Greater Greater Washington

Posts by David Rotenstein

David Rotenstein is the proprietor of a historical research consulting service based in Silver Spring and blogs about history and culture in the Greater Washington region and beyond. 

History


Read about one of Duke Ellington's favorite Shaw hangouts

To work against gentrification nasty's reputation of erasing a neighborhood's history, it can help to keep stories about places and people alive. Case in point: a block in Shaw sandwiched between 6th and 7th Streets NW. It's where young Duke Ellington might have crossed paths with the son of a Russian landlord in a fabled Shaw pool hall in the years leading up to World War I.


624 T Street NW, site where Frank Holliday's Pool Hall was located. Photo by the author.

Around 1913, Edward "Duke" Ellington—barely a teenager—began hanging out in a pool hall in a building in the 600 block of T Street NW owned by DC physician Louis Kolipinski and operated by Frank Holliday.

Kolipinski was a Russian (Polish) immigrant who graduated from Georgetown medical school. He began practicing medicine in 1897, and by the first decade of the 20th century was investing in real estate throughout Washington. He owned several buildings in the 600 block of T Street NW including the two-story brick building where Holliday and later proprietors operated a pool hall. The Howard Theater, completed in 1910, is located across an alley just east of the building.


The Howard Theatre vicinity around 1919. The arrow is where the Frank Holliday pool hall was. Image from Baist's Real Estate Atlas of Surveys of Washington, District of Columbia.

The entire block was a hotbed of African American entrepreneurialism and artistic expression. The businesses there straddled the line separating "proper" Washington and the city's underworld, which was populated by numbers men, bookmakers, and bootleggers. Ellington credited his time on the block with being critical to forming his identity. There does not appear to be any evidence that Ellington and the Kolipinskis ever met.

Dr. Kolipinski died in late 1914 and his wife assumed control of his real estate assets, which remained in the family until 1987. Today the one-story building constructed in 1931, which replaced an earlier two-story building, is a brew pub that opened in 2013. The Ellington connection is a key part of the establishment's nostalgia narrative: "Established on the spot where Frank Holiday's Pool Room once stood—next door to the Howard Theatre and where Duke Ellington learned how to play jazz as a teenager."

The Kolipinskis had several children, including Andrew Leopold Kolipinski. Andrew was born around 1910 and was not that much younger than Ellington. Though Washington was rigidly segregated in the early twentieth century, underworld establishments—like pool halls, after hours clubs, and brothels—were among the few places where people of different races and classes could mingle. Holliday's pool hall's heterogeneity, at least when it came to class, was one of the things that attracted young Ellington.

"Ellington also spent significant time as a teenager in a less rarified area of black Washington, at Frank Holliday's poolroom in the Shaw neighborhood," wrote Harvey C. Cohen in his 2010 book, Duke Ellington's America. "The poolroom attracted a mix of people who Ellington claimed educated him as much as his schoolteachers did: 'pool sharks,' lawyers, well-traveled 'Pullman car porters,' 'professional and amateur gamblers,' a slew of piano players, and Dr. Charles Drew.

Ellington biographer Mark Tucker wrote about Ellington's time in the T Street establishment in his 1991 book, Ellington: the Early Years:

Ellington also learned race pride could be carried too far, as when the "proud negroes" of Washington opposed school desegregation because they did not want their educational standards lowered. And he saw how this pride could become prejudice in a black community where caste distinctions were made on the basis of skin color. Perhaps to escape this stratification, Ellington sought out places like Frank Holliday's poolroom at Seventh and T streets, a place that showed "how all levels could and should mix." There he found college graduates, professional gamblers, Pullman porters, law and medical students (probably from nearby Howard University), and musicians. In school Ellington studied Negro history and learned to be proud of his people; in the poolroom he was taught "the art of the hustle" by card sharks, check-forgers, and pickpockets. But even these small-time criminals, with their worldly airs and slick style, were worthy of emulation: "At heart, they were all great artists."

The Howard Theatre and former Holliday pool room (left of truck), January 2016. Photo by the author.

Ellington had acquired his nickname, "Duke," by the time he was hanging out in Holliday's pool hall. Andrew Kolipinski died in a car crash at age 21. According to his November 1931 obituary he had acquired the nickname "Duke" while attending Randolph-Macon College. There don't appear to be any documents or narratives surviving that describe how the Kolipinskis interacted with their tenants and the businesses housed in the buildings they owned.

Frank Holliday's pool hall is the stuff of local legends, and Ellington's personal story. It occupies a prominent place in Ellington biographies and it connects existing places, like the Right Proper Brewing Company's brewpub, with a past Washington that is rapidly disappearing from aging residents' memories. Inside 624 T Street, patrons, sightseers, and history buffs collide in gentrified space that doesn't erase the past, but builds on it.

It may be that Duke Ellington and Duke Kolipinski never met. It's also possible, however unlikely, that their paths crossed in Washington's Shaw neighborhood. I wonder what a pair of teens, one a talented and curious African American and the other, the son of European immigrants, would have talked about had they met each other in or around Frank Holliday's pool room.

History


During World War II, a ghost town popped up in Silver Spring

During WWII, government officials said a housing project needed to go up in Silver Spring to ease a shortage of housing for defense workers. Residents of the neighborhood said the project diminished their property values and violated their constitutional rights. It's a fascinating case of neighborhood opposition in our region.


Fairway Houses. Photo from the Report of the National Capital Housing Authority for 1944.

In early 1942, Washington's Alley Dwelling Authority began scouting sites in Montgomery and Prince George's counties for temporary housing sites where migrants to the region could live while working in government agencies and defense-related industries. The agency selected two sites in Prince George's. After hitting considerable opposition to a proposed 800-unit development near Kensington, the ADA settled on building in what's known today as South Four Corners.

