smiles in front of a large window that advertises cheeseburgers for 25 cents and seamless hose for 59 cents. In another, he fixes a display of toy baseball bats feet away from a lunch counter where black and white residents sit side by side on swivel stools.

Other photos show a gaping hole in place of the window and soot-shrouded stools in a fire-gutted room.

“They might have thrown dynamite in my store,” Rosen said, scrunching his nose as if struck again with the sharp smell of the debris.

Time and age have not dulled his memories of the hours and days that followed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. He can recall what he had for dinner the night a former employee called to say the store in Columbia Heights had been looted — veal Parmesan at a restaurant with his sons. He can remember calling police and hearing there was nothing they could do. He can tick off the names of neighboring businesses, among them a dry cleaner, a liquor store and a car parts dealership, whose owners all made the same difficult decision as him.

“Nobody rebuilt on our block,” Rosen said. “Nobody ever reopened.”

Washington has seen dramatic population and economic shifts in the past half-century, but the three corridors most affected by the civil unrest — Seventh Street NW, H Street NE and 14th Street NW — have experienced some of the starkest then-and-now transformations. Economically depressed areas once dotted with mom-and-pop businesses and cheap apartments now boast trendy restaurants and carry some of the area’s highest real estate costs.

The riots devastated the District. A preliminary damage report in 1968 estimated that 909 commercial establishments across the city were affected, with nearly 40 percent of them extensively damaged. It also found that the losses on 14th Street made up nearly half of the $13.3 million estimated value of the damage.

Now residents can walk along 14th Street in Columbia Heights and go shopping at Target, pick up a prescription at CVS and grab a “responsibly raised” steak bowl at Chipotle. If they walk farther down that same street, they find a vibrant U Street and, farther still, they come to Logan Circle, where one restaurant offers a bottle of champagne for $695 and another a tumbler of beer aged in oak barrels with plums for $60.

Scars from the riots remain, but they are subtle and noticeable mostly to the dwindling number of people who can remember the “what was” before the “what is.”

Raymond Flowers, who lived in an apartment next door to Rosen’s pharmacy, was the one who called Rosen to tell him the place had been looted and then set on fire.

“He was heartbroken,” recalled Flowers, now 81. “He asked me what happened. I really didn’t have a good answer. There just wasn’t a good answer.”

Flowers knows that question still nags at Rosen, who talks about the unrest whenever he can to whoever will listen. He has also written about it on a blog one of his children set up for him.

“Sometimes, you’ve just got to get on and get over it,” Flowers said. “I got over it. I would love to see him get over it. Fifty years is a long time.”

Reuben Jackson was 11 years old when he stood on the roof of his family’s rowhouse, watching the city burn.

At the time, racial tensions had seeped into but not yet saturated his sixth-grade world. When he had declared, “I’m going to marry Sarah Goldfarb one day,” he heard his grandmother say, “That boy’s going to end up like Emmett Till if he’s not careful.” He didn’t know then that Till was black like him and only a few years older when he was brutally beaten and killed for supposedly whistling at a white woman.

Because it was early April when the unrest started, the trees were not yet crowded with leaves. Jackson recalled standing with his brother and father on top of their home just north of Petworth and having a clear view of “smoke halos” forming over 14th Street.

Later when the family drove past the looted areas, he saw exactly what had burned. The record stores Jackson loved were gone. So was the car dealership his father visited on Sundays. They would never come back.

“You can walk around 14th Street, and you start having these conversations that begin, ‘Didn’t that used to be,’” Jackson, now 61, said. He recalled sitting recently at a restaurant with a friend and joking that the city logo should be a crane because of the volume of construction it has experienced.

“It is a radically different place in 2018 than it was in ‘68,” he said. “D.C. has become a place where people want to be. That’s something I never thought I’d see.”

Harriet Tregoning, the city’s former planning director, said that when she moved into a house a few blocks from H Street in Northeast Washington in 1989, there had already been several failed attempts to revitalize the area. Tregoning said it wasn’t until the city, under Anthony Williams’s administration, began focusing on professionalizing services, setting plans that capitalized on existing and new Metro stations, and ending the exodus of middle-class residents that H Street and the other riot-impacted corridors saw major changes.

Where the revitalization occurred made sense, she said: “They were places that had been successful, that were the heart of African American-owned businesses before the riots. So, it was just a question of, where are the customers?”

Between 2000 and 2015, the District added 100,000 residents, according to an April 2016 report released by the Office of Planning that projected the city’s growth would continue over the next 15 years, reaching a peak of more than 800,000 residents. (It’s currently about 700,000.) Three of the neighborhoods that saw the highest levels of growth were Columbia Heights, U Street and Logan Circle.

But the progress has not been even across races. In 1970, the District was 71 percent black, earning it the nickname “Chocolate City.” In 2015, black residents dipped below 50 percent for the first time in six decades. Much of the recent growth has been attributed to an influx of white residents who can afford to move into neighborhoods where rents have soared. A one-bedroom, 2,837-square-foot penthouse in Logan Circle was recently listed for $3.95 million, with a $1,459 monthly condo fee.

In 2001, when his mother entered a nursing home, Jackson sold the family’s brownstone for $400,000. Now, he knows, it would be worth more than $1 million. It’s a price tag, he said, that makes the neighborhood he grew up in no longer affordable for him to live in.

