D.C.'s 14th and T Turns Another Corner
One Urban Panorama Fades, Another Rises
Church of the Rapture and Paradise Liquor are Washington relics. As the future moves in, they prepare to leave their corner behind. The first of two parts.
By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 13, 2005; A01
On the second floor of a battered building on the corner of 14th and T streets NW, more than 300 worshipers are caught in the driving syncopation of drums and organ. Church of the Rapture has occupied this corner for three decades. Beyond the doors of the Pentecostal storefront, the sun is out and the iPod people walk by. A real estate agent hammers in a "For Sale" sign pointing to a T Street rowhouse that six years ago sold for $282,000 but now has granite counters and is going for $839,000.
Upstairs in the church, the music oscillates, and the worshipers are out of their seats, some so deep in the spirit that their shouts of "Yes, Jesus" and "Hallelujah" become bursts of unrecognizable syllables.
"I thank God for this church and we can express ourselves," a pastor says when the music quiets. "No one to pull your coattail and make you sit down. We are in a beautiful place, saints, free as a bird flying over this building. No one will hinder us. I see prosperity all over the church."
Not only spiritual prosperity. The church that started with nothing more than a sweat-stained tambourine and a small group of followers had just sold its property for $10 million. Its pastor and founder, known to her congregation as the Honorable Doctor Theresa Garrison, a high school dropout with prophecies and visions, closed one of the most lucrative deals in the 14th Street real estate boom. Church of the Rapture was going condo.
How much longer would Paradise Liquor be holding down the other corner? The grimy package liquor store is where $2 half-pints of Velicoff are shelved behind bulletproof glass and the customers have names like Bo-Bo, Snipe, Jerome, Miss Brenda, Koo-Koo and Peanut. Now Koo-Koo is standing at the counter next to a young blond man who's asking for fresh limes.
"Fresh limes!" says manager David Lee. "These people are so picky! Nothing is good enough like it is."
Church of the Rapture and Paradise Liquor are two stubborn relics from a bygone era of a bygone city. This year, after decades of sharing the same tattered geography, both decided it was time to go. The future of the neighborhood stared at them from across the street: the steel-cut letters that said "Saint-Ex" and smoked glass windows that revealed a bistro crowded with white people.
Soon there will be luxury lofts in the spot where Pastor Garrison hollers about the end days, a prediction that in one sense is coming absolutely true.
* * *
It has been more than a decade since the crosswinds of urban renewal started blowing across Shaw, once the crown jewel of black Washington that slipped into blight and is now being re-imagined by baristas and purveyors of tapas. Race and class are colliding on dozens of other blocks in a city where demographics are shifting by the month, but 14th and T represents something else: that split-second before the curtain drops on one era and rises on another.
This corner has turned before. The young Duke Ellington used to carry his sheet music here in 1917 as he rounded for home at 1816 13th St. In the 1940s, the Sunny South Market was a corner grocer that catered to the working-class and Howard University faculty members who lived nearby. On the other corner stood Club Bali, where Billie Holliday played, and all along the side streets, tea lights were strung in backyard gardens in makeshift after-hours clubs.
History turned again on a balmy night in April 1968 when the radio at Peoples Drug Store on 14th and U announced that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. It was a block south, near 14th and T, that some of the first store windows were smashed, unleashing days of rioting that left 95 businesses destroyed in black Washington's commercial Mecca.
After the riots, 14th and T was a boarded-up marketplace for heroin and numbers. The beautiful Bali club operated as Jack's Lounge until 1976, when the owner was slain in his back office. Heroin gave way to crack cocaine. Prostitutes worked out of the second floor of the liquor store building. It was hard to imagine that Sarah Vaughan had once sung "A Night in Tunisia" here. Garrison called it "Sodom and Gomorrah" when she bought the building on the southwest corner in 1974 and made it her church. Arena Stage bought the Bali building in 1985 to use for its Living Stage theater company.
In the late 1980s, urban pioneers began snapping up nearby houses at rock-bottom prices, and multigenerational black families were suddenly neighbors with white gay men and other bargain hunters, a demographic trend that only gathered in strength. In a 10-year period, housing costs doubled, then tripled.
Fourteenth and T remained essentially untouched until 2003, when Cafe Saint-Ex arrived, bringing Dutch lager to a crossroads that was home to the 40-ounce. Replacing an Ethiopian restaurant and Laval's Good Food To Go, Saint-Ex was a cause for celebration for some, an elegy for others. "It was like Saint-Ex was putting its flag down on the moon," says Rachael Storey, a documentary filmmaker who lives nearby and misses Laval's.
