High hopes down Pennsylvania Ave.

Tuesday afternoon, after taking the oath of office on Abraham Lincoln's Bible outside the U.S. Capitol, President Barack Obama will join the bands and honor guards in parading 16 blocks up Pennsylvania Avenue to the nation's most storied address. The White House, an elegant fortress behind a tall, wrought-iron gate at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., was built largely by freed blacks and slaves; just a couple of generations ago, African-Americans in many states couldn't vote for the man who inhabited it. And with Obama's ascension as the first black president, many black residents in this majority-black city are aglow with hope and pride. But march 16 blocks the other way down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the Library of Congress, past a few blocks of boutiques and bars popular with politicos, past the Eastern Market, to where charming, historic row houses give way to row houses that are still historic but a bit less charming, to a smattering of liquor stores and dingy Chinese takeout joints selling chicken wings from slits in the bulletproof glass.

There's a security fence here, too, chain-linked and topped with razor wire, guarding a herd of aging Caddies and broken down Buicks.

Inside the ancient white and yellow trailer that serves as the office for Huntley Motors Ltd., past the yellow wash bucket of frozen soapy water, sits Troy Clark, the owner.

A framed photocopy of a photo of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. looks down from the wood-paneled wall. Clark, 65, grew up in the segregated South. He is as proud as anyone that America has elected a black man leader of the free world.

"But," he says, "let him have a chance to do his job. Then I'll pass judgment. He hasn't done anything yet."

For all the hoopla surrounding Tuesday's inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as the nation's 44th president — and the excitement indeed is palpable here — there is also a sense of tempered expectations. Despite all the posters and hats and buttons splashed with Obama's face, he is still a politician, and many residents say they suffer no illusions about the real distance between this stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue and his new address, no matter the color of the man who lives there.

"You can have a used car dealer and he's as fine as a president," Clark said. "Or you can be a president and have the mentality of a used car dealer."

• • •

Obama's great strength was his ability to bring disparate people together for the common cause of electing him. Practically speaking for many in this neighborhood, it means most white people voted for him.

"People are still prejudiced. Some white folks still don't like black folks, or still don't believe in us," said Ricky Johnson, 54, an electrician for the federal govern­ment who's hawking Obama memorabilia at the subway stop near 14th and Pennsylvania.

He chuckles. "They might still think we're monkeys. But it gives black folks hope, hope that things will change, because blacks aren't the only people who put him in the White House. If it wasn't for whites, he wouldn't be in there. We couldn't do it."

For Alice Jackson, Obama's election is less a sign of black accomplishment than a signal that white America is more willing to embrace black America, which she sees as a big step toward addressing underlying social issues plaguing the inner city.

"I think it was about … Obama making the nation to come together," said Jackson, 49, a custodian at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. "I pray that it will stop some of this prejudice."

But coming together for the election was much easier than coming together as neighbors. Like the rest of eastern Capitol Hill, which has undergone a renaissance in the past decade, white people have been moving into this neighborhood, pushing home values up and black people out.

Across Pennsylvania Avenue from Clark's car lot, just four doors up from a busy McDonald's, two modest, four-bedroom row houses are on the market for $399,000 each. There's a gleaming new Harris Teeter grocery two blocks east. Next door, one-bedroom condos are selling for $500,000.

"I grew up around here, and a lot of white folks are taking over our neighborhood," lamented James Kibler, a friend of Jackson's whose extended family owns two houses nearby. "Black people don't want to keep their homes anymore."

He, Jackson and several other friends were chatting at the bus stop at 15th and Penn, which serves as something of a clubhouse. Buses arrived and left, but these folks weren't going anywhere. As they hung there smoking, a bag of beers at hand, Kibler complained that the cops aren't as lenient as they once were.

"The police, they harass you too much. They prefer you stay in your house," he said. "This is our chill-out spot."

Further down Penn, Clark complains that new white neighbors have complained to him — and to the city — about the state of his car lot, saying it's a haven for vermin in a neighborhood that is struggling to clean itself up. He figures that after surviving for 13 years and outlasting more than 100 break-ins, he has got as much right to be there as anyone.

"I told a guy the other day, 'Sir, this is not Rodeo Drive — I've got a used car lot,' " he fumed. "They move into this neighborhood and look down their noses. 'Sir, I was here when you were scared to come over here.' "

• • •

This little corner of Capitol Hill used to be the end of the line.

Until about 1960, the trolley ran down the wide median of Pennsylvania Avenue and turned around at Commodore Barney Circle, in what is now a patch of grass at the foot of the John Philip Sousa Bridge, which runs over the Anacostia River.

When the neighborhood was built in the 1920s and '30s, it housed federal workers, craftsmen and tradesmen, as well as some white-collar professionals, much like today. Longtime residents say it has been mostly black for decades, but sunk into disrepair, like so much of Washington, during the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. The recovery has been uneven, and black residents say they struggle with poor schools, lousy access to health care, and difficulty finding good-paying jobs.

Obama has scored big points here by making it clear he sees himself, at least for the next four years, as a Washingtonian. He showed up recently with Mayor Adrian Fenty at Ben's Chili Bowl, a landmark in the heart of D.C.'s most successful black commercial district.

Residents say they hope Obama will push Congress for more funding for D.C. after-school programs, social services and housing, as well as for a voting member of Congress, which Washington does not have. They pray he can deliver on his promise to expand access to health care and create good jobs.

"At the very least, we have his ear," said Samuel May, 59, a Marine Corps veteran and lead teacher at an after-school program at 14th and Penn.

But they also are realistic — the president has a lot to do, and the problems facing this segment of black America won't be easily solved. The Congress, which has never really loved this city, controls the purse. And even though he's black, there's no guarantee their lives will improve in four years.

"I turn on the news, it's Obama, Obama, Obama," Brenda Green, 57, said as she waited for the bus. She styles hair in people's homes; her husband works construction. They are struggling to make ends meet. "I'm glad he's in there. I'm hoping for the best. I'm just not going to trip about it."

Robert Pitts, 49, a delivery driver at the Domino's pizza across the street, doesn't know what President Obama will mean for him. But the prospect of helping elect him prompted Pitts to register and vote for the first time since he got out of prison 15 years ago.

He and others say they won't be surprised, or that disappointed, if Obama's election proves more remarkable than his actual presidency — that what he signifies isn't the arrival of black political power but its possibility.

That by simply getting elected, he's already fulfilled his promise.

"For a thousand years of being in slavery and all that we've gone through, it finally feels like we're getting back," Pitts said.

"You go from there, all the way to now? That's change enough right there."

Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Wes Allison can be reached at allison@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0577.

High hopes down Pennsylvania Ave. 01/16/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 17, 2009 6:57pm]

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