Wednesday, May 5, 2004

Marion Fletcher is standing outside her beauty shop on Alabama Avenue in Southeast on a sun-splashed afternoon, hoping against hope not to be forced to start anew.

This is her life. This is who she is, a successful small-business owner.

This shop and this 54-year-old woman go back 33 years. Theirs is a deep connection with a telling story. It is the story of a woman who works her way up in the business, from hair operator to manager to shop owner 18 years ago.

But now the citys political leaders, starting with Mayor Anthony A. Williams and D.C. Council members Harold Brazil and Kevin Chavous, want Mrs. Fletcher to go away, to disappear.

Her shop has been deemed a blight in the neighborhood, and so she must go. Her small-business contributions are no longer necessary. She does not count. Her voice of protest must go unanswered.



Mrs. Fletchers beauty shop is one of about 30 stores in the 60-year-old Skyland Shopping Center that has been pulled into a political vortex of uncertainty the past two years. The city wants to take a wrecking ball to the bustling retail center and stick one of those impersonal boxes on the property. Maybe a Target. Maybe a Shoppers Food Warehouse. Who knows?

The city does not have a commitment from anyone, only a need to satisfy the political activists of the middle-class Hillcrest neighborhood that abuts the shopping center.

So go, Mrs. Fletcher.

Take your lifetime of work, your employees and clientele to another part of the city, though who knows where? We do not want the poor and working-class consumers who patronize this center.

“They say it is blight,” Mrs. Fletcher says. “Were not saying that. Were still getting the business.”

The citys endeavor to take over the property through eminent domain has turned out to be a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Store owners have put improvements on hold the past two years as they brace for an outcome. The shopping center could use a makeover, which the property owners would like to do if only they could detect a sense of cooperation in Mr. Brazil and Mr. Chavous.

David L. Burka, the property manager, also notes the following: The city does not assess this 17-acre stretch of asphalt as if it were on the verge of collapsing into a giant sinkhole. The lands assessed value in the 2005 tax year is $3,370,730 a 43 percent increase in one year.

Mrs. Fletcher is not concerned with the dizzying numbers, the closed-door political maneuvering and what the McLean-based Rappaport Co. stands to profit if allowed to develop the property.

She just knows how the shopping centers demise will hit the little people, the people on public assistance, the people who wont shop at the shiny Safeway across Alabama Avenue but at the Murrys in Skyland because of the lower prices.

Mrs. Fletcher points to that gleaming strip mall across Alabama Avenue from her shop and notes the names of each of the chain stores. It could be any strip mall in America.

“They always have vacancies over there,” Mrs. Fletcher said.

Skyland, by comparison, has been fully leased the past five years, providing a valuable service to a community that has no power, no voice, no real place in this big-dollar election-season power grab.

It is easy to envision this part of Alabama Avenue, with the two disparate shopping centers facing each other, functioning as a kind of dividing line between the haves and have-nots.

“These two centers really complement one another in that way,” Mr. Burka says.

Mr. Brazil and Mr. Chavous and their enablers on the D.C. Council are not up for dialogue with the have-nots they purport to serve.

They have a vision, and Mrs. Fletcher is one of the many Skyland merchants who is not part of it. She is merely one of the pests who stands in their way.

Here is a take-it-or-leave-it lump sum buyout for your shop, Mrs. Fletcher. Now be on your way.

The city has a developer ready to go, a contract to secure from a giant retailer, and an election coming up in the fall.

One citys sparkling vision is a little persons shattered dream.

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