- The Washington Times - Monday, June 14, 2004

Twice a month, from April to October, residents and visitors can take a leisurely Friday evening stroll off the beaten path and view the real District of Columbia.

“When We Were Colored … A Walking Tour of Historic U Street” showcases the city’s “Black Broadway,” as Laverne Holmes of SiteSeeing Tours advertises.

“Back in the day, U Street NW was the epicenter for [the District’s] colored residents who were not welcome downtown. So they created a thriving business community of their own, which flourished through the late 1950s,” the group’s flier says. But is U Street today the “living legacy” the historic tour promotes? Not if you ask longtime residents such as Ella McCall-Haygan, who is working to preserve some of that unique past for the future.

It’s ironic that the black history tour begins at 1515 U St., the 12-year address of Sisterspace and Books, which is fighting for its survival as a hub of black culture and literacy along the “New U” Street corridor.

Sisterspace could be evicted from its four-story building, which was once owned by a prosperous black printer, as early as tomorrow if it does not prevail at a court hearing today, or if the D.C. Court of Appeals decides not to hear the case.

There’s a joke going around that “the New U doesn’t include any of the old U’s.” For many such as Ms. McCall-Haygan, a native Washingtonian who operates the Streets to Skills Social Service near 16th and U streets NW, feel that Sisterspace is symbolic of “what is happening throughout the city” as once-neglected neighborhoods are being redeveloped and property prices are skyrocketing.

“They told us we had to stay in our community, and we couldn’t go downtown. Now they’re coming and taking that, too,” she said.

Nia Kuumba is among the lifelong D.C. residents who worry that that only thing that will be left of Black Broadway will be the wrought-iron historic makers being erected along U Street because black businesses and families are being driven out by gentrification.

“Chocolate City is rapidly becoming Condo City,” states the group Enough Is Enough in its meeting notice placed in Sisterspace’s monthly newsletter.

“Why can’t we preserve our culture?” said Ms. McCall-Haygan, who acknowledges that she is enraged. “It saddens me when I see everybody taking over [who] doesn’t look like me … and making it all white and forgetting about our history and our culture.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Faye Williams, who owns Sisterspace and Books with her partner, Cassandra Burton. They have been embroiled in a legal battle for 3 years, first trying to get their landlord to make necessary repairs, and now to purchase the historic building, which not only houses the bookstore but also is the scene of cultural events and community meetings.

On Sunday, Ms. Williams, Ms. Kuumba and Ms. McCall-Haygan were among the group gathered in the back room of Sisterspace to attend a forum about how to preserve the store and its black presence along U Street.

Sisterspace and Books is not just a bookstore. It is a Washington institution. Customers do not simply go to Sisterspace for welcome pages, giving black authors and writers a place to sell their wares. It provides literacy and reading groups for youths and adults, book clubs and health seminars. Sometimes folks just stop by to sit or chat or find out what’s going on in the neighborhood.

Ms. Williams and Ms. Burton also act as the eyes and ears of the community, doing good works such as buying turkeys for the women in the nearby senior citizen high-rise when a local grocery chain stopped providing the holiday meal.

Sisterspace faces the same problems as other small businesses that are being gobbled up or closed by larger, cheaper chains and Internet outlets.

But Ms. Williams stressed that the battle “is not about the rent.” The battle is not about saving their business. It’s about the need for the community services that Sisterspace provides in its historic location.

A project manager has volunteered in recent days to head the preservation project, which includes purchasing the building and renovating it to accommodate more art, education and historical programs. Several committees have been formed to raise additional money. Attorneys for the trust that owns the building, however, have been unwilling to negotiate, Ms. Williams said. She has asked supporters to call the lawyers to plead the community’s case. The attorneys have publicly denied the accusations.

“We deserve the right to buy this building and stay on U Street,” said Ms. Williams. “Our position is that we are not packing up to move anywhere.”

Gentrification is an emotional as well as economic issue that the District’s elected leaders must address. The wholesale annihilation of historic communities and their rich culture is creating tension, much of it racially tinged, that must counter market forces.

For one thing, the mayor should propose and the D.C. Council should consider legislation that gives long-standing businesses the first right to purchase properties similar to the right extended to renters when their units face conversion or sale.

While newcomers are welcomed, care should be taken not to completely change the character or the residents of well-established communities, which have their own histories and rich cultures. Incentives and public policies should be enacted to provide substantive assistance to those who stayed during the dry and destitute years to preserve and maintain their homes and their businesses if they so choose.

The question for city leaders is whether they want the District of Columbia’s legacy to be one that incorporates, promotes and sustains lively, multicultural communities, or to be a sad reminder of an obliterated history footnoted only by stone-cast information poles marking a time and place “when we were colored.”

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