The War on the Colonel's subdivisions

Four Corners was a sleepy 19th-century agricultural hamlet founded at the intersection of present-day Colesville Road and University Boulevard. In the years between the world wars, Four Corners was an upwardly mobile Washington suburb. It had two country clubs and some of the newest subdivisions in the region, including Northwood Park, where savvy developers built Washington's 1939 World's Fair Home.

Some of the earliest subdivisions laid out in South Four Corners were conceived by Montgomery County political boss E. Brooke Lee—the "Colonel." Through his Fairway Land Company, Lee bought and platted subdivisions with names like Fairway, Country Club View, and Country Club Park between Indian Spring Country Club and Argyle Country Club.

Lee's subdivisions were conceived as upper-middle class communities convenient to golfing, shopping in Silver Spring, and downtown Washington. Pre-war ads touted spacious homes in a "highly restricted community," code for properties with racially-restrictive covenants and minimum house costs. South Four Corners homes completed in the period revival styles popular at the time were selling between $8,400 to $12,000 ($140,000 to $197,000 in today's dollars).


Original Fairway subdivision house built c. 1937. Photo by the author.

In an age before zoning laws and home owner associations, Lee and his many real estate counterparts used restrictive covenants that passed from one property owner to the next to regulate land use, aesthetics, class, and race in their subdivisions. Covenants attached to Lee's properties restricted their sale and occupancy to whites; established building setback lines; required new homes cost at least $7,500; and, that all proposed architectural designs be approved by Lee and his partners or their successors.

Relatively few homes were completed in South Four Corners before the US entered World War II in 1941. Despite plenty of open land and mostly completed infrastructure (streets and sewer), the building lots in Lee's South Four Corners subdivisions remained simply lines in plat maps. Four Corners offered an attractive location to government agencies charged with housing government workers and people employed in wartime industries.

Lee's subdivisions provided government planners with the name for the housing project: Fairway Houses. In July 1942 the Public Housing Authority notified the Fairway Land Company that condemnation proceedings were underway. The properties, comprising about 28 acres, were supposed to be surrendered before August 1, 1942. Because the government's initial declaration of taking failed to include owners who had bought homes in the subdivisions, amendments were filed adding those individuals to the proceeding.

Silver Spring's temporary ghost town

The amendments extended the period for those affected to contest the taking. The Fairway Land Company and about 150 individuals who had bought homes in the subdivisions (adjacent to the properties the government wanted) filed counter claims. The company asserted that that the proposed public housing violated restrictive covenants carried with the properties. Neighbors complained that the temporary and less expensive housing would diminish their property values.


The Fairway Houses plan. Image from the National Archives and Records Administration.

"Although no land is actually taken," wrote the neighbors in legal filings, they had "a property interest in the property which has been or is to be condemned in these proceedings." The Fairway Land Company wrote that the public housing development would "destroy [the] restrictive covenants insofar as the parcels taken in this proceeding were concerned." And, it wrote that the federal project would "depreciate the value of the other lots in the development covered by said restrictive covenants."

Work to build the public housing began as the legal case worked its way through federal court. Construction started on October 5, 1942 and was completed in May 1943. Sixty three-bedroom homes and 178 two-bedroom homes were built. Each unit had a kitchen, living room, porch, and storage room. They were rectangular wood-frame buildings constructed on concrete pier foundations. Wood siding clad the exteriors and pitched roofs had asphalt shingles. Utilities included electricity, hot and cold water, and sewer connections. The houses also had a space heater and a five-cubic-foot icebox. Each unit cost the government $4,672 and rents varied from $11 to $46 per month.

After the homes were completed, federal officials built a one-story community building. The Fairway Community Center housed a day camp, health clinic, and nursery school. Recreational activities were programmed by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, headed at that time by E. Brooke Lee.

Only white in-migrants to the region employed in the war effort could live at Fairway. Despite being ready for occupancy in early 1943, The ADA failed to attract tenants. Some observers attributed the reasons to its "outlying" location; others to the "starkly plain war-standard dwelling equipment." One Washington real estate professional in 1944 told a Senate subcommittee that the demountable (portable) housing looked like "glorified shacks." He added, "I imagine a lot of people would not care to live in them."


Fairway house. Photo from the National Archives and Records Administration.

By the spring of 1944, Fairway remained about 63 percent vacant with only 87 units rented. Washington builder Clarke Daniel told senators investigating the National Capital Housing Authority that Fairway was a waste of government resources. Daniel criticized the addition of a community center to the mostly vacant development. "Another questionable move is the present erection of, in Fairway Village, a community center," Daniel said. "This community center is being erected at an estimated cost of $54,000 for what is practically a ghost town."

The litigation over Fairway wasn't settled until early 1945. Property owners in the Fairway subdivisions failed to get financial compensation for their claims that the public housing devalued their investments. They did, however, get assurances from the government that the houses would be removed within one year after the end of the declared "war emergency."

Disposing Fairway

The Fairway Houses remained in place until early 1954. Current residents and veterans were given the first opportunities to buy the houses. After selling more than half, the remaining houses were opened for sale to the general public. In September 1954, bidding opened on the lots and the community building, which served as a sales office that year.

Between December 1954 and the spring of 1957, the builders and individuals bought the former Fairway properties. Within a few years, all of the former Fairway sites had new brick ramblers and vernacular small houses on them. The community building, which had occupied three lots, was removed and replaced by three single-family homes.


Houses built in former Fairway Houses sites, South Four Corners. Photo by the author.

