The handful of Black churches in the Shaw neighborhood surrounding the Convention Center have a combined history in the District of nearly 500 years. Long considered the life-blood of a largely working-class community – offering much needed social services to seniors, the dispossessed, and youth populations – now face a growing disconnect from city leaders and developers seeking to acquire their properties. Pastors from several of the churches are claiming racial, cultural, and economic bias from the placement of a bicycle lane along a congested side street in the city.
First Rising Mount Zion Baptist church sits at one end of the 600 block of N Street NW, with the United House of Prayer anchoring the block at M Street NW. Between the two establishments, neither of which offers private parking, Sunday services can begin as early as sunrise, and last late into the evening. The compromise between the city and churches was initially to allow double parking on Sundays, and in recent years, to permit angle parking on Sundays for a set number of hours. But, dedicated bike lanes would force a restructuring of 6th Street, which many church leaders fear would increase congestion, eliminate necessary parking spaces, and eventually drive the churches from the area.
“We understand that bike lanes are essential for the city’s future, and for a great number of District residents, it is their only mode of transportation,” First Rising Mt. Zion Baptist church Deacon Harold J. Gilliard told the AFRO. “We want bicyclists to be safe, but we also believe that the city has imposed various restrictions on church parking, which hinder our engagement with the communities we serve.”
Bike lanes remain a key component of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s much-touted Vision Zero Initiative, which aims to eliminate all traffic fatalities on the city’s streets and its public transportation system by 2024. Several community meetings have been held, since 2015, to discuss the options for situating the bike lanes within the Shaw community.
Four proposals have been offered by the District Department of Transportation, including: protected bike lanes in both directions on each side of Sixth Street NW, a two-way protected bike lane on Sixth Street NW, a two-way protected bike lane on Ninth Street NW, and a northbound bike lane on Fifth Street NW, coupled with a southbound one on Sixth Street NW.
But according to United House of Prayer pastors, all of the proposals are considered “a threat to [their] existence.”
“We are not going to allow someone’s pastime to destroy our lifeline,” UHOP pastor Robert Price III said at a DDOT-community meeting in February. “We have to protect what’s ours. We are going to be peaceful, but we are going to stand.”
While battle lines appear to be drawn sharply, pitting older Black churchgoers against White residents, developers, and city leaders, some Shaw residents said they believe much more to be at stake. Greta Smith-Bailey, a resident of the Gibson Plaza on 7th Street, said that while the changes have been drastic for many, it is the growing sense of vulnerability among residents who supported the city at its worst. “There was a time when our Council felt compelled to know the residents of the city and they used the churches to get elected, to discuss their new plans, and to ask for citizen support. In return, voters felt they could go to their ANC or Councilmembers and discuss concerns,” Smith-Bailey told the AFRO. “I cannot tell you the last time a representative came through here. In fact, this area was redistricted without warning into Ward 6.”
Smith-Bailey said each neighborhood in the District has concerns driven by the people who live there and the elected officials who serve them. “Whether its bike lanes, schools being torn down to make way for dog parks, or a problem with garbage collection, communications has stymied between elected officials and the people who vote,” she said.
Raj Hightower said that cyclists are not to blame for the city’s actions. Having moved into a new development on Rhode Island Avenue two years ago, he said whatever city neglect or exploitation Black churches feel they are experiencing, the city’s lack of foresight in creating bike lanes is the real issue.
“I’ve lived in 10 cities in the last 20 years and this is the only place where bike lanes appear and disappear without warning, routes are confusing or nonexistent, and the blame is being placed on motorist for running people down,” Hightower said. “It’s confusing to have a bus lane, a bike lane, and a turn lane being shared. Who has the right of way? What are the rules? As a cyclist I’ve had to move from the bike lane, to a dedicated bus lane, in and out of car lanes, and even onto the sidewalk to get around. This fight between churches and newcomers is silly – the real issue is a lack of planning on the part of the city and a lame attempt to mend things in progress.”
DDOT has not yet decided on the plan for the Shaw neighborhood.