Last spring a long-lived Washington, D.C., hair salon shut its doors after about 50 years in business, 27 of them in the 100 block of Rhode Island Ave. NW. Jak & Company’s owner spent a few weeks in the media spotlight after a Washington Post reporter spotted a letter taped in the storefront’s plate glass door.
The letter announced that the business was closing; gentrification was one of the reasons the letter cited.
The history of changes in people and businesses at the intersection of First and T streets NW in Washington’s Bloomingdale neighborhood includes a hidden history of ties to Washington’s African American underworld.
For a big chunk of the 1980s and 1990s, the intersection of First and T streets NW was First Street Crew territory. The drug gang was notorious for open-air crack sales and for brazenly killing potential witnesses. The Bloomingdale corner that the crew briefly dominated has a long history in Washington’s organized crime history.
As I worked my way around the Bloomingdale commercial node speaking to business owners about gentrification there, an unremarkable picture of urban change emerged: early twentieth century boom times as a middle-class residential neighborhood; racial change; decline and disinvestment; and, rediscovery by new money and new people. There’s a fascinating African American history story there, but that’s separate from what I soon learned about First and T.
I filed my interviews and research on Jak & Company away for later use and returned to my main project: a book on gentrification in an Atlanta suburb. I had recently read Ruben Castaneda’s 2014 book, S Street Rising, and I was interviewing people intimate with displacement and gentrification in Washington.
Castaneda is a former Washington Post reporter who wrote about working the paper’s crime beat while also struggling with a crack cocaine addiction. First and T, Castaneda wrote, was his “secondary copping zone.”
The Crack Market
The First Street Crew owned the corner’s outdoor vice: “The crew’s slinger’s sold crack on both sides of 1st Street Northwest, at all hours, in all kinds of weather,” Castaneda wrote in his book.
He told me more about First and T in a later interview. One landmark that remains vivid in his memory is a low masonry wall on the east side of First Street. “For many years, more than ten years, there was graffiti that said, ‘Evil Never Dies’, Castaneda recalled.
Crack swept through Washington in the 1980s and it ruled the streets for about two decades. It was one in a string of illicit rackets where Washington’s African American majority could make money on their own terms. But before crack, the numbers and liquor reigned. First and T was one of several hotspots throughout the city where established African American families ran businesses off the books using legitimate enterprises as fronts for their operations.
Today the liquor store anchoring the southwest corner of First and T doesn’t look too different than it did in the 1980s and early 1990s. The large sign mounted on the roof, “Bloomingdale Center” is the same but the roll-down metal window security covers are cleverly concealed behind new awnings and gone are the interior Plexiglas barriers that separated employees from patrons and would-be robbers.
“A lot of the buildings outwardly don’t look much different than they do now,” said Castaneda.
Playing the Numbers
There has been a liquor store in that location for decades. The property once was owned by a white Jewish family before it was bought by an African American one. The African American family – whose name I won’t use to honor a source’s request – has links to Washington’s numbers game going back to the early twentieth century. A 1937 Washington Post article noted that the family’s patriarch was one of 100 people arraigned in a single day on gambling charges. He was a well-known U Street “numbers backer.”
What are numbers backers? In the numbers game, the numbers backer was the cheif executive, te boss. Sociologist Julian Roebuck wrote in 1963,
The numbers backer finances the operation, suffers the “hits” (numbers players wins) and receives the profits. He selects and pays the personnel of the gambling ring; employs the legal talent; acts as chief planner; and symbolizes in his leadership role the security and strength of the organization.
According to newspapers and other historical sources, the Bloomingdale liquor store expanded to include check cashing. Satellite stores opened through the District of Columbia and Prince George’s County. Post reporter Courtland Milloy described the operation, then owned by the family patriarch’s son, as a “poor man’s bank” in a 1979 article. “With the benefit of his father’s lessons,” Milloy wrote, the son “started his own financial establishment.”
Washington legalized gambling in 1980 by creating a lottery and Mayor Marion Barry appointed a Lottery Board the next year. In 1982 lottery ticket sales began. “After decades of illegally operating numbers games in the big cities,” reported Jet magazine in 1981, “Blacks finally have gained the chance to bigtime on the side of the law.”
District leaders awarded contracts to run the lottery to two firms: an established Georgia gaming company and a “a local minority-run firm” created by the Georgia firm “solely for the purpose of bidding” on the Washington contract, the Washington Post reported.
The Washington family that ran Bloomingdale’s owned the local lottery firm and they held key management positions. According to District records, its headquarters was on First Street NW, a few doors down from the liquor store. Control over the District’s instant games – the scratch-off tickets – was short-lived, however, and city leaders in 1983 began cutting ties to outside contractors.
Gentrified and Sanitized
Scant evidence for First and T’s historic ties to Washington’s African American underworld survives. The graffiti tag Castaneda recalls is gone, as are the crack slingers, numbers writers, and gangsters who once had the most lucrative business enterprises there. New immigrants now own some of the businesses in there, including the liquor store.
In their place are trendy bars and restaurants with patio seating and ties to the neighborhood’s new residents and a new economy. Sara Fatell opened Grassroots bakery on Rhode Island Ave. NW in 2012. She jokes that the area is nothing like the stories she’s heard of the 90s.
“Do you know how many babies are in this neighborhood? Don’t drink the water,” Fatell says with a smile. “Everyone’s on their second baby. It’s all strollers and yoga mats and dogs.”
© 2015 D.S. Rotenstein