Greater Greater Washington

Posts by John Muller

John Muller is a local journalist and historian. His first book, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC: The Lion of Anacostia, was selected as the 2013 DC Reads winner. His newest book is Mark Twain in Washington, DC

Transit


Fruit stands abound within Paris Métro

Throughout the Paris Métro are ubiquitous vendors of fresh fruits and vegetables. Vending machines on station platforms sell candy and bottled beverages. The option to quickly grab a snack is readily available to Parisians and riders of New York's subway, but not our own. Should it be?


Fruit stand at BarbèsRochechouart station. Photos by the author.

Apples, clementines, bananas, mangoes and tomatoes are readily available at reasonable prices throughout the M´tro system, from the modern Bibliothèque François Mitterrand station on Line 14 to older stations like Barbès-Rochechouart on Lines 2 and 4.


Fruit stand at Place de Clichy station.

There are no restrictions on eating on the Paris Métro. While there is ample supply of discarded chicken bones, sunflower seeds and fast food on Washington's Metro despite a ban on food, the Paris Métro is comparatively clean, with no traces of food on the trains or station platforms.

Some of the stands are free-standing, requiring the proprietors to set them up and take them down every day. Others rent existing kiosk space. Each vendor stand has a digital scale uses to weigh your purchase. From one vendor a clementine cost 0.35 Euro, while at another stand, a clementine and green apple ran to 1.37 Euro.


Vendor at Bibliothéque François Mitterrand station.

Two years ago, a New York State Senator proposed a law that would ban eating on New York's MTA. The law was widely opposed, even by MTA's chief, and did not pass.

Even with a ban on eating, Metro still employs a rodent exterminator, who the Post recently profiled. Is Paris' Métro clean while Washington's Metro is dirtier, despite a ban on food here and not there, a result of varying cultures?

Is it time for the Washington Metro to change its orientation towards food, or is the ban appropriate? Would you patronize a fruit and vegetable stand at Metro Center, L'Enfant Plaza or Rosslyn?

Preservation


To preserve or redevelop? One man will soon decide for a key Anacostia site

DC's housing agency wants to develop a long-vacant site in Anacostia with affordable housing and retail, but residents and the city's preservation officials say it is incompatible with the neighborhood. The choice between the two hangs on one last appeal.


Photo by Old Anacostia on Flickr.

The city's Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) has owned the "Big K" site on the 2200 block of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue since 2010. It includes the abandoned former "Big K" liquor store and two historic, yet blighted, houses next door.

DHCD has been working with the Chapman Development company to plan an affordable apartment building on the land. Chapman wants to demolish the liquor store, built in 1906 but just outside the Anacostia Historic District, and move the two houses to a nearby city lot where the former Unity Healthcare Clinic has sat vacant for nearly two years. Chapman would pay for the relocation, while DHCD would renovate the homes with a fund of $750,000.

Chapman also plans to acquire the adjacent Astro Motors to assemble the entire Big K site and build a building of 114 apartments over a retail ground floor. The apartments would be affordable housing for people making 60% of Area Median Income, or about $58,000 for a family of 3. The original proposal was 6 stories and 141 units, but Chapman shrank the project in response to community pushback.


Rendering of the original, larger proposal.

The revised version maxes out at 5 stories, but each of the upper two stories would be set back so they do not occupy the whole footprint of the parcel, forming an "E-shaped building" as seen from Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. DHCD would transfer its ownership of the Big K lot to Chapman for $1, while low-income tax credits and government transfer rent payments would help finance the building.


Top: Elevation of the original proposal. Bottom: The new proposal. Renderings from a community presentation by the development team.

However, at community meetings about the project, residents have opposed the plan. They do not want to see so much new affordable housing, saying that Anacostia already has more than its fair share. Others said that the building's scale is incompatible with the historic district, which mostly comprises lower and smaller buildings.

Residents also opposed the name Cedar Hill Flats. Cedar Hill is the name for the home of legendary civil rights activist Frederick Douglass, and community members wanted to keep that name linked solely with Douglass. Chapman has agreed not to use the name.