Today, half a century after the Fairway Houses were disassembled and the federal government left Four Corners, no evidence of the public housing survives in the landscape. Once conceived as an exclusive enclave, the South Four Corners neighborhood has undergone several historically significant development episodes. The brief period as a public housing project and the protracted legal battle fought over restrictive covenants make Fairway one of the most interesting and hidden chapters in Washington's housing history.

Preservation


Does Silver Spring's Perpetual building deserve perpetual preservation? Possibly.

In 2007, an effort to give historic designation to the former Perpetual Savings Association bank building in downtown Silver Spring failed. But new information suggests that Perpetual might have played an important role in African-American suburbanization.


The former Perpetual Building Association building in Silver Spring. Photo by the author.

Adding the 1958 building to the county's Master Plan for Historic Preservation would have ensured the Perpetual building's presence along Georgia Avenue in perpetuity. Instead, the proposed designation led to litigation and recriminations. The Perpetual case was precedential, examining the pitfalls of preserving buildings of recent vintage and the minutiae of due process in county master plan legislation.

The Perpetual Building Association was a Washington banking institution founded in 1881. It built branches throughout the District during the early 20th century and expanded to Montgomery County after World War II. The bank became one of the leading local mortgage lenders, helping provide the capital for homebuilding in Washington's rapidly expanding automobile suburbs.

Multiple arguments for historic significance did not hold up

Adding a property to a local landmark list can have tremendous consequences for an owner who does not agree with the designation, like Perpetual's. Designation must be legally defensible. Historic preservation advocates' key arguments—that the Perpetual building was architecturally significant because of the modernist design architect Robert Scholz had used, and that it had played a significant role in local history—were not.

Preservationists' first argument came in the summer of 2007, when the made their case to the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). (In the spirit of full disclosure, I was the Montgomery County HPC's vice-chairman at the time and I chaired the meeting in August 2007 where the final vote was taken.)

The documents that the preservationists submitted did little more than than appeal to save an interesting looking building that might have had an interesting story—a story preservationists could only support using digitized historical newspapers as their leading evidentiary source.


Perpetual Building Association ad, The Washington Post, January 12, 1958.

Other HPC members and I pressed the preservationists about their sources, and while the SSHS provided a lot of newspaper articles about the building and the business, it failed to make a compelling case for why it met the legal standard for historic preservation. After the first HPC hearing in July 2007, I told SSHS members to come back with more information that connects the building to the community. I urged them to find people who recalled opening their first bank accounts there as children; folks who got their first mortgage there—anything to make the building something other than a block of midcentury corporate architecture.

In August 2007, at the HPC meeting about the building, I said, "We have a lot of information, but I don't think we have sufficiently contextualized information."

Still, the HPC voted 4-2 to forward a recommendation to the Montgomery County Planning Board that the Perpetual building be designated because it had "character, interest or a value as part of the development of Montgomery County." The HPC had rejected all of the arguments that the building was architectural significant and that it's history was remarkable.

The Planning Board, however, did not agree when it heard the case the next year. "We were not convinced that the history or architecture of this building met the standards of Chapter 24A or the Master Plan for Historic Preservation," wrote then-chairman Royce Hanson in the letter transmitting the amendment.

That eventually led to Montgomery Preservation, Inc. (MPI), an organization allied with SSHS, suing the Maryland National Capital Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) over a procedural matter (the County Council didn't take action on the draft amendment that came out of the Planning Board hearing), with both the Court of Special Appeals [PDF] (in 2009) and the and the Maryland Court of Appeals saying that the Planning Board had acted lawfully.


The Washington Post, January 12, 1958.

The Perpetual building may be more significant than we thought

I had all but forgotten about the Perpetual case, except for those occasions when I discussed it with clients in my consulting practice. Last year I began doing a lot of research that involved editions of the Washington Afro-American newspaper published between 1950 and 1990. Among the ads for grocery stores, movie listings, life insurance, and cigarettes were display ads for the Perpetual Building Association. In many issues, the Perpetual ad was the only one for a bank.


Perpetual Building Association ad, The Washington Afro-American, April 3, 1956.

Washington's history of discriminatory real estate and mortgage lending practices has been well documented. Residential suburbs in the District, Maryland, and Virginia were built on legal foundations cobbled together from restrictive racial covenants and redlining. Yet here was an established historic Washington bank marketing itself to African-Americans.

None of the Montgomery County historic preservation documentation mentioned the role Perpetual might have played in African-American suburbanization after World War II. Was this the missing history historic preservation reviewers wanted back in 2007? Perhaps. Do comments left in SSHS Facebook posts from people who remember banking at Perpetual qualify as the community link I urged preservationists to find a decade ago? Maybe.

Is Silver Spring's former Perpetual bank building historic? Even after a decade has passed, including hearings by the HPC and Planning Board plus cases that worked their ways through the Maryland courts, I don't think anyone's fully capable of answering that question.

History


DC tried fixing its housing shortage by building tiny houses... in the 1880s

Last fall, DC Councilmember Vincent Orange proposed building 1,000 "tiny houses" for low-income residents and millennials, but the idea drew wide criticism as being "gimmicky" and potentially discriminatory. What many don't know is that Orange's initiative wasn't the first time District leaders sought to solve big housing problems with small houses.


Tiny houses in DC. Photo by Inhabitat on Flickr.

In Washington's earliest years, alleys housed horses and privies. As African Americans began streaming into the city during the Civil War, most alleys were converted to residential uses and many small wood shacks went up. These quickly became overcrowded and concerns about disease and crime followed.

