Butch Snipes, The Mayor of U Street
I first met John "Butch" Snipes back in the late 80s, when U Street was a boarded up mess, its shops blocked off from any potential customers by the years-long construction of Metro's Green Line.
But no amount of inconvenience or change could wipe the smile off Snipes' face or dissolve the hope in his heart. Snipes was the unofficial mayor of U Street, a longtime merchant along that corridor of historic ups and downs, and though Snipes himself had seen plenty of trouble in his own business career, he remained absolutely certain that the Metro would bring about U Street's greatest revival since it first established itself as the Black Broadway in the 1920s.
Snipes, who died of cancer this week at 71, didn't fear change. When I last saw him, over lunch at Ben's Chili Bowl earlier this year with the great District political strategist Marshall Brown, Snipes joined in with the general bemoaning of how old-time black residents were finding it harder and harder to remain in the Shaw neighborhood. But Snipes remained steadfast in his support of the new development that was sweeping along the street, bringing with it a new night life, restaurants, furniture shops and good livings for those who had shops along the corridor.
What he asked for was simply a better balance--more effort to support those longtime residents who now felt pushed out by rising taxes and property values, and stronger moves by the city government to assure that developers include affordable units in their new projects.
Snipes was a shopkeeper by trade, but, even though he never held elective office, a politician in spirit. And I say that in the best possible sense of the term: He was never out to swindle anyone, but he was always selling--the last few times I saw him, he had tucked under his arm one of the pamphlets he kept on hand describing the history and potential of U Street. He was a born booster, the kind of optimistic American who in another era would have shown up in a Frank Capra screenplay.
In 1994, while covering Marion Barry's comeback campaign to recapture the mayoralty, I walked around Shaw with Snipes as he went to collect voters who had trouble getting to the polls on their own. We walked up the dank, stinking stairwells of Clifton Terrace, then one of the most dangerous and terrifying housing complexes in the city, to a third-floor apartment where a wheelchair-bound woman needed assistance getting out to vote for Barry.
Snipes, nearing retirement age himself, bounded up the stairs and recruited two younger men to help out.
"As Malcolm X said, by the bullet or the ballot," Snipes told me. "The youngsters have tried the bullet, and they're just killing themselves. Now we are desperately trying to save the whole show, the whole city."
To the end, Snipes believed in the system, even as he disapproved of much of what it had wrought.
As the District evolves and new residents move into a place they will take years to understand--if they even try at all--the John Snipes of the city become ever more precious. They not only hold our history dear, but they can deliver to those in power a sense of the sweep of time, a balance, a constant reminder of what really matters. Some on U Street treated Snipes as a frivolity, a mascot, but the merchants who have lasted through it all, the smart ones, such as Virginia Ali and her sons at Ben's, always listened closely to Snipes' advice. The man knew the place where he lived and worked, and there's little better that can be said of a man.
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