The New Balance brand was born in Boston, Massachusetts. Yet, it’s 700km from there, in Washington, that it’s the subject of some form of fetishism, ending up as the de facto emblem of the city. Why? How? The answer is hidden in DC’s ghettos and through its sinister crack years.
By Raphaël Malkin, in Washington.
Article originally published in L'Etiquette issue 3.
On the banks of the Anacostia, and everywhere east of DC, where the city is nothing but a succession of impoverished black neighbourhoods. There, they speak a unique form of English. "This language, man, it’s a form of poetry that never stops," says, enthusiastic, the Washington writer George Pelecanos, whose the widely known whodunnits analyse in their own the margins of the nation’s capital. Thus, locals call visitors bammas, world borrowed from the sate of Alabama, with its reputation as hicks central. When one lurks at the counter if a bar, they say it’s lunchin, cutting the second syllable. And one one considers a true friend, one for life, he’s an ace boon coon. This alternative dictionary also contains a suite of numbers, like a rise in temperature: 990, 992, 993, 997, or 998. So many numbers linked to New Balance models. ‘It’s just part of the slang. It’s a reflex,’ notes George Pelecanos.
In the United States, the New Balance are therefore not only seen by instragram creators or by the white and dominant class in their country clubs. In the black suburbs of DC, in the shade of the White House and other monuments to the federal administration, they belong to everybody. To the barbers standing the doorway of their shops to the firefighters resting against their truck, nurses on breaks, kids late for school, to trinkets dealers and to the bums that mutter to themselves. In DC, the rumours say that Marvin Gaye himself was wearing New Balance when he returned to his hometown. "New Balance is an emblem. We could make it the official shoe of the city and we wouldn’t be farm from the truth," souls up Pelecanos. That’s the true Washington, the one that numbers around 60% Afro-American. "Chocolate city," as it's been called countless times before.
FROM THE STREETS TO THE DANCEFLOORS
A stone’s throw away from the Capitol, where the country’s representatives sit, the Pentacles neighbourhood is a long snake concrete in which Black families pile up, sometimes up to four generations under the same roof. In this summer afternoon, the locals stretch on their balconies while a bunch of kids play on an antique basketball court. A bit further, Vee thrones on a rolling office chair. Tattooed at the temples, he swears a wife eater drenched in sweat, a pair of jeans several times too big, and a pair of New Balance, 990, grey. "The New Balance are to Washington what apple pie is to the US. Everybody’s had at least some!" Suddenly, Vee gets up and, delighted, confirms his theory in showing at least another wearer: at the end of the alley, wearing black New Balance, is his friend he calls Rain Man. He wears a low black model and low cut jeans. Listening to him, the sneakers are akin to a passport: they anchor their wearer to their city of origins. "When I go gambling in Atlantic City or hang out in Philadelphia, everyone knows I’m from Washington thanks to my New Balance. We’re the only one wearing it," smiles Rain Man. Behind us, a third lad seems to agree. Sluttya wears his 988 with large hoops in his laces which flow with every step. "It’s simple, every time the season changes, I switch to a new pair." Appearing from every corner of the plaza, other roughed up man join the discussion. There are young man with muscled chest and older man more affected by the years. While one of them takes out a large bag filled with weed, they talk about New Balance with emotion. They mention this neighbour who had his legs mangled in a shooting, and demanded to be able to wear his favourites 990. They wonder: did the 993 really came out in the 2000s. They wonder is the model is better in grey or in black, from a historical point of view. Exclamations and numbers are throw into the wind of the conversation, and soon no one’s really listening.
For all those, east of Washington, who carry New Balance in their heart remember the first time they put on their first pair. It’s sometimes in adolescence, more often in childhood. Some received it from an elder sister or an uncle during large sales. Others made the money their own way, playing dices or selling drugs. Shawn Hinson, him, used his salary as a handyman paid to clean up the aisles of the Robert Kennedy Stadium, the temple of the legendary Redskin football team. He was fourteen at the time: "it was symbolic moment, you need a pair of New Balance to be recognised as a man in this town." In the living room of his small northeast pavilion, in the midst of a bunch of knickknacks and large family pictures, Shawn Hinson shows off his New Balance collection, acquired over many years: dozens of pairs, all grey 990 size 47. "I must have had hundreds in my life. It’s expensive, my I know some guys who sell for cheap," explain the lifelong fan, today a warehouse man in a privatised supermarket. But why such love for New Balance? "When you put them on, it’s like putting your hands on a perfectly inflated basketball. It’s just so cozy."