Now, the conversion from rough-and-tumble intersection to a smooth-blend urban utopia is in full gear. On a recent afternoon, in the swirl of a single moment:
"MAYOR WILLIAMS IS A SELL-OUT," someone has written in pink chalk on the sidewalk on 14th, a frequent refrain of those who accuse the mayor of giving away the city to real estate developers. Brownie and Daisy troops are holding camp at Church of the Rapture while they still can. The rhythms of Latin cumbias bounce down the alley from a mechanic's garage, and a car with fender-rattling hip-hop pulls up to the curb outside Paradise Liquor. The packed No. 52 bus door opens, and the driver shouts for his passengers to get back and make way for new ones.
Crossing at the light is a ragtag youth baseball team wearing T-shirts that say "The Art of Hustle." Dropping mitts and blowing bubbles as they pass the sleek new furniture boutique with a $4,000 couch in the window, they are herded home by their coach, 19-year-old Jeremy Drummond. "Y'all keep acting like this, and y'all can just write off McDonald's," he shouts.
Drummond, a sophomore at Temple University in Philadelphia, has lived in the neighborhood most of his life. "It seems every time I come home from school, there's a new high-rise going up. A lot of families have moved away."
Burning in the sky above is the Church of the Rapture sign, illustrated with a cross and the flames of hell, shouting: "NOW! IT IS TIME TO COME TO CHURCH AND TO GOD."
Blinking back at the church is the liquor store sign that says, "Welcome to Paradise."
* * *
At Church of the Rapture one Sunday morning, the blinds are partially closed against 14th Street below. Rows of good church shoes sink into the seafoam green carpet. On the pulpit there are three ornately carved chairs, but they are rarely used. The pastors sit down with the people, which is why members love this church. Many describe themselves as "country people" though they live in places such as Forrestville and drive Ford Explorers. What they mean is that Church of the Rapture is the roots of who they are.
Services last five hours. The drummer keeps a gallon jug of water at his feet, pounding out a military beat unique to Church of the Rapture. The music ranges from old-timey gospel to Christian contemporary to a free-form frenzy. The service thrives on the unexpected.
On this morning, Brother Irving is called to testify. He is wearing a royal blue suit. He is deep in prayer, and then the spirit takes over and he hops across the carpet on his invisible pogo stick. Four men surround him, a circle of safety to make sure he doesn't hurt himself. The organ pounds and someone grabs a tambourine. Chairs empty and a swirl of human passion erupts: heads thrown back, tears streaming, people shaking and clenching their fists. Mr. Robinson, the quiet doorman, shouts "Hallelujah" in a high, broken voice, and Minister Darryl comes over and tenderly wipes his face with a handkerchief. Two D.C. paramedics arrive and take a woman out on a stretcher. Children doze peacefully.
Brother Irving returns to the front, his white cuffs peeking from his blue suit as he raises his hands, flattening his palms in the air as if against some imaginary window pane. "Deliverance is in the building," he announces.
Garrison is out sick, so her husband, Lawrence, does the preaching. Even when she misses church, she keeps an Oz-like presence over the congregation, issuing decrees through her co-pastors. One day she sends word that all women should wear stockings to church. This morning, her husband merely mentions her name and the congregation applauds.
Garrison grew up in the District's Clay Terrace public housing, where as a teenager she preached at tent revivals and in church basements. In 1967, she started the Free Evangelistic Church on the corner of Eighth and G streets SE near the Marine barracks, one of the first female preachers in the city. Her style was raspy and ferocious, and her big wide eyes intensified the experience. In 1974, Garrison shocked her congregation when she announced that they were moving across town to 14th and T. "People said, 'Fourteenth and T, are you crazy?'" Althea Jackson remembers. "You just didn't come up here, especially at night." But Garrison convinced her congregation that they were missionaries and there were souls to save. The church paid $220,000 for the old Adams-Burch restaurant supply company building.
From 14th and T, Garrison began broadcasting the Freedom Revival Hour on WYBC-AM. Men sat on one side and women on the other, with Garrison up front, her straightened hair flipped low over her forehead, her sermons full of pragmatic prayers for the federal city. "God, I want to be a GS-14," she preached during one of her broadcasts. In those days, some members lived close enough to walk to church or take the bus. Others were joining the exodus to the Maryland suburbs.
In 2000, as the real estate market surged, Garrison considered selling the church but decided instead to stay and renovate. Problems followed with contractors and a pastor who took money. The church struggled with debt. Parking grew worse as boutiques opened on 14th. During Thursday-night prayer services, the Black Cat nightclub across 14th was rocking just as hard as the church. Garrison's preaching against homosexuality was no longer theoretical; the neighborhood had become one of the gayest in the city. Garrison put the church on the market and sold last spring.
As the search for a new property begins, the congregation is spared details, but tantalizing hints are dropped during services. "I see where we've been, and I seen where we are going," says Charlton Woodyard, who is involved in the sale of the church and the search for a new location. "When you see where we are going, whoo-whee, this is a new day!"