Between 1872 and 1878 nearly 1,000 houses in Washington's alleys were condemned, with housing reformers and public health activists pushing to clear out these blighted, crowded, and "insanitary" spaces. But in 1878, Congress re-organized the District government by creating the commissioner system. Unlike the earlier government, the reconstituted Board of Health lacked the authority to condemn insanitary buildings.

That led to a return of tiny houses in alleys. In 1890, the Washington Evening Star described the concentration of poor people in DC's alleys as a result of increasing property values. Small houses in alleys created housing for Washington's poor and profits for the city's real estate speculators, the paper reported.

Critics assailed the move as pandering to influential real estate speculators. "Construction of houses in the alleys promised profits," James Ring told Congress in 1944. When he was speaking, Ring was the administrative officer for the National Capital Housing Authority, and the Senate was holding hearings on extending a deadline to vacate Washington's remaining alley dwellings.

What Ring said next about the period between 1880 and 1892 is important: "There were philosophically inclined persons who sincerely believed that well-built little houses in the alleys were far better socially than insanitary alley shacks."

Ring went on to describe a construction boom in Washington's alleys, what he called "a very active period of buying and selling the rear ends of street lots."

In a 2014 the DC State Historic Preservation Office published a survey of alley buildings, along with a history of their development. Architectural historian Kim Prothro Williams wrote that the 1880s construction boom simply replaced small insanitary wood buildings that lacked indoor plumbing with small insanitary brick buildings that lacked indoor plumbing.


1880s house in Naylor Court, just east of 10th Street NW. Photo by the author.

Washington's first tiny house movement ended in 1892 when Congress passed a law prohibiting construction of new houses in alleys less than 30 feet wide and lacking sewage connections. The Washington Post astutely observed that the new health laws would have an immediate impact on the city and its growing suburbs. "Cheap abodes for the poorer class of people within the city limits will no longer be obtainable," the paper reported in April 1892. "Facilities will, therefore, have to be found for transportation to the suburbs, where the man drawing a moderate salary can own a lot, build a comfortable home, and then be able to reach it."

Fast forward 100 years to a Washington that is increasingly unaffordable, with a growing population, and which is struggling with finding ways to reduce reliance on the automobile. The roots of these contemporary urban ills may be seen in the solutions for nineteenth century problems.


Row of houses built in the 1880s, Snow's Court in Foggy Bottom. Photo by the author.

Orange's tiny houses proposal could mean Washington may be coming full circle to embrace the benefits of housing and economic diversity. Though the Washington City Paper compared the potential outcome of Orange's proposal to the creation of new fangled Hoovervilles—"Orangevilles," a columnist called thema more apt comparison would be to housing that was widespread in Washington nearly a century before the Great Depression.

History


Before moving to DC, Walt Whitman was a Brooklyn house flipper

One of Washington's many adopted sons, Walt Whitman is among the most decorated figures in American literature. A lesser-known fact about Whitman is that he wrote one of the earliest descriptions of speculative real estate development, displacement, and gentrification.


Walt Whitman around 1855. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Whitman's essay, "Tear Down and Build Over Again," was published in the November 1845 issue of The American Review. From the perspective of a housing supplier, he explored urban redevelopment, aesthetics, and the attachments to place longtime residents have.

What makes Whitman's essay unique besides its early date is that it was written not by a housing reformer or displaced resident, but by an entrepreneur making money from the creative destruction of New York City neighborhoods.

"Let us level to the earth all the houses that were not built within the last ten years," Whitman wrote in 1845. "Let us raise the devil and break things!"

Penned more than a century before the Housing Act of 1949 introduced urban renewal to aging and distressed city neighborhoods, Whitman was writing on the eve of his brief career in Brooklyn as familiar urban character: the house-flipping gentrifier.

According to University of Cambridge literary historian Peter Riley, Whitman was itching to get into a booming Brooklyn real estate market. Riley examined Whitman's notebooks and analyzed "Tear Down and Build Over Again" to contextualize how the poet jumped on the real estate "speculative bandwagon."

Between 1846 and 1855, notes Riley, Whitman bought and built several properties. Profits from redevelopment and house flipping allowed Whitman to buy an un-mortgaged home for his family and financed publication of Whitman's first book, Leaves of Grass, in 1855.


Brooklyn row houses around 1935. Photo from the New York Public Library.

Though written 118 years before sociologist Ruth Glass introduced the word "gentrification" to popular and academic discourse, Whitman's essay clearly captures the subject's supply and demand dimensions and the social costs—better housing, good investments (positive) and displacement and alienation (negative) wrapped up in the process.

In modern terms, Whitman effectively described neighborhood upgrading through reinvestment resulting in displacement and the churn of properties from the less wealthy to better off residents.

In other words, Whitman was describing gentrification.

Whitman did have concerns about redevelopment

Though clearly writing as an unabashed capitalist housing producer, Whitman also recognized that the people displaced from the older homes had strong attachments to the properties and to the neighborhoods where they lived.

"Then fled tenants from under roofs that had sheltered them when in their cradles," he wrote. "And had witnessed their parents' marriages—roofs aneath which they had grown up from childhood, and that were filled with the memories of many years."

As Whitman was writing about the loss of old buildings and familiar places by their occupants, he also expressed some disdain for new construction in ways remarkably similar to how contemporary Americans write about McMansions:

"Then there are those who would go farther to view even Charlotte Temple's grave, than Mr. Astor's stupid-looking house in Broadway… To such, greatness and goodness are things intrinsic—mental and moral qualities. To the rest of the world, and that is nine-tenths of it, appearance [emphasis in original] is everything.

He was also witnessing the birth of historic preservation

Whitman also was writing at a time when American culture was developing its own sense of national heritage. By the 1850s, a "Cult of Washington" had emerged that elevated the Revolutionary War hero and first president to near-mythical status.

