By the late 1980s, two decades after the riots tore through Washington, D.C., the condition of the city was bleak. Crime, fueled by the crack epidemic, had skyrocketed. People referred to Washington as the “murder capital.” The city’s economic base had not recovered from the loss of so many businesses that had been destroyed or otherwise left the city. On many main streets, block after block still lay in ruins. It was a sad and depressing sight.
The Jewish community in Washington was a shell of its former self. Most of it was gone to the suburbs. There were a couple of lonely outposts trying to weather the storm, such as Tifereth Israel Congregation in Upper Northwest and Kesher Israel in Georgetown. But for the most part, the Jewish community had withered away.
And then, quite unexpectedly, things began to change. Little by little, the city began to pick itself up and move forward. And the Jewish community moved forward as well; a rebirth took place, giving us a city and a Jewish community that would have been unthinkable 30 years ago.
The first thing that began the change was the opening of the Washington Convention Center in the early 1980s. It would house many different events, but more importantly, it gave people reason to go downtown. Then, in the late 1990s, three events occurred that really got things moving. The first was the completion of the subway system. Now there would be access to all areas of the city, and people could move into any area and have public transportation readily available. And people began to move back into the city, Jews among them.
That led to the second great event: the re-opening of the DC Jewish Community Center, a rebirth in its exact former location. Now there was a cultural Jewish center right in the heart of the city.
The third great event was triggered by a man who was one of the greatest figures not only in the city’s history, but in the Jewish community as well: Abe Pollin. A native Washingtonian, Pollin was for many years one of the city’s leading developers. It was his other great passion, however, that led to the renewal of the city he loved.
Pollin was the owner of two of the city’s sports franchises, the Washington Bullets basketball team and the Washington Capitals hockey team. They had been playing in the Capital Centre, which he had built in Landover, Maryland. Most sports franchises had left the cities in that era and were playing in the suburbs. Pollin saw the trends and felt that a downtown arena, and the growth that could come with it, was the future for the city he loved. He turned down offers from Baltimore and other places to move his teams and have someone else pay for a new arena.
In 1998, he moved into the new arena he built and paid for. The area had been a wasteland. By 5 p.m., when the government closed down, all the life disappeared. The opening of the arena changed everything. Developers saw the potential and new construction exploded. And more importantly, it spread to the areas that were decimated in the riots. Whole areas were rebuilt into thriving neighborhoods. The city’s population began to grow as people returned, and the Jewish community grew as well in all aspects.
By the early 2000s, two events occurred that really showed the completeness of the transformation, as two landmarks of Washington Jewish history were returned to the community. The Jewish Primary Day School bought the old building of the Hebrew Academy and returned it to use as a Jewish school, and the old Adas Israel, which had long been a church and was in danger of being used as nightclub or being demolished, was purchased by Abe Pollin, Douglas Jemal, and Shelton Zuckerman, all major pillars of the Jewish community, and was born again as the Sixth & I historic synagogue.
To quote an old Yiddish expression, dos reydeleh dreit zich, the wheel turns. The past 50 years have seen great changes and surely, there are more to come.
Fifty years later, we have taken a look back and told the story. I hope you have enjoyed it.
NEXT TIME: ALL CAPS
By Larry Shor