The churchgoers are frozen in a humble, working-class mindset. At collection time, the organ plays softly as Pastor Penny takes the microphone and urges, "Give what you can, saints, and if you can't give, just touch the basket."
When church is over at 2 or 3 on a Sunday afternoon, they pour out onto the 14th Street sidewalk, holding keys and Bibles, in no hurry to go. Most of the license plates are from Maryland. For many, Church of the Rapture is their last tie to the city. "It's going to be unbelievable when we ride through here," says Theresa Reliford. "'Oh, there was our church, and look at it now.'"
Some of the children run up to the KFC on the corner. A man in a three-piece suit with slicked-down hair walks past the Sunday brunchers at Cafe Saint-Ex eating organic eggs and polenta and then past a male couple walking arm in arm.
Woodyard is not sentimental about leaving. "D.C. had a lot of black churches back in the day," he says. "It's not that way anymore. It's a business now. This is an occupied territory."
* * *
Friday afternoon at Paradise is like the old days. The bell on the door jingles madly and customers are lined up at the check-cashing window. A woman with "Daddy's Girl" tattooed across the back of her neck wants two Red Bulls and a pack of Capris. At the far end of the counter, a woman in a pressed nurse's uniform purchases two money orders and two postage stamps.
Alfredo from the used car lot across 14th comes in wearing his mirrored sunglasses, leaning down toward the opening in the bulletproof glass, flashing three fingers and whispering in his Spanish accent, "I got a Honda Accord, man, just for you."
Inside Paradise, the linoleum floor is peeling up in hunks. Kids throw their bikes in the doorway when they come in to buy cold drinks after school. Trembling hands peel off a few bills to pay for a fifth of gin.
This is David Lee's turf. For eight years, he has been crammed behind the bulletproof glass with Prince Albert's Cherry Vanilla, Slim Jims, aspirin, phone cards, Ensure, Snickers bars, Philly Blunts, batteries, peach snuff and studded condoms. Lee was born in Korea but grew up in his parents' corner store in a low-income black neighborhood in Chicago, which explains his Asian homeboy dialect. He wears his hat cocked and his Nikes beaming white. He lives in an apartment in Annandale with his wife and a new baby, but Paradise is home. Lee describes the early years as "a pay-per-view special." Back then, he would leave the window to fight when someone challenged him. Now he is 41 with a bum leg, and the world beyond the bulletproof glass has become unrecognizable. Not long ago, he observed several dogs being led around by one person. Someone explained the concept of dog walkers to him. "Like a human babysitter," he says, bewildered. "That's when I know this neighborhood is really going down the hill."
Paradise received its formal death sentence last year when a new landlord bought the rundown building for $900,000, raising the monthly rent from $2,460 to $8,000, an impossible increase for Byung In Min, the owner of Paradise. His 10-year lease expires this fall.
The beginning of the end really started two years ago when the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission and others who live nearby -- sick of public urination, drunks sleeping in the grass and empty half-pint bottles glittering in the gutters -- presented Paradise with a 22-point voluntary agreement. Lee couldn't believe the clout of the neighborhood group. Basically, Paradise had to give up its ghetto ways or lose its liquor license.
The three-page agreement put it this way: "Licensee agrees to attempt to better serve the needs of the neighborhood residents by selling upgraded, quality products including but not limited to corked wines, juice mixers and other food products, etc."
The list of demands called for Paradise to stop selling single beers, single cigarettes, rolling papers and to-go cups. No more cheap black shopping bags. One of the neighbors brought Lee a bag from a Dupont Circle wine store as an example.
Lee says the loss of single-beer sales -- the 40-ounce in particular -- severely cut into profits. Longtime customers accused Lee of turning his back on them. "They tell me, 'Oh, you trying to be with them high-class white people now,' " he says. To entice the upscale market, Lee started ordering imported beers he had never heard of, $12 bottles of wines with corks, and single-malt Scotches such as Dalwhinnie for $39.99. He brought in Tia Maria coffee liqueur gift sets.
But higher-end customers failed to materialize in large enough numbers. Residents such as Louis Patierno, a mortgage broker who lives a block away, patronize stores that have adapted to the new flavor of the neighborhood, such as the Whitelaw Market on 13th and T, which started stocking Ben & Jerry's ice cream and better wine and listened to Patierno's request for "more table crackers, less pork rinds, please."
Lee refuses to take down his bulletproof glass, another request the beautification people wanted. Still too dangerous. So for nine hours a day, he works the area of a gangplank with two helpers. At the far window, Sang Choi runs the lottery machine. Customers are convinced that the bespectacled Choi is gifted with numbers. "No, I want him to do it," a customer insists, pointing to Choi. And there is Nega Mengisto, an Eritrean employee whose halting grasp of English includes phrases such as "Hennessy Privilege."