The Historic Preservation Review Board "denied the concept for new construction as incompatible with the character of the historic district because it is too large in height and extent relative to the historic buildings in the commercial corridor and out of scale with the historic district" in October. Then, at the end of February, Chapman brought its revised, shorter version to HPRB, which again denied the application:

It is too tall relative to the district's historic buildings and too extensive, to occupy half the square and crowd the narrow sidewalk. It would also destroy the unusual topography of the site. ... The Board recommended that a permit not be issued to move 2234 and 2252 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue because the move would diminish the buildings' integrity and harm the character of this corner of the historic district, and because the houses could be rehabilitated and reused in place.
The preservation staff and board were also skeptical that the $750,000 earmark would be enough to properly relocate the homes without damaging them.

Project goes to the Mayor's Agent

HPRB's charge is only to look at the historic preservation issues in an application. But when a property owner believes the "special merit" or public interest value of a project should outweigh historic concerns (or if there is a financial hardship involved), there is an appeals process to an officer known as the Mayor's Agent. Currently, that agent is J. Peter Byrne, a Professor of Law at the Georgetown University Law Center.

Chapman has appealed to the Mayor's Agent. At a hearing yet to be scheduled, Byrne will review the application to move and rehabilitate the two houses and, will consider the purposes and benefits of the entire Big K project. DHCD and Chapman Development will likely argue the "special merit" of different components of the project, its amenities, and talk about how they help achieve objectives in DC's Comprehensive Plan.

At February's HPRB hearing, staff from DHCD, including Director Michael Kelly, Chapman Development and a consultant from Streetsense, argued that economic development was a key component of the project. Although members of HPRB contended that economic development was not under their purview, it is possible that argument will meet the special merit standard for the Mayor's Agent to rule in favor of the project.

After four long years of debate, the long path for Anacostia's most infamous vacant property may finally be coming to an endor if this proposal fails, could continue for years more to come.

Retail


Hungry for neighborhood eateries, Anacostia could get a Busboys & Poets

Neighborhood restaurants can be the foundation of a community. In Anacostia, plans to bring popular local chain Busboys & Poets to the area are moving forward, while residents remember one sub shop that was the "spot to come to" before closing a generation ago.


Photo by Daquella manera on Flickr.

In recent years, restauranteur and mayoral candidate Andy Shallal has hinted he intends to open a Busboys & Poets in Anacostia. In response, residents launched a marketing campaign to woo the restaurant.

At last night's Washington City Paper debate, Shallal publicly confirmed he is in negotiations for 2 possible locations in Anacostia: the former American Furniture store at 2004 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, and the city-owned Big K lot in the 2200 block of MLK. Community sources say Shallal is exploring "franchising" the Busboys & Poets brand to a black-owned management group that would run the restaurant in the former furniture store.

A block away, long-time resident Melvin Holloway stands on the corner of the lot at the junction of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, Pleasant Street, and Maple View Place SE and points to a sign.


Miles Long in 1984. Photo from the Anacostia Community Museum Archives.

"See: March 27, 1961," he says, singling out a date on the side of the neon sign's illuminating shell. "That's about when the Miles Long opened. It closed, probably, in the late '70s. But their memory is still strong."

The reverence that still exists in the hearts and stomachs of Anacostians for the Miles Long, decades after its closing, is a testament to the yearning both long-time and newer arrivals have for landmark neighborhood eateries. When discussing Anacostia in recent years with my Uncle Gary, who worked for Goodyear on Railroad Avenue in the 1970s, he always mentions the Miles Long.


Melvin Holloway stands in front of the former Miles Long. Photo by author.

According to Holloway, Miles Long "was the spot to come to at night, the spot to come to when it opened up early in the morning, and anytime in between. You could smell the fried onions they'd put on the steak sandwiches blocks away."

The Miles Long building had a brief second life in 2012 when a couple from Bethesda opened Mama's Kitchen, a pizzeria that the Washington Post highlighted as one of the first sit-down restaurants to open in the area in years. Since then, Mama's Kitchen moved to 2028 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue and became Mama's BBQ, Blues & Pizza.

