From Riots to Revival in a D.C. Neighborhood

The first of a two-part report

Part 2 of This Report

Stanley Mayes is a lifelong resident of the U Street neighborhood. i i

Stanley Mayes is a lifelong resident of the U Street neighborhood. Coburn Dukehart, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Coburn Dukehart, NPR
Stanley Mayes is a lifelong resident of the U Street neighborhood.

Stanley Mayes is a lifelong resident of the U Street neighborhood.

Coburn Dukehart, NPR

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The 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sparked rioting across many American cities. In Washington, D.C., the chaos began on the corner of 14th and U streets, as people smashed store windows and began looting and setting buildings on fire.

Stanley Mayes, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, was a teenager when news of King's death spread across the country on April 4, 1968. Mayes remembers being at the culturally historic corner of 14th and U, where many people gathered after King was shot.

"When his death came, it was just an outpouring of grief," Mayes tells Steve Inskeep. "I remember it somewhat like the Kennedy assassination with people just standing bawling in the streets."

Someone picked up a trash can and threw it into the window of a People's Drug Store, Mayes says. "Then people started throwing rocks at the buildings, at the stores that they perceived to be owned by whites," he says.

One business targeted was a high-end fashion store.

"When they started breaking the windows, people started looking at those fashions as something to put on," Mayes says. "So they started grabbing things out of the window. And then when people broke the windows of the liquor stores, of course, people started taking the liquor.

'Why Burn Up Your Own Neighborhood?'

"Once it got started, no one quite knew how to stop it. Within 24 hours, the message was out clearly, 'Why would you think we should burn up our own neighborhood?' And at that point, people then attacked the downtown stores.

"You could look across the city and you could see places were aflame. At night, it just reminded me of a war zone .... The fires raged. They couldn't put them all out."

After calm was restored, residents thought the government would rebuild the city, much as it did Europe after World War II, Mayes says. Forty years later, the community that was the riots' flashpoint is slowly beginning to come back.

"Even looking at the way things were, [there] was a belief on the parts of most of the people in the community that the Congress and the president would not allow Washington, D.C., to remain in tatters.

"We know what happened with the Marshall Plan ... , so we saw this from Dresden and we know what they did. They came back and they rebuilt it."

Residents thought, "this was the nation's capital and they would rebuild this quickly," Mayes says. "Little did we know it would take so many years for that to happen."

But in recent years this neighborhood has gradually come back.

On Tuesday, in part two of this report, a look at the revival of U Street.

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