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Determined To Remember, Lest All Forget

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The Washington Post

April 3, 2003 | Marc Fisher

O n the new 14th Street NW, you can buy the latest in tableware and the cutest in kitchen gadgets, the most risque greeting cards and $10 burgers. The boarded-up buildings and empty lots are almost all gone.

But 35 years after the riots that swept across the city’s busy corridors after Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, those three nights of fire still burn in the lives of many who were there.

Almost immediately after any traumatic event, our hopped-up culture begins to demand healing and closure. No tragedy is permitted to linger. We’re supposed to believe that it’s good to move on.

That’s not how life works. Larry Rosen has lived with the 1968 riots for more than 12,000 days and nights, and he cannot get over it. He doesn’t really want to. He wants to remember every detail of the store he loved, the displays of sunglasses and the patent medicines, the workers from Chambers Funeral Home and Industrial Insurance who stopped by his lunch counter every day.

Rosen is 79 and retired now. He lives in Rockville, where he keeps an ever-growing pile of memorabilia from the riots that consumed his drugstore, Smith’s Pharmacy, at 2518 14th St. NW.

In a photograph from the early 1960s, Rosen stands in front of his glass storefront, hands thrust in his chino pockets, smiling in front of the sign that offered Hamburgers 15 cents and Smithburgers 39 cents. Other photos show the tightly packed shelves inside, the pinball machines, the freezer case where neighborhood kids could grab an ice cream, the soda fountain where bacon and eggs was 60 cents, the counter where black and white sat side by side — they were hardly equals out on the street, but at this counter, each person was the next plate of eggs.

And then there is a picture from April 6, 1968: The jukebox is unrecognizable, the shelves bowed and charred, the floor a sea of glass shards.

“I’ve been told many times by friends that I should forget that day,” Rosen says, “but I find it hard to do.” He is still bitter that the federal and city governments did not seek to restrain the rioters and that no one offered assistance to merchants who lost their businesses. “Victims of floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, other disasters, and even farmers who had a bad year have received federal or local aid,” he says. “As a D.C. ’68 riot victim, I received zero dollars.”

Like most businesses on 14th Street, Smith’s never reopened. Rosen misses it every day. His pharmacist and other employees, most of them black, scattered around the city. Rosen — who is white, as most of the merchants were then — sometimes drives down from Rockville and visits the few mom and pop pharmacies that have survived even in the face of cutthroat competition from the big chain stores.

Not long ago, Rosen went back to the site of his old store with Ray Flowers, who had managed the soda fountain at Smith’s and later became a maintenance supervisor for the city school system. They talked about the riots, about how even after the violence had begun, Flowers managed to get back inside to retrieve some important papers. And they remembered stopping by after the looting but before the fire, when everything was scattered, everything but a wire rack of Easter cards, which remained untouched, each card in place.

Rosen, who went on to own newsstands and gift shops in the District, is pleased to see the new life on the street, where shopping districts that sat gutted for well more than a generation are only now coming alive. He takes a certain pride in the Metropolitan Boys and Girls Club that sits on the site of his old shop.

But he is determined that people remember what used to be there, and what happened that night. For years, he has peppered newspaper and magazine editors in Washington with letters and thick piles of photographs — of looters carrying off armfuls of clothing and groceries, of National Guardsmen sleeping on the floor of a Laundromat, of an entire block of shops aflame.

On 14th Street alone, 187 businesses — and 207 residences — were vandalized or burned to the ground that night.

Ever since, when Los Angeles burned, when rage shook Cincinnati, whenever urban ills exploded, Rosen has been back in the paper, remembering who he was, reminding us of what we’ve done.

Marc Fisher

Copyright 2009 The Washington Post

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