A neighborhood dining scene is slowly returning. In recent years, Uniontown Bar & Grill opened at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and W Street. On Good Hope Road, Nurish Food & Drink recently opened in the Anacostia Arts Center, housed in the old Woolworth building and down the street from local mainstay Tony's Place.

Changes are coming for hungry Anacostians. Time will tell what neighborhood eatery future generations will get to remember.

Development


East of the River neighborhoods rebrand themselves as "CHASE"

Penn Quarter, NoMA, Atlas District, and Capital Riverfront are just a few of the newly-branded DC neighborhoods that have come into currency over the past decade. What about neighborhoods east of the river? Over the past 3 years, District officials have started referring to Congress Heights, Anacostia, and St. Elizabeths as "CHASE."


Today it's called Congress Heights, but one day we could be calling it CHASE. All photos by the author.

The name is the result of a Community Planning Challenge Grant grant the federal government gave to DC's Department of Housing and Community Development in 2010, which funds revitalization efforts in struggling neighborhoods.

According to Evelyn Kasongo, Ward 8 coordinator for the DC Office of Planning, the city selected Congress Heights, Anacostia and St. Elizabeths because of the ability to leverage other federal and local investments, and the potential to piggyback on the redevelopment of St. Elizabeths. Federal and local officials envision making the three areas combined a "Regional Innovation Cluster," which the National Capital Planning Commission defines as a concentration of "interconnected businesses, suppliers, intermediaries and associated institutions in a particular field or set of related industries."

DHCD created an "action agenda" for the 3 areas with 7 focus areas: housing, retail, redevelopment and historic preservation, arts and culture, small business development, transportation, and jobs and workforce development. The city convened two Ward 8 Community Summits in 2011 and 2012 to survey residents' concerns and ideas related to the each focus area.

In addition to drawing new investment to the area, the agency also seeks to connect residents to existing organizations and resources. Last September, the agency held a CHASE Open House and Resource Fair at Savoy Elementary School where residents could learn about local organizations such as the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation and Congress Heights Main Street, which promotes local businesses, and city agencies such as the Department of Small and Local Business Development.

After more than a dozen planning documents over the past decade, this isn't the first attempt to revitalize the CHASE area, though it's the first to use a new name. But 2014 may finally be the year of action for CHASE. "People don't want to see plans at this point, they want to see implementation," says Kasongo.

Increased focus on retail in Congress Heights

Congress Heights may see some movement soon. Last month, Bethesda-based retail consulting firm Streetsense held two events there as part of the DC Vibrant Retail Streets initiative, the city's effort to promote neighborhood shopping destinations. The first was Reimagine MLK, a mini-block party on the 3100 block of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue where planners solicited community feedback.

Later, Streetsense organized a visioning session at the Petey Greene Community Center where residents looked over a map of more than 60 small businesses in the area and talked about their vision for the commercial district.


Concrete-filled tires line the street on MLK Avenue.

Participants offered a variety of comments, and it was hard to find common themes, wrote Heather Arnold, Streetsense research director, in an email. "They are concerned about crime (both inside and outside their businesses), about loitering, about parking regulations, about the changing character of the neighborhood (group homes) etc."

Suggestions included streetscape improvements such as tree boxes to replace the used tires filled with concrete that often line the street. Residents also sought stricter enforcement of public drinking laws at Shepherd Park, a popular hangout spot for idle men and women at the southeast corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X avenues.

But not everyone feels the same way. "At the same time," Arnold added, "you can easily find other retailers on the street who do not see any of these issues as a problem."


There are still vacant buildings along MLK Avenue.

But for all of the positive efforts taking place in the CHASE area, revitalization may still be a long way off. One indicator will be when the chain-link fence comes down at 3010 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, an abandoned two-story apartment building. Outside, a sun-faded sign promises it will become "The Future Site of the AMS McDowell Business Center...Coming Spring 2010."

Development


St. Elizabeths East could become a community hub, but it'll take time

In January 2003, then-Mayor Anthony Williams announced plans to reimagine St. Elizabeths East Campus as a new community hub. Over 10 years later, it's beginning to materialize, but the private investment and new opportunities neighbors were promised have yet to arrive.


