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Nation's capital still recovering from 1968 riots

The sky was filled with flames and smoke  
April 4, 1998
Web posted at: 2:16 p.m. EST (1916 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It's been three decades since Martin Luther King's assassination sparked riots in Washington, D.C., and parts of the nation's capital are still trying to recover from the impact of the violence. While some speak of a city renaissance, others are unsure whether the district will ever fully recover.

Thirteen people died and thousands were injured during three days of riots.

"The sky was filled with flames and smoke. And it seemed like the whole world was on fire," civil rights activist Sterling Tucker recalled for CNN.

CNN's Kathleen Koch tours a D.C. neighborhood that is slowly returning after the riots thirty years ago

"The looting was going on, the devastation was going on," said City Councilwoman Charlene Drew Jarvis.

"No one tried to stop anyone," community activist Stanley Mayes said.

Through it all, Ben's Chili Bowl stayed open.

"We identified the business as being African American by putting a sign in the window that said 'Soul Brother,'" said Virginia Ali. Nevertheless, the riots destroyed the district's African-American commercial hubs.

Some commercial districts are still struggling  

Recovery has been slow

"I had no idea it would take us 30 years to rebuild it. I thought my neighborhood would come back. This is a great neighborhood. This is where everybody comes for their social life, and everything," Mayes said.

The recovery was slow, and, in many ways, tells a tale of two parts of a city.

U-Street in the northwest -- once the Mecca of black professional Washington -- became a thoroughfare connecting more affluent white neighborhoods. The city constructed a building there in the 1980s and a subway stop in the 1990s -- and finally some private-sector investment followed.

"My son is now leasing a property here as a commercial broker. So the 30-something generation is getting involved again in the vitality of these neighborhood commercial corridors," Jarvis said.

H-Street across town, in the northeast, is a different story.

Like most areas, it got federal and city money to help it clear out the rubble. And there was some rebuilding -- until a railroad overpass was built, and divided the street from the rest of the city.

"These businesses lost business," explained businessman Anwar Saleem, describing the impact of the overpass. "When they built that bridge, you didn't have that traffic flow. People had to go around about to come down here to do business."

But much of that round-about-business dynamic failed to materialize: Many buildings on H-Street remain locked and boarded-up, and reinvestment has been slow and painful.

Many buildings are boarded up on H Street in Washington's Northeast district  

'The working poor are ... poorer'

While race relations have been improving in the formerly riot-torn areas, civil rights leaders say more work remains to be done.

"The working poor are in many ways poorer than they were before. So we have some critical issues, even as we see lots of progress," Tucker said.

"I hope what we've learned is how to live together and work together better and to settle the differences," said Bill Barrows of the H-Street Community Development Corporation. "But I'm not at all certain."

Correspondent Kathleen Koch contributed to this report.


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