Tue. September 18
Washington D.C. Comes Back to Life
Over the past twenty years, my hometown of Washington, D.C. has been resurrected.
It’s been a miracle. This past weekend I attended the H Street Festival, a party to celebrate an up and coming strip in D.C. For decades, H Street was known as a “riot corridor,” one of the places in the city that had almost been destroyed by the 1968 Washington riots following the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Washington is just now starting to recover from the riots. More than 1,200 buildings were burned and the cost was almost $25 million, the third highest in U.S. history. Four months after the riot, in August 1968, Ben W. Gilbert, a black reporter for the Washington Post, made contact with three men who claimed responsibility for the violence following King’s death. The men were left-wing agitators who had been planning violence for months before King’s death, then used King’s death to spread mayhem, provoking crowds to violence, and even using dynamite to blow up buildings. In fact, many of the rioters were looters, criminals, and kids who, according to at least one witness, cared little or nothing about Martin Luther King.
For years it was not safe for people, certainly whites but even blacks, to go through the riot corridors of U Street and H Street. To those of us who love cities and love Washington (yes, there are folks who love Washington), this was tragic. I consider myself a City Journal conservative; like the writers and editors of the pro-urban conservative journal, I cannot live without the energy, creativity, art, and passion of a city. Not to mention the joy and love that comes from the architecture of our great cities. (Despite having been there many times, I still feel a surge of joy when I step out of Penn Station and into New York City.)
Yet for those things to thrive, cities also need other virtues: kindness towards those who live in close quarters. Humility to know that you are giving up on the suburban dream, and are OK with that. Self-reliance and perseverance to endure some of the hassles of city life, from high subway fares to the occasional crazy person on the street. Generosity towards artists and other weirdos. These have been the principles that have allowed new businesses and renters to slowly come back into Washington’s riot corridors.
And perhaps the most important virtue in the case of Washington is forgiveness. The riots exacerbated what was already a deep racial divide in Washington. Yet walking through H Street or U Street today, one sees a wonderful multicultural mix. Despite some corridors of resentment people are getting along.
It’s a wonderful site, and a reminder to native Washingtonians like myself that despite all the rage and resentment of the riots, people have made the right decision–they have chosen love and forgiveness. The morning after King was murdered, leftist agitator Stokely Carmichael held a news conference, where he announced, “America killed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. last night . . . what it means is that we have gone full swing into the revolution.” After his conference Carmichael went to a rally at Howard University, one of the oldest and most prestigious black schools in America. Howard stands proudly on a hilltop over black Washington, which at the time was burning. One reporter observed that “the tenor of the speeches was vehemently anti-white.” The American flag was lowered and the flag of Ujamma, a black separatist group, was raised.
Then something remarkable happened: the doors of Howard University’s Cramton auditorium opened and a throng of immaculately dressed black men and women poured forth. They had been at a memorial service for Dr. King. They had sung Brahms’s “Requiem,” the hymn “Precious Lord,” and “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” The service ended with “We Shall Overcome.” As the mourners filed out, they found themselves face to face with Carmichael and the Ujamma flag. Here were the two faces of America–the scowling visage of the radical and the quiet dignity of the face of Christian love and nonviolence. After a few minutes the crowds moved away from each other in different directions. The faithful melted into the silent majority. But their voices are once again being heard.