The Pavilion at Saint Elizabeth's East awaits activation. All photos by the author.

Neighborhood residents, community leaders, and local business owners participated in the first planning process for the District-owned campus in Congress Heights. Now, Mayor Vincent Gray is doing it again. After decades of disinvestment in the area, his administration is building new schools, new recreation centers, and the St. Elizabeths Pavilion, a new community center that opened last year.

While a planned vendor market hasn't started yet, a series of temporary events have positioned the pavilion to become an established rental venue, says Catherine Buell, Executive Director of St. Elizabeths East. To attract activity to the site, the city opened a free ice slide, hosted a free performance by a Grammy-award winning R&B artist, held fitness classes and has drawn a line-up of popular food trucks.

"The Pavilion has been a success," says Buell, a resident of Historic Anacostia, noting that over 10,000 people from across the region have come to St. Elizabeths East, a former mental health institution that was previously closed to the public. "And they are comfortable here," she adds.

Confirming city officials' desire to make the Pavilion a family-friendly destination, on a recent weekend, its meeting space hosted a community organization, while in the next room a group of small children played games under adult supervision.


Rendering of what an active Pavilion might look like one day.

Officials admit there's still work to do. "There were areas we needed to do a better job of tending to," says Buell. "We knew starting up an enterprise was going to be hard, but we have developed and built up a dynamic brand."

Last month, Victor Hoskins, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, disclosed the city had prematurely terminated its relationship with a management company that the city had paid over $250,000 to assist with marketing, booking and event planning at the Pavilion. The next step will be soliciting "successful third-party rentals" that can begin making the Pavilion a place of commerce. "Vendors are interested," Buell affirms.

Elsewhere on the campus, redevelopment plans are slowly moving forward. St. Elizabeths East Chapel, where Mayor Williams first announced plans to redevelop the campus in 2003, could soon become the R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center, a business incubator that "will bridge the gap between the innovation field and local community" until a more permanent space is built. The permanent space, the 500,000-square-foot St. Elizabeth's Innovation Hub, can't proceed until 2016, when important infrastructure improvements are built.

In a press release, District officials said they "expect to create" a Demonstration Center with a "Digital Inclusion Center" with a state-of-the-art computer lab where residents can receive computer training, classrooms for job training and placement services, community meeting space, and "entrepreneurship and career conference areas." It should open this summer.

But the key phrase is "we expect to create." In conversations with community members in and around Congress Heights, many expressed a fatigue over the past decade in attending meetings and reading stories that foretold a new day of private investment and opportunity was round the corner. That day has yet to come.

Preservation


Plans to redevelop Anacostia's Big K site hinge on two historic houses

For three years, DC has been trying to redevelop the prominent "Big K" lot in Anacostia, and plans are finally moving forward. This week, city officials expect to host a public meeting about the project, including what will happen to two historic homes on site today.


Big K lot on the 2200 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE in Anacostia.

Last October, DC's Historic Preservation Review Board unanimously denied plans to develop a six-story residential and retail building on the Big K parcel on the 2200 block of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE. It would involve demolishing the former Big K Liquor store, the site's namesake, as well as relocating two boarded-up homes to a city-owned lot three blocks away on W Street, something which some neighbors have vocally opposed.

The plans were the culmination of the Department of Housing and Community Development's three-year effort to develop the Big K parcel. Now, DHCD is readying itself to go before HPRB again with a revised concept, which will have a public hearing soon.

At a recent oversight hearing of the DC Council's Committee on Economic Development, DHCD director Michael Kelly described the Big K project as a "transformative project in a very important part of town." Last week, Kelly met with members of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8A to discuss Chapman Development's latest development proposal. DHCD will hold a public meeting to provide updates and discuss the proposed plans tomorrow, Wednesday, February 19, from 6:30-8:30 pm at the DHCD Housing Resource Center, located at 1800 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE.

Big K's recent history

DC acquired the four lots comprising the Big K site in the summer of 2010. Three of the four parcels, not including the liquor store, are located in the Anacostia Historic District. In 2012, the city demolished the 1880s-era home at 2228 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, leaving the two other historic homes intact. Officials weren't able to acquire Astro Motors, a car dealership at the corner of MLK and Maple View Place SE.