A former jazz archivist for the Smithsonian Institution, Jackson recently left a radio host job in Vermont and is looking to move back to the Washington area. He said that he will likely settle outside the city but that even so, he won’t feel any less “a proud son of D.C.” It remains part of his roots, he said, a place where he can walk by a porch and see both the family that lives there and the one that used to, where he can savor a meal at a restaurant while lamenting the shop it replaced.

“I still see the scars there,” Jackson said. “They may be hidden behind a new craft beer place, but they’re still there.”

At Monarch Novelties on 14th Street in Logan Circle, a metal bar splits the front window in two. Before the glass was shattered during the riots, the window consisted of a single strip of thick glass. Douglas Robinson, who operates his family’s carnival supply store and lives upstairs, said its replacement cost his father $600 and came in the form of what was available at the time — two smaller, thinner panels.

Robinson was 17 and one of 11 children when the glass broke. That day, he ran to get a bedsheet because the shards had cut his brother. In a 1968 Washington Post photo, his brother can be seen with the white sheet wrapped around his right arm. In his left arm, he cradles a shotgun. With him stand two other brothers, each with a gun in hand.

“If we didn’t have shotguns, we would have been burned out, too,” Robinson, now 67, said. “It put a lot of people out of business.”

Monarch remained standing during those chaotic days. It is now a rare relic on a block bursting with trendy restaurants, including Belgian restaurant B Too and a pork-centric establishment called The Pig. Three restaurants within feet of one another offer sushi.

To get inside Monarch, a person must ring a doorbell and hope someone answers. Once in, it’s easy to imagine what the shop looked like in 1968. The walls remain lined with the same wooden shelves, and on them are items that would make most small children squeal: stuffed animals, cheap plastic toys and rolls of colorful tickets. A plastic snake costs $1. For $2, a person can leave with an old campaign button, including one that reads, “If I were 21, I’d vote for Kennedy.”

Marion Barry used to spend $5 for a box of 100 tiny toys that could be handed out, Robinson said.

In the months after the riots, hearings were held on how the city should rehabilitate the neighborhoods that suffered the most damage. People from across the city, according to transcripts preserved by the District’s Historical Society, spoke passionately about their visions for what should come from the ashes and their hopes for what would not.

One of them was Barry, who was still a decade away from becoming mayor.

“There is a black city and a white city,” he said. “There are black values, and there are white values, and let there be no mistake about it, the two are not the same, and, therefore, you can’t plan the same way, you can’t plan for black people like you do for white people because there is a difference.”

He suggested that the rebuilding should result in the city’s black population owning 51 percent of the District.

“I have gotten word that if the city is rebuilt the same way it was, it is going to be burned down again,” Barry said. “I am speaking for people who are angry. I am speaking for people who have no other way to move except to do what they tried to do.”

Others who spoke, according to the transcripts, took a more tempered tone. The head of the Midtown Business Association at the time, Abraham Liss, said he didn’t want to talk about loss.

“What are we going to do tomorrow?” he asked. “I will offer assistance, both physically and financially, if we can think about rehabilitating the area by all people: not by white and yellow or black, but by all people.”

Two men — one African American and the other Jewish — lost their foothold in Columbia Heights the day Rosen’s business, Smith’s Pharmacy, burned.

Flowers was renting a sixth-floor apartment next door to the store for $90 a month. During the riots, he took his wife and their two small children, ages 2 and 5, to stay with a relative. Months later, he moved the family out of the neighborhood for good, and they relocated to Southeast Washington. Their apartment didn’t burn, he said, but tear gas seeped into the building, and the neighborhood changed.

“I didn’t like the atmosphere,” Flowers said.

He had worked for five years as a soda fountain manager at the pharmacy before taking a maintenance job with Montgomery County Public Schools, where he would remain employed more than 30 years. On the day of the looting, he heard the store’s alarm screaming before he saw the mess inside: ransacked shelves and broken display cases. A few doors down, blood from the woman who owned the dry cleaner spotted the sidewalk.

When Rosen came to survey the damage the next morning, Flowers suggested he leave.

“I sensed people were angry,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Larry, my best advice to you is for you to go back home.’”

Later that night, the fires started. Flowers rescued important paperwork from a filing cabinet for Rosen. But even with it, Rosen said, the insurance payment he received was not enough to rebuild.

Rosen’s daughter, Sherry Scheinman, recalled having to learn to cook for the family after her mother was compelled to go back to work. She also remembers seeing her father, a once gregarious man, become a joyless fixture at home.

“Now I realize he was depressed,” she said. “I do know the years he ran his store were the happiest years of his life.”

Rosen later operated several newsstands and other small businesses, but he said nothing compared to the nine years he owned the 14th Street shop. There, regulars called him “Doc” even though he wasn’t a licensed pharmacist. He beams when he tells stories about that time: how his best customer was a prostitution madam who placed a large order for sandwiches each week; how a customer once handed him a wad of cash to watch because he mistakenly thought he had been shot; how an employee didn’t know a man asking for “three raincoats” wasn’t asking for protection from the weather.

It was a different era, Rosen said.

“CVS hadn’t yet become the king,” he said. “There was no Amazon.”

A Boys & Girls Club now sits where the pharmacy did. Among his photos, Rosen keeps one of him standing in front of it. It marks a rare splash of color amid shades of black and white, and its place in his pile is an acknowledgment that it is part of history, his and the city’s.