Besides writing what may be the earliest chronicle of American gentrification, Whitman also captured the birth of America's historic preservation movement. In addition to memorializing Washington through monument construction, there were growing numbers of people concerned about the disappearance of places associated with George Washington.

"… when we bethink us how good it is to leave no land-mark of the past standing, no pile honored by its association with our storied names, with the undying memory of our Washington, and with the frequent presence of his compatriots," Whitman wrote about a decade before efforts began to buy and preserve Mt. Vernon.

"Tear Down and Build Up Again" is an important and relatively un-recognized chronicle of the birth of early American urban redevelopment written by one of the nation's most important poets.

Development


In an effort to revitalize, DC once sold houses for $1. The program wasn't very effective.

Imagine plunking down $1 for a two-story Victorian rowhouse in Bloomingdale or LeDroit Park. Add to your windfall a three-percent loan to rehabilitate the house and free counseling and assistance with the process from a District non-profit. That might sound too good to be true, but for a number of years in the 70s, it wasn't.


There was a time when some of these houses only cost $1. Image by the author.

For seven years between 1974 and 1981, District residents could buy so-called "dollar houses" from the city in a program known as urban homesteading. It was an affordable housing program ripped from the pages of American history and reconfigured in distressed urban neighborhoods throughout the country.

The premise was simple: Selling first-time homebuyers abandoned properties that had been looted, vandalized, and home to squatters and drug deals was a way to bring houses up to code and restore them to municipal tax rolls, spur reinvestment, and promote homeownership among public housing residents and other low-income apartment dwellers.

Washington was among the first cities—after Wilmington (Delaware), Philadelphia, and Baltimore—to embrace urban homesteading. The federally run Office of Housing and Urban Development sold transferred properties to these cities and hundreds of others.

DC was in rough shape when the program came about

There's no indicator of urban blight quite like abandoned housing. It is neighborhood disinvestment's most visible attribute. Broken windows, frayed building fabric, and unkempt lawns are its hallmarks. Squatters, prostitution, drug sales, crimes against neighboring properties and people, diminished public services, and plummeting property values are its symptoms.

"Neighborhoods tend to take on characteristics of their homes, and people take on the qualities of the neighborhood," wrote District of Columbia City Council members in 1969.

In the late 1960s vacant, unsalable, and uninhabitable housing emerged as a critical issue in Washington. "We are destroying housing," Gilbert Hahn and Sterling Tucker told Washingtonian magazine in the summer of 1969. "All over town are abandoned houses and apartment buildings."


Third St. NE dollar house before rehabilitation. Photo published in the Washington Star, March 28, 1977.

The city's abandoned housing stock included single-family homes and apartment buildings. In 1972 consultants to the District government published a report on abandoned housing in the city. The document identified 3,260 abandoned housing units—1,634 individual structures. There were abandoned properties citywide and the greatest concentration was in the far southeast end of the city.

Abandoned properties could become homesteads

Urban homesteading is an affordable housing policy that converts abandoned properties into habitable homes. Two types of urban homesteading emerged in the early 1970s: local homesteading programs and the federal Urban Homesteading Demonstration Program, authorized under the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974.

DC leaders and affordable housing advocates began discussing urban homesteading as early as 1972. In early 1974, District Delegate Walter Fauntroy introduced and championed homesteading legislation in Congress. Mayor Walter Washington also threw his support behind creating a District urban homesteading program.

Anti-poverty activist Nadine Winter (1924-2011) was the person, however, driving the District's homesteading wagon. Winter was a North Carolina native who moved to Washington in 1947. A decade later she founded Hospitality House in the city's Northeast, one of the District's first supportive housing programs. In the 1960s, Winter also worked as a community organizer for the United Planning Organization. The Washington Star in 1966 dubbed her a "One-Woman Poverty War." Winter's housing and anti-poverty efforts helped win her a seat in 1974 on the District's first elected council.

The new DC Department of Housing and Community Development managed the program and Hospitality House processed the applications to ensure that only District residents who met specific income criteria were selected.

Successful applicants had to be employed, and there were income requirements as well. Each homesteader was required to use low-interest loans to bring the properties up to housing code within one year, and they were required to show the skill necessary to do so. All homesteaders then were required to live in their homes for at least five years.

Despite lots of interest, the program didn't actually help that many people

Once the District announced the urban homesteading program, more than 3,000 people applied for the homes. 1,500 met the qualification criteria. Demand far outstripped the supply of ready homes and the District, like other cities, used a lottery to award the dollar homes to qualified applicants. The first lottery was held outside the District Building on Pennsylvania Ave. July 13, 1974.

The first batch of urban homesteaders received the titles to 13 homes in late 1974. The initial batch of new homeowners included a Giant Foods warehouse worker and his family, who paid one dollar for a house on Trinidad Avenue NE. Another included a family with parents working for a local nonprofit and in the Navy Yard. Teachers, clerical workers, and health care workers and their families—many of them former apartment and public housing occupants—became urban homesteaders during the program's life.


A dollar house on Third Street NE in 2015. Photo by the author.

Despite a large inventory of HUD homes and foreclosed properties, the District government sold less than 100 of the dollar homes. Councilperson Winter and the African American press repeatedly chastised housing officials for not releasing more homesteading properties.

A 1974 editorial published in the Washington Afro-American recognized the need for more affordable housing. Writing on the perils of disintegrated neighborhoods, the author presciently observed that the then-proposed urban homesteading program was little more than a band-aid.

"Such a token number of homes no more deserves the title 'program' than a token black face in an office deserves the title 'integration'," wrote the paper. "What it really amounts to is a mere pittance compared to the remaining need."