After releasing a Solicitation for Offers in June 2012, DHCD received a single qualified respondent, Reston-based Chapman Development. Chapman is known for developing the Grays, an apartment building with the Fairlawn Market on the ground floor.

If Chapman Development meets the conditions of the property disposition agreement, DHCD will sell them the Big K property for $1. According to DHCD's website, the developer's proposal will be successful if it "[results] in a vibrant, mixed use development that promotes walkability and provides neighborhood-serving retail."

Residents were hostile to Chapman's original Big K proposal at a community meeting last September. While some asked DHCD to seek another developer, the agency chose to remain with Chapman, which has tried to mend ties with the community. In recent weeks, the developer's principal donated $10,000 to the Child and Family Services Agency's Partners for Kids in Care Donation Center.

Relocation to 1328 W Street

The two homes on the Big K site today would move to 1328 W Street SE, most recently a Unity Healthcare Clinic. According to sources familiar with the ongoing process, the Department of General Services signed over ownership of the property to DHCD. Although the site has been deserted for more than a year, the temporary structure remains.


The former Unity Healthcare Clinic at 1328 W Street has been deserted for more than a year.

It's unclear if DHCD plans to relocate the historic homes to the W Street side or the V Street side of the lot, where they would rest between Engine Company 15 and Delaware Avenue Baptist Church. Moving them will require a level of technical execution DHCD has yet to demonstrate and coordination with neighborhood leaders who have been outspoken in their opposition to the relocation.

As the saga of the city-owned Big K lot continues into its 5th year, what happens next is anyone's guess.

Preservation


To save this old house, everything but the facade must go

An old house in Anacostia is beyond repair, but zoning law ensures that at least the front facade will remain to give a historic appearance to a new replacement home.


All that remains of an 1889 home in Anacostia. Photo by the author.

In June 1889, construction began on a two-story frame home at 1621 W Street SE, then Jefferson Street, in Anacostia, a block and a half from Frederick Douglass' estate. 125 years later, DC issued a permit for the home's demolition. It's located just outside the boundaries of the Anacostia Historic District. All that now remains of the home is the free-standing facade.

"You can't just go there and demolish everything," said the inspection agent of record. "You have to keep the front up by law and by zoning or you lose the right to develop." According to the agent, the home was in such a condition of neglect that "everything has to be replaced."

According to city tax records, the current owner purchased the property in early 2005 for less than $82,000. It's currently assessed at just over $150,000. The rebuilt home's potential sale will serve as an economic barometer of East of the River property values for real estate watchers. But preservationists are closely watching how the reconstruction will happen.


The facade of 1621 W Street SE. Photo by the author.

"The best outcome will be for the developer to preserve the facade of the house and rebuild it in a way that compliments the historic character of the surrounding neighborhood," wrote Charles Wilson, president of the Historic Anacostia Block Association and member of the Historic Preservation Review Board, in an email.

Wilson argued that preserving structures like this is the key to revitalizing Historic Anacostia, as it lends the area a unique character that can't be found elsewhere. "When it comes to economic development in Anacostia we need to look at it from a short- and long-term perspective," he adds. "Short-term is what it going to get us there and long-term is what is going to keep us there. Historic preservation is the long-term answer for economic development in Anacostia."

Development


As DC grows, Anacostia gets left behind

After decades of decline, DC's population is growing again. But parts of the city like Anacostia are still losing people, showing that revitalization has yet to take hold everywhere.


The population of Anacostia between 1990 and 2012. All data from the Census Bureau, graphs by the author.

While many neighborhoods across the city have grown in population and prosperity, Anacostia has lost nearly five hundred people and more than 140 housing units since 1990, according to newly released Census data. Meanwhile, the median household income has declined by $3,000, from $35,545 in 1990 (in 2012 dollars) to $32,262 today. There are fewer homeowners as well. In 1990, 32.8% of Historic Anacostia's 986 housing units were owner-occupied, whereas today just 29.9% of the 854 units are.


There are fewer housing units in Historic Anacostia now than in 1990.