Business is so slow in the afternoons that they sometime just stare at one another. The priestly Choi paces the gangplank with his hands folded behind him. Lee chain-smokes. Mengisto, wearing the Hypnotiq T-shirt a liquor salesman gave him, stocks the cooler with pints of Christian Brothers for the after-work rush.
With time running out on 14th and T, the owner of Paradise spends his days searching the District and Maryland for a new location, somewhere deeper into the urban neighborhood not yet touched by gentrification. "Me and black people, we kick it off better," Lee says. "'Thank you, baby,' this and that. Whites, I don't know how to approach these people or serve these people. I get this feeling I'm doing something wrong. Maybe it's my own self-conscious. I say, 'hello' or 'thank you.' There is no expression on their face."
One day a young man comes in and says, "We're making mojitos."
Lee is prepared for this moment. He holds up a small green plastic lime with a twist-off cap.
The man pauses. "I guess that'll work."
* * *
When Mike Benson opened Cafe Saint-Ex two years ago, he loved the idea of starting a bar around the corner from where Duke Ellington lived. Benson envisioned a place where musicians, artists, bartenders, punks, lawyers and bicycle messengers could hang out on a corner as they do on St. Marks Place in the New York's East Village. The dream came true, for about five minutes. Now the changes that Benson helped ignite on 14th and T are obliterating his original vision. He watches a parade of cabs pull up to his bar and drop off customers in spaghetti-strap dresses. Real estate listings use the bar as bait ("Within walking distance of Cafe Saint-Ex.") for the new lofts and condos going up all around.
Saint-Ex is being visited by a khaki aesthetic. "The bridge and tunnel crowd," as one waitress calls them. The people from Reston.
But guess what, says John Snellgrove, the general manager, who one Saturday night is checking ID's at the door. They aren't coming from Reston. "They all live here now."
To combat the influx of suburbia, Saint-Ex discontinued its trendy Pabst Blue Ribbon nights. Benson wants the deejays downstairs to keep playing his favorite Manchester Brit pop instead of the crowd-packing hip-hop. The art school graduate is 6-foot-3 and wears combat boots and a modified Mohawk. At 39, he looks like a Sex Pistol by way of Chapel Hill. His employees lean toward tattoos, motorcycle chains and arty black glasses, and on their breaks, they read books entitled "21st Century Modernism: The 'New' Poetics."
When Benson and his wife, a lawyer, moved to the neighborhood in 1997, he saw that culinary choices below U Street were limited to $7 Salvadoran or soul food dinners and African restaurants with gambling and khat-chewing on the down-low. No one had yet served up the bowl of garlicky mussels and frites that the newcomers were craving. Hip retailers had already opened south on 14th, Home Rule being the first in 1999. On the southeast corner of 14th and T was the red-brick glory of the former Sunny South Market from the 1940s. Benson became interested in the space in 2002 when it was occupied by an Ethiopian restaurant. He approached the owner about buying his lease. So perilous were the racial sensitivities about white interlopers taking property that Lawrence Guyot, a community activist, went to see the restaurant owner. "I wanted to make sure the black man was not forced out," Guyot recalls. "I got that in writing. He was not forced out."
Using his house as collateral, Benson borrowed $200,000 and strung together a group of investors, including a handful of bartenders, some pitching in as little as $5,000. They dug out the basement and worked around the clock, going seriously over budget renovating the building. Benson wanted his place to look like one of the old cavern bars along the Seine River in Paris and would name it after the French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery. On opening night, their assets drained, one investor ran across the street to Paradise Liquor to buy four bottles of Stoli and four bottles of Absolut, maxing out the last available dollars on his credit card. Opening night was a smash.
Now one of the developers for the Church of the Rapture loft project has approached Benson about opening a bar in the ground floor of the condo.
Benson shrugs. "I'd rather that be the case than another Starbucks."
One night at Saint-Ex, someone leaves a flier on a table that says "Save Our Black Neighborhoods." The flier calls Ward 1 council member Jim Graham "Gramzilla, the black business killa" and says Graham is trying to "destroy our beloved Black neighborhoods and families."
The next afternoon, the flier sits on the bar in front of bartender Demetrios Tsiptsis. "Cities cannot be ghettos anymore," Tsiptsis says. "It's not feasible. I always tell people, 10 years ago this was a ghetto. Years before that, it was a thriving black community. Years before that it was occupied by whites, and before that, Indians."
"Gimme two Stella Artois," a guy says, pulling out a platinum United Airlines credit card. Liz Phair's "Whip-Smart" is playing on the iPod mix. A large chalkboard displays the handwritten names of epicurean beers: Tilburg Dutch Brown, Coniston Bluebird Bitter.
The flier just sits there, unnoticed among the clink of glasses inside Saint-Ex.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.