The Last Trace of 1968

The last of the 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination riot damage, 14th Street NW, between N Street and Rhode Island NW, 24 April 2009

When I first moved to D.C. in 2003 I set out to explore. My aunt had told me that it was unwise to go east of 16th Street but I did anyway. I remember walking up 14th Street NW toward U Street and it being obviously a neighborhood in transition. There were a few new places, but much remained burned out and deserted. The middle class people who were there were the homosexual vanguard of gentrification.

I simply thought of it as the usual urban decay and renewal, but it turns out that 14th Street had something unique about its desolation. Here’s the AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C. (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, Fourth Edition, 2006):

The Logan Circle / Shaw area declined gradually until 1968, when a series of riots in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. dealt a devastating blow. Angry mobs set fire to businesses that refused to close in mourning of the slain civil rights leader, and the physical and psychological scares of that tragic period are still evident in various corners of the neighborhoods. (p. 268)

Fourteenth Street wasn’t just any urban decay, but was where some of the most notable of the rioting and arson had occurred in 1968. The damage to the buildings that I was witnessing was the damage that had been done then and the area was only now, 35 years later, starting to be repaired. The scars were those rent in anger over the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have lived in Washington, D.C. for six years now and during that time the 14th Street corridor has gentrified significantly and the street of which it would be unwise to go east has moved significantly further eastward. At this point 14th Street is more or less a continuously nice street from the Mall all the way up to Columbia Heights and on to … I don’t know where … probably where 14th Street terminates at Iowa Avenue out in the early generation suburbs (I’ve commented previously on the transformation of 14th Street at Columbia Heights here: “The Future of Columbia Heights,” 25 February 2007). The last remnants of the 1968 riots is the block between N Street and Rhode Island NW (pictured above) and now even it is being refurbished. When they are done there, the last physical remnant of the 1968 anger will finally have been erased.

In a city of monuments, I almost feel as if they should leave it as a monument to the end of an era, to a bad year, to a time when the populace wouldn’t take it, when misdeeds were met in kind and to the city that was. Cities need to change, but they need to show their history as well. When this refurbishment is complete, the District of Columbia will have gained a few thousand more square feet of places to go and to live and a few thousand dollars more in rent and taxes, and a neighborhood blight will have been eliminated, but the record of 1968 in our everyday, non-nostalgic, non-consciously historical lives will be gone.

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1960s: Romanticism and Decline

After years of the right-wing version of the history, there is a tendency to think of the late 1960s and early 1970s as a period of decadence and decline. But thankfully in recent years we have pulled back from the precipice. Or we think of the 60s from a post 1980s and 90s capitalist triumphalist perspective: as colorful and quixotic kitsch denude of any ethical or political import.

Last night I spent a few hours listening to Ginsberg’s Howl, watching Joe Crocker concerts on YouTube and whatnot and I challenge anyone to listen to Nina Simone’s 1969 Harlem Festival (Central Park, New York) performance of “Ain’t Got No…I’ve Got Life” and tell me we’re not a civilization that’s put an additional forty solid years of decline under out belt. To hear a song so simply constructed — it’s just two lists of commonplace items — but so evocative and watch that face like a statue but with the pathos of the entire human condition! Compared to our contemporary world of rampant materialism, status-seeking, vanity, cynicism, cleverness, conformity, vapid luxury, triviality and selflessness (by which I don’t mean generosity), the 60s and 70s look like a golden age of humanist assertion.

I would love to read a systematic comparison of the various romanticist periods of history.

On the other hand, people — at least people my age — tend to think of the period as still historically close, relevant, but when I was watching Joe Crocker last night, it occurred to me that the performances that I was watching are as far removed from us today as the Second World War was when I was a kid. 1968 was forty years ago. When I was ten, the Second World War had ended forty years ago as well and I thought of that as ancient history. The greatest generation are about to disappear, but notice that Bill Clinton, a baby boomer, is a bumbling old greyhair who’s had a stroke for crissake.