These raw numbers reflect the abundance of abandominiums within the neighborhood, including both single-family homes and apartments. More than a hundred units have been vacant for more than two decades, while others have been razed.

The drastic contraction in the available housing stock over the last two decades has led to the subsequent flight of nearly 15% of the neighborhood. In 1990 Anacostia counted 3,018 people, 437 more than in 2012, when 2,545 lived in the Historic District.

Although social media campaigns and advocates of the creative class have increasingly touted the neighborhood over the past half-decade, economic opportunities remain a dream for many residents. Of 1,799 people over 16, just 54.9% are in the labor force, compared to 58.4% of 2,130 people in 1990.


The percentage of people in Anacostia's labor force.

With the growth of white-collar information services in DC, blue-collar independent tradesmen living in Anacostia say they are at a double disadvantage. They don't have the education the information economy demands, and they are often shut out from joining existing contracting teams on local multi-million dollar public works projects. The neighborhood has its own day-laborer class of junkmen and uncredentialed tradesmen who may not fit into the formal economy.


The percentage of Anacostia adults with high school diplomas.

Even though the neighborhood economy has remained stagnant over the past 20 years, and private capital is hesitant to invest and develop, Anacostia's human capital has slowly increased. Today, 79.1% of Anacostians 25 years old and over have their high school diploma, a dramatic increase over 49.7% in 1990. More than two decades ago less than five percent of Anacostia residents 25 years and older had a college degree; today it is 8.2%.

These numbers do not paint a complete picture, but they show Historic Anacostia to be a neighborhood dominated by low-earning renters, the same as it was in 1990.

In commemorating the March on Washington last summer, President Obama invoked "the corners of Anacostia" as an example of persistent inequities. While the areas and environs of 14th Street NW, 7th Street NW, H Street NE, and 8th Street SE have exponentially grown over the past two decades, Anacostia remains largely stuck in time, slowly fading away before the eyes of anyone watching.

History


Then & Now: The only Chinese restaurant east of the river

Chinese restaurants are ubiquitous in the DC area, with multiple Chinatowns across the region and a plethora of carryout joints. But a century ago, Chinese food was more of a novelty here.


Hong Kong Restaurant in Congress Heights, once the only Chinese restaurant east of the river. Photo from the collection of Jerry McCoy.

The city's first Chinese restaurants opened on Pennsylvania Avenue in the 1890s, according to local historian John DeFerrari, author of the recently published Historic Restaurants of Washington, DC: Capital Eats. He cites a 1903 Washington Times article that described Chinese restaurants as a fad among the city's "smart set," who liked to go "slumming" in DC's small Chinatown at 4th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, now home to the National Gallery of Art.

Within a matter of decades, says DeFerrari, their numbers began to grow. In the 1920s and 1930s, neighborhood Chinese restaurants began appearing all over the city, serving dishes like chow mein and chop suey. Since Chinese restaurants traditionally didn't serve alcohol, they were particularly well-suited to weather the Prohibition era.

But you couldn't find them in every neighborhood. East of the Anacostia River, perhaps the only Chinese joint was the Hong Kong Restaurant at 3109B Nichols Avenue SE in Congress Heights.

It is unclear when the restaurant opened and when it closed, but it was around long enough to appear in a postcard. "Its style as seen in the old postcard is typical of restaurants of the 1930s and 1940s," notes DeFerrari. The address shown says Nichols Avenue, which became Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue in the 1970s.

It is within reason to speculate the restaurant was open into the 1950s, before the neighborhood desegregated. During that era, the streetcar ran up and down Nichols Avenue from Anacostia, a white neighborhood, through Hillsdale/Barry Farm, a black neighborhood, to Congress Heights, then a white neighborhood. As the only Chinese joint east of the river, the Hong Kong was likely a destination for many residents there.


3109B Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE today. Photo by the author.

Today, Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue is home to convenience stores, liquor stores, mobile phone providers, offices for contractors and social services, a car-wash, an athletic footwear store, and a weekly newspaper, along with the well-known Player's Lounge.

Meanwhile, the weather-beaten storefront remains, the restaurant is long