Obviously, there’s something else. For the people of Washington, beyond the comfort, the New Balance are a status symbol, one of nobility. "You always win in New Balance," say some local proverb. At night, in all the cabaret which play go go music, this funk without rules, typical of the Washingtonian universe, many of them show up in New Balance. "These dancers and the go-go are inseparable," sums up Larry Atwater Junior, alias Stomp Dogg, the drummer for the Northeast Groover, one of the city’s institutions. "For the boys, it’s a way to attract the girls' attention. Wearing New Balance, they’re fresh." The musician had one off the side of his 996 with coloured pictograms. "They’re a source of pride, we must take care of our New Balance," sums Stomp Dogg, beaming with pride when he discovered a technique to preserve the sneakers in case of stains. First, put some dish soap on a toothbrush, then brush the sneakers carefully then rinse with water. Let it dry. Finally, tap it with one’s fingers. "With love, obviously."
A Washington, the New Balance aficionados do not think of buying 990 in the brand’s shop downtown. By force of habits, they turn to local stores. In the South East, on the other side of this branch of Martin Luther King boulevard one finds with old dominos players and youth with yellowed eyes sitting on random items, and the famous City Beats. This neighbourhood shop, on the first floor of a red brick building, is an oasis of calm in the area. "Here is the Mecca of New Balance. The soul of city flows through us!" Exclaims the owner, Michael Hines, while he flips through a vacuum catalogue. He opened his shop ten years ago after yet another time in prison, and quickly decided to only seen New Balance. "The brand’s representatives trusted me, they knew where I was going." In a certain way, success is instant: on the day of the opening, two men wearing hoods hold up Hines and run away with all the shoes, without taking the time to empty the register. "These guys didn’t sell those sneakers, Malcolm Hines says. I’m convinced they stole them to wear them." This hiccups didn’t stop Michael Hines to succeed in business. Today, he brags of selling dozens of 990 each week. As we speak, a runner carrying a jug of water steps into the shop. Then come a foreman from a site outside. Without hesitation they run towards the racks of New Balance. Malcolm Hines shows a sly smile: "when you think these shoes were for us to begin with…."
FROM WHITE HOUSE DECISION MAKERS TO CRACK DEALERS
On the evening of December 5th, 1989, the US president redirects all Chanel to the Oval Office. Black suit, white shirt and red tie, with a furrowed brow, the sitting president talks directly into the camera: "It is the first time since was sworn in that I address you on such an important matter, my fellowmen." Then. "A few days ago, police seized an important quantity of drugs in a park not far from the White House. They look like candy for children, but this thing, this poison, turns our cities into battlefields." All through the 1980s, American Black Ghettos are ravaged by crack, and in Washington, some area remind one of the darkest hour of Beirut. In abandoned houses with really only the facade left, junkies are confined to silence, held together in their high. Once in a while, when they find a bit of strength, they fight with knives for penny and an extra shoot. Dealers meanwhile, fight over street corners with machine guns. Inspector Mitch Creedle, a Black man, remember at that time having to walk over bodies during his patrols. "Often I thought they were sleeping, but then I noticed the gunshot to the head or the heart. There were dead people in play day, and nobody was doing anything. Washington was the murder capital of America." At the root of this hellish situation one would found one Rayful Edmonds, a twenty something, who ran the leash of dozen of dealers in the city. "Edmonds wasn’t a dealer, he was an entrepreneur. Everybody sold his crack," explains today Mitch Credle. Quite the jackpot: every months, Edmonds’ minions would bring back almost 30 millions.
It was a mountain of cash that one could store as best they could, and no matter if some bills go rotten they’re always be fresh ones. On one side, Edmunds and his lieutenants like to play the Emir with the thick stack of bills in their pockets. They buy front row seats to the university team, the Hoyas, eat in the finest crab restaurant in Maryland, and don’t hesitate to privatise the mall of Georgetown to spend their dollars with ease. Their favourites shopping item: herringbone chains, Hugo Boss jacket, Guess jeans, and of course the 990 New Balance.
Those, which appeared in stores earlier in 1980s, are indeed unique on a particular market: light, supple, comfortable. "On a scale of 100, this shoe is a 990. Isn’t it proof we’re striving for perfection?" Says New Balance in its many billboards. But the 990, sold for around 100 dollars, are mostly the most expensive sneakers on the market at the moment. A true luxury, which only white collars workers or embassy employees able to afford it, in Washington. "New Balance were rich people sneakers, and we’d buy them to show we were rich, too. People had to know our worth just by looking at our feet. It was our Gucci’s." Remarks Curtis Chamber, AKA Cutrbone, who was one of the first lieutenant on Edmonds’ payroll. The man, mix of Joe Frazier and Louis Armstrong, never forgot his first New Balance purchase. Ever time the seller would underline the quality of the 990. "They talked about gravity and whatnot… Chinese to us. It was the last reason we’d be New Balance."