Washington's urban homesteading program was eliminated after 1981. Anecdotal sources suggest that Mayor Marion Barry didn't want to pay higher prices for HUD houses. Others suggest a mismanaged program.

"I think that there was dysfunction in the housing department and it never worked right," recalled former DHCD program director Lynn French in a 2015 interview.

Newspaper articles from the 1980s hint at some of the dysfunction French mentioned, including allegations District officials failed to to their due diligence in clearing the titles to the properties prior to transferring them to homeowners, the result being that some of the homesteading properties still had liens against them when the titles were transferred.

The program likely failed from a combination of factors, including reductions in federal Community Development Block Grant funds and other cutbacks introduced after President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1981. Others include the failure to concentrate homesteading properties in particular neighborhoods. Individual homeowners benefited, but the fortunes of the neighborhoods where the homesteading properties were located didn't rise with the individuals.

Author's note: Learn more about Washington's urban homesteading program at this year's Conference on DC Historical Studies.

History


Bloomingdale's First and T used to be home to part of DC's underworld

Last spring Jak & Company, a Washington hair salon, shut its doors after about 50 years in business, 27 of them at First and Rhode Island, NW. The salon's owner said gentrification was one reason the store was closing. Bloomingdale, Jak & Company's neighborhood, has changed a lot, and its history includes hidden ties to Washington's underworld.


Salon owner Latosha Jackson-Martin interviewed by a Fox 5 reporter April 13, 2015. Photo by the author.

Much of the urban change Bloomingdale has undergone is like anywhere else: early twentieth century boom times as a middle-class residential neighborhood; racial change; decline and disinvestment; and, rediscovery by new money and new people.

But for a big chunk of the 1980s and 1990s, the intersection of First and T streets NW was First Street Crew territory. The drug gang was notorious for open-air crack sales and for brazenly killing potential witnesses. And beyond the time the crew dominated, the Bloomingdale corner has long history of ties to organized crime in Washington.

DC's crack epidemic found a foothold in Bloomingdale

Crack swept through Washington in the 1980s and ruled the streets for about two decades. It was one in a string of illicit rackets where Washington's African American majority could make money on their own terms.

In 2014, former Washington Post reporter Ruben Castaneda wrote S Street Rising, an account of his time working the paper's crime beat while also struggling with a crack cocaine addiction.

First and T, Castaneda wrote, was a frequent place of purchase for him. "The crew's slinger's sold crack on both sides of 1st Street Northwest, at all hours, in all kinds of weather." In an interview, he told me about one landmark that remains vivid in his memory: a low masonry wall on the east side of First Street.

"For many years, more than ten years, there was graffiti that said, Evil Never Dies'," he recalled.


1st Street NW. In the 1980s and 1990s this was a round-the-clock crack market. Photo by the author.

Drugs were only the newest big crime problem

Before crack, the numbers and liquor ruled. First and T was one of several hotspots throughout the city where established African American families ran businesses off the books using legitimate enterprises as fronts for their operations.

There has been a liquor store at the southwest corner of First and T for decades. It doesn't look too different than it did in the 1980s and early 1990s. The large sign mounted on the roof, "Bloomingdale Center" is the same. But gone are the roll-down metal window covers and the interior Plexiglas barriers that separated employees from patrons and would-be robbers.

A white Jewish family once owned the property before an African American one bought it. The African American family—whose name I won't use to honor a source's request—has links to Washington's numbers game going back to the early twentieth century. A 1937 Washington Post article noted that the family's patriarch was one of 100 people arraigned in a single day on gambling charges. He was a well-known U Street "numbers backer."

According to newspapers and other historical sources, the Bloomingdale liquor store expanded to include check cashing. Satellite stores opened through the District of Columbia and Prince George's County. In a 1979 article, Post reporter Courtland Milloy described the operation, then owned by the family patriarch's son, as a "poor man's bank." "With the benefit of his father's lessons," Milloy wrote, the son "started his own financial establishment."

Washington legalized gambling in 1980 by creating a lottery, and Mayor Marion Barry appointed a Lottery Board the next year. In 1982 lottery ticket sales began. "After decades of illegally operating numbers games in the big cities," reported Jet magazine in 1981, "Blacks finally have gained the chance to bigtime on the side of the law."

District leaders awarded contracts to run the lottery to two firms: an established Georgia gaming company and a "a local minority-run firm" created by the Georgia firm "solely for the purpose of bidding" on the Washington contract, the Washington Post reported.

The Washington family that ran Bloomingdale's owned the local lottery firm, and they held key management positions. According to District records, its headquarters was on First Street NW, a few doors down from the liquor store. Control over the District's instant games—the scratch-off tickets—was short-lived, however, and city leaders in 1983 began cutting ties to outside contractors.

Bloomingdale is now gentrified and sanitized

Scant evidence for First and T's historic ties to Washington's African American underworld survives. The graffiti tag Castaneda recalls is gone, as are the crack slingers, numbers writers, and gangsters who once had the most lucrative business enterprises there. New immigrants now own some of the businesses in there, including the liquor store.


New businesses and new people now define First Street NW. Photo by the author.

In their place are trendy bars and restaurants with patio seating and ties to the neighborhood's new residents and a new economy. Sara Fatell opened Grassroots bakery on Rhode Island Ave. NW in 2012. She jokes that the area is nothing like the stories she's heard of the 90s.

"Do you know how many babies are in this neighborhood? Don't drink the water," Fatell says with a smile. "Everyone's on their second baby. It's all strollers and yoga mats and dogs."

Government


Terrorism fear takes over security at the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is America's national library. It also may be the only library in the United States where getting into one of its Capitol Hill buildings is a lot like trying to board an airplane. Security has shifted so much to anti-terrorism that it's no longer doing its intended job, to protect the library collection from theft.


Capitol Hill security checkpoint. All photos by the author.

Ever since terrorist attacks in Oklahoma City in 1995 and on 9/11, security has been dialed up to high. Streets in the federal core were closed and gates, bollards, and industrial-sized planters appeared around buildings. To get beyond most federal buildings' lobbies, there's a hodgepodge of security measures that includes metal detectors, searches, hand-held wands, and ID checks.

At the Library of Congress, security protocols that once guarded against people stealing from the library are now more focused on keeping weapons and bombs out.

Some of the nation's treasures have become eBay sales

Like most museums and archives, the library uses multiple layers of security to protect its 158 million item collection. Items have unique labels, and private security guards monitor reading rooms. Rooms with rare or especially valuable items have additional security. There are also cameras everywhere.


Library of Congress reading room.

None of these appear to be fully effective in preventing researchers and staff from leaving with purloined items. In 2011, presidential historian Barry Landau and an accomplice were indicted for stealing items from institutions including the Library of Congress.

That was not an isolated incident for the federal government. Former National Archives employees have been involved in multiple high-profile thefts, including in 2011 when former archivist Leslie Waffen stole historic recordings, and in 2002 when archivist Shaun Aubitz stole documents from the Philadelphia archives branch. Both Waffen and Aubitz used eBay to sell their artifacts.

The National Archives thefts occurred despite tight security that involves guards examining every piece of paper and book leaving facilities.

The Library's security protocols have reversed

According to a report from 1998, entering the Library then was "no different than most other security stations on Capitol Hill: Hand the guard your bag and walk through the metal detectors." That process typically took seconds.

Leaving the library, however, was an ordeal. It used to involve a Library of Congress Police officer removing everything from briefcases and backpacks and thumbing through books and papers to ensure that nothing was leaving that shouldn't.

Now, to enter, visitors have to remove electronics and other items, then go through an x-ray conveyor. To leave, officers peek into partially opened bags and do not typically bother to inspect books or folders. The process to enter takes a long time, but exiting usually takes less than ten seconds.

Shennell Antrobus, an officer in the US Capitol Police public information office, declined to answer questions about changes in exit screening, citing sensitivity. "We use our technology and certain aspects of security screening for both the entry and the exit," he said.

Did a police force merger weaken security?

From 1950 to 2008, the library had its own independent police force, whose mission included protecting its collections. Longtime researchers and staff suggest that the apparent shift in security priorities accelerated in 2008 when the Library of Congress Police merged with the US Capitol Police.


Library of Congress Jefferson Building entrance with security barrier. Federal regulations prohibit photographing interior security checkpoints.

Around the time of the merger, most of the discussion centered on personnel matters like seniority and rank. There does not appear to have been a public discussion about what the merger would mean for loss prevention at the Library of Congress. Semi-annual Inspector General reports show that most security issues in the Library relate to employee theft and the theft of laptop computers.

Library security was tight long before terrorism reconfigured federal architecture, but it was tight in different ways. Now, with such a strong spotlight on keeping terrorism out, security seems to be letting its original mission slip.

Other


For over half a century, this church led the way on affordable housing and homelessness in DC

The Church of the Saviour, founded after World War II and located in Dupont Circle throughout its years, became the foundation for myriad housing, anti-poverty, social justice, and arts programs throughout greater Washington and the nation.


2025 Massachusetts Avenue NW, the former headquarters of The Church of the Saviour. Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Several of the metro area's earliest and longest-lived affordable housing and anti-poverty programs trace their roots to the church, including MANNA, Jubilee Housing, and ONE DC.

From the outset, the church was more concerned with blending into the urban community than it was about projecting a religious image. With community service as a cornerstone of its mission, the church's biggest impact was in creating neighborhood-level satellites. Members worked in healthcare and with the city's homeless, work that Washington Post reporter Michelle Boorstein described as "faith-based activism."

With its feet under it, The Church of the Saviour turned toward a broader mission

Former Army chaplain Gordon Cosby founded The Church of the Saviour in 1946. After starting on 19th Street and moving to Massachusetts Avenue three years later, Cosby and company set out on missions to tackle poverty and homelessness and improve community health.

Instead of growing a single congregation to fill a large sanctuary, Cosby helped start a network of metro area congregations and social service organizations. "Cosby took his focus away from the church and instead looked at the needs of his city," reported Lily Percy on NPR's All Things Considered.

The Church of the Saviour had more than a dozen affiliated congregations and 70 affiliates and spin-off organizations by the turn of the century.

The church's network of urban ministries reached from medical care to economic equality

Cosby and his urban missions both drew people in and inspired them to create their own organizations. Included among them are Church of Christ Right Now, which supports ex-offenders; Christ House, which coordinates in-patient medical care; For Love of Children, which cares for abused and homeless children; and Bread of Life Church, which works for economic equality.


Seekers Church, Takoma Park (DC). Photo by the author.

In 1960, members of The Church of the Saviour founded The Potter's House, the nation's first Christian coffeehouse, in Adams Morgan. Church members volunteered as waiters and food preparers, and by hosting arts programs, lectures, and a bookstore, The Potter's House quickly became a hub for Christian-themed counterculture. In 1961, the Post described it as "an experiment in untraditional evangelism."


Civil Rights March on Washington, DC, with marchers from The Church of the Saviour carrying banners. Aug. 28, 1963. Photo from the National Archives and Records Administration.

For urbanists, the church's most enduring legacy may be its influence on member James Rouse, who built Columbia and Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Rouse founded the Enterprise Foundation (now Enterprise Community Partners), and in 1972 he provided the seed money that enabled a trio of other church members to buy and rehabilitate housing in the city. The effort became Jubilee Housing.

The Church of the Saviour helped work toward more affordable housing

The Church's fingerprints are evident throughout Washington neighborhoods people once wrote off as blighted and unattractive. Its early strategic and funding collaborations with the DC and federal governments established models for later endeavors that helped bring capital and people back into the Capital City's walkable and Metro-accessible neighborhoods.

A specific example is MANNA, which Church of the Saviour member Jim Dickerson founded in 1982 as a revenue source for Hope and a Home, the church-inspired housing program.

"Me and a little handful of others who felt called to this thing of purchasing some properties," Dickerson recalled. "The original dream was we'll sell them and we'll, if we make a little bit out of it fee-wise or whatever, we can take that money and go do others."


Whitelaw Apartment House, 1839 Thirteenth Street Northwest, Washington, District of Columbia, DC. Photo from the Historic American Building Survey, Library of Congress.

MANNA celebrated its first decade in 1991 by embarking on its best-known project: rehabilitating the former Whitelaw Hotel. Using Low-Income Tax Credits and Historic Preservation Tax Credits, MANNA transformed the distressed building into 35 affordable apartments.

Most of the evidence for The Church of the Saviour's Washington legacy is hidden in the weeds of local affordable housing coalitions founded by its members and others inspired by Cosby's urban missions. The most enduring and visible legacies are visible in the thousands of affordable housing units preserved and produced throughout Washington since the church opened its doors in Dupont Circle.

By the late 1990s, Cosby began decentralizing the church's operations. In 2006, the church sold its Dupont Circle headquarters. Cosby moved into Christ House, where he died in 2013.

Background for this post was developed while I was working under contract to LISC to conduct oral history interviews and documentary research for their 2012 book, Becoming What We Can Be: Stories of Community Development in Washington, DC. The interview material is used with LISC's permission.

Public Spaces


Meet the "eruv," a creative way to mesh ancient religion with today's urban and suburban spaces

We discuss all kinds of transportation challenges here at Greater Greater Washington. But observant Jews face a unique barrier: on the Sabbath and other holy days, they can't drive cars or ride the bus. Symbolic structures called "eruvim" are examples of how a community adapts to the surrounding built environment.


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Jewish law prohibits doing "work" during a total of 1,500 hours each year. That includes driving and also carrying many objects outside one's home. However, an eruv (plural "eruvim") creates a symbolic private space, inside which it's religiously permissible to do things like carry house keys and books, push strollers, and walk with canes.

To qualify as an eruv, there needs to be an unbroken boundary surrounding an area, but it can be as thin as a piece of string. They're typically cobbled together along existing buildings, fences, and telephone and power lines.

Eruvim around the Washington region

There are nearly a dozen public eruvim in greater Washington, and many more private ones enclose lots with single- and multi-family residences. Much of DC is inside two eruvim, and eruvim wrap around approximately 40 square miles in Montgomery County. There's also an eruv enclosing the University of Maryland's College Park campus.


2012 eruv boundary map from WAMU. Click for an interactive version.

As cities and populations have changed, so have eruvim

Urban eruvim originated in Medieval Europe; Walled cities formed the perfect enclosure, but as cities burst their seams and sprawled into the countryside in the 18th and 19th centuries, the physical boundaries came down.

Observant Jews searched for solutions to keep the Sabbath during changing times. In the 1860s, German rabbis cleverly used telegraph poles and wires, a new kind of communication infrastructure, to creat eruvim boundaries.


String connects a telephone pole to a Beltway sound wall to form part of the Woodside eruv in Silver Spring. Photo by the author.

The first American eruv appeared in St. Louis in the 1890s. Others, in New York City, followed in the next decade. Rabbis used a segment of the Third Avenue El to create the western boundary of the Lower East Side's first eruv; seawalls along the East River bordered it on the east, and poles and wires formed its northern and southern borders.


The Third Avenue El tracks formed the western boundary for Manhattan's first eruv. Postcard photo by the author.

Eruvim later came to Queens and Brooklyn in New York, but they were limited to large cities until the Cold War. By the mid-1970s, though, as Orthodox Jews moved into ranches, ramblers, and split-level homes in inner-ring suburbs and outlying residential subdivisions, they had exploded into less dense areas. There are now more than 200 public eruvim in the United States and Canada.

Orthodox Jews have also adapted the built environment to their religion

With synagogues and housing going up in areas that are less dense, with fewer sidewalks, more freeways, and the shopping malls that are signatures of sprawl, today's observant Jews face new obstacles in building eruvim.


Desire line inside a suburban Atlanta, Ga., eruv. Photo by the author.

From Montgomery County's Kemp Mill to Atlanta's Toco Hill, where neighbors call observant Jews "the walkers," Jewish families make their way to synagogue on Friday nights and Saturdays. They use sidewalks where they exist, and they hug road shoulders where they don't. Both cases are a reminder of the need for sidewalks and a focus on pedestrian safety.


Walking to synagogue in Silver Spring. Photo by the author.

In fact, planners in Atlanta have used pictures of "desire lines," worn into the grass alongside roads where there are no sidewalks to recommend more connectivity in their communities; in some cases, they attribute those lines to Orthodox Jews walking on the Sabbath.

As planners continue to retrofit Washington's suburbs, it may be worthwhile to take a moment to look up at the wires overhead and ponder some of the ways historically urban people have adapted to suburban sprawl. Sometimes the solutions are as simple as some string and imagination.

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