Mount Pleasant home to both professionals, low-income immigrants

May 08, 1991|By Tom Bowman and Arch Parsons | Tom Bowman and Arch Parsons,Washington Bureau of The Sun Researcher Roman Posnos of The Sun's Washington Bureau contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Mount Pleasant, the battleground for rioting in the nation's capital since Sunday night, is probably the most ethnically diverse section of the city -- and, economically, one of the most polarized.

Mount Pleasant Street, one of the rioters' main concourses of violence, is lined with more than a dozen old apartment houses, built in the post-World War I period, which are occupied mainly by lower-income blacks and Hispanics. Many of the latter are newly arrived immigrants from El Salvador; some entered the United States illegally.

The street is also the area's business corridor -- with small stores and a large number of bars, restaurants and liquor stores -- operated by Hispanics, Koreans and American blacks. It is Mount Pleasant's main drag and a favorite outdoor neighborhood hangout.

A few blocks to the west -- but still in Mount Pleasant -- is another world of quiet, tree-lined streets and row houses that sold for $15,000 or so after Washington's riots in April 1968 but now go for $200,000 to $250,000, unrenovated, and for $300,000 to $500,000, renovated.

Thus, this section of Mount Pleasant has been "regentrified" -- aside from some longtime residents who have seen the gentry come and go and come back again. It is occupied mainly by professionals, artists, federal government retirees and the like, mostly whites whose incomes put them in the high middle and upper brackets.

Indeed, all of Mount Pleasant, including Mount Pleasant Street, was declared a "Historic District" of the city in 1987.

It was just a block off Mount Pleasant Street where the incident that touched off the rioting occurred Sunday evening. Daniel Enrique Gomez was shot by a District of Columbia police officer outside a restaurant near Mount Pleasant Street.

Police said he was shot after threatening the officer with a knife when the officer sought to arrest him for drinking in a public park. The park is a small triangle, one leg of which runs along Mount Pleasant Street.

In an interview on Mount Pleasant Street yesterday -- before last night's curfew went into effect -- Willie Vazquez, 39, who works for the district's personnel department and lives in Mount Pleasant, said he thought that the site of Mr. Gomez's drinking contributed to "his problem" as much as the drinking itself.

In Hispanic countries, people like to go out to "la plaza" to drink and socialize, Mr. Vazquez said.

Civic leaders in Mount Pleasant have been demanding that Mount Pleasant Street be "cleaned up" -- and have made it clear that the cleanup should bring an end to outdoor drinking in the neighborhood.

"There's a cultural difference," Mr. Vazquez said.

There is an economic difference, too. A quarter of Mount Pleasant's families earn more than $50,000 a year, according to census data, while half of its families earn incomes of less than $25,000 a year.

Jose, who wouldn't give his last name but said he was a 31-year-old carpenter who came here from El Salvador 10 years ago, said that Salvadorans in Mount Pleasant were made to feel like second-class citizens, "like we're not too good."

When he has been in the park with friends, he said, he has been told by police to "move along." That makes him feel depressed, Jose said, "like I am not someone in this community."

"When police see people drinking outside, they say that it's illegal," he said. "In my country, they drink everywhere."

Real estate agents have described Mount Pleasant as "a village within itself," one-half a square mile in size. To the north and west is Washington's famous Rock Creek Park. Past the park to the west are the neighborhoods of Cleveland Park and Woodley Park, largely white and affluent. To the east are the heavily black neighborhoods of Park View and Columbia Heights. And to the south is the neighborhood of Adams-Morgan.

Adams-Morgan probably is better known than Mount Pleasant; it aims to be.

One of Washington's major events of the year is Adams-Morgan Day, which, because of its food, music, cultural shows and general boisterousness, has been called "the largest block party on the East Coast." It is held in September, and an estimated 100,000 to 250,000 people -- depending on the weather -- drop in.

This is a diverse neighborhood, too -- it is the home of much of Washington's Ethiopian population and a large share of its gays -- but it is more commercial than Mount Pleasant, with some of Washington's best restaurants and nightclubs.

Adams-Morgan, on the decline until a few years ago, is being regentrified, too, but it contains fewer high-income residents than Mount Pleasant, and fewer poor.

Researcher Roman Posnos of The Sun's Washington Bureau contributed to this article.

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