Dealers wore their sneakers in all circumstances, from the street corner infested with weed to the go go dance-floors most in view at the time: the Black Hole on Georgia Avenue and the Panorama Room of his Morris Road. On his cellphone, Curtbone shows pictures yellowed by the years, in which one could see him and his brothers in arms posing in front of a dancing, their 990 displayed, they feel immortal. However, it is with those shoes that will be their very downfall.
All these kids wearing New Balance attract the eye of the policemen of the Metro Police Department. "We spot the dealers, and mostly the big fishes, to their spotless New Balance. The dealers didn’t notice, but we were paying attention," explains former cop Mitch Credle. In the meantime, undercover agents in charge of infiltrating the networks of Rayful Edmond quickly started wearing 990, on their own dime. When proceeding to a lock-up, it was frequent that the shoes became a subject that raised the temperature. "When we put them in cells, we asked for their shoelaces - as per procedure, but the kids who get up in arms: Dude, the laces go with the shoe. They didn’t care to end up in prison as long as they could keep their New Balance," laughs, years later, Credle.
A large coordinated police action by the anti-drug task force in 1989 allowed the arrest of Rayful Edmunds and of Curtis "Curtbone" Chambers, as well as a large network of dealers. It’s the end of a reign. It’s also the end of an era. If they move back in the shadow, gangsters drop the fascination for 990. It seems that the importance of 990 in Washington can be summed up to that of Edmonds and his crew. ‘Everybody wanted to look like us, we created a style,’ boasts Curtis Chambers. Since serving his time, he created "All Daze", a line of clothing that supposed to represent a form of uniform for every corner of the city. Sweaters and t-shirt, oversized. Grey and black, the colours of the 990, the former’s convict favourites. Also logo that shine in the dark, like the New Balance flap. "My clothes can be worn with New Balance, it’s the conclusion of this story," explains Carter.
FROM GHETTOS TO LUXURY CONDOS
These last seasons, two neighbouring cities have had a mind to challenge Washington as the capital of the New Balance. Philadelphia and Baltimore also want a shot at the title. At the plaza, the young Vee fumes: "I swear on my father’s grave that we were the one and only. The guys from other cities are frauds. They can go to hell with their Nike and Timberlands!" In the end New Balance has decided to join the federal district. Washington is thus the only city with which New Balance is publicly affiliated. In 2018, the brand signs with Malik Jarett, local personality and owner of an online store, in order to develop an iconic and Washingtonian version of the 990. First step in this highly symbolic project: Jarett visit the famous factories of the manufacturer, settled for more than a century in New-England, an area known for its chic and rain, in that order. There, he discovers the ant like manufacture lines and the benefits of made in USA. "All the other brands have left the US. There’s only New Balance that upholds our traditions," he laments. Back in Washington, Malik Jarett locks himself in his studio, unplugs his video game system, rids his workspace of various water pistols and starts to imagine 990 red, yellow and blue. "These are the new colours of Washington now!" Introduced in February 2018 under the lights of Shoe City, the large shoe shop of Rhode Island Avenue, right in the North East, the hundred and fifty boxes available are gone in a few measly minutes. The enthusiasm is such that, sweet irony, we end up calling up the Washington police.
However, voices are raising today to criticise New Balance. "These guys in New England, they keep their feet up on their desk and smoke cigars," say Malcom Hines, the head of City Beat. There’s a need for something strong, powerful, that reflects all the city gave to the brand. A museum celebrating the city’s close history with the brand, for example. But mostly some aid. People dream of social programs financed by the brand. Years after the bloody reign of Rayful Edmonds, some neighbourhood continue to be plagued by crime and turf wars over drug points. "Here we get shot wearing New Balance and nobody does a thing," complain in a chorus the guys at the plaza. Only a few weeks ago, four gangbangers armed to the teeth chased one Michael Taylor, 22, in the narrow streets of the hood and managed to gun him down on top of some stairs. The poor kid was found with 71 bullets in his body. The numbers of the Metro Police Department showed 122 homicides committed through the city in 2019. Another phenomenon, more insidious, harasses the Black community in Washington. Strangled by the skyrocketing prices of real estate, thousands of inhabitants are forced to leave the city. Then come bulldozers, tearing apart old houses full of memory, and erecting luxury condos for wealthy whites family to settle in. In the back of the Pentacle thus stretches a line of spotless condos, their high windows seeming to gawk at the chaos below. Kel, a kid from the Pentacle, pretends to scratch one his new neighbours. "There’s only White people here. It feels that they want to erase Chocolate City," he sighs. Him and the other kids in the area doubt that New Balance will come back to support this struggling part of the city. And that’s too bad, they seem to think: "As long as we’ll wear New Balance, Chocolate City will stay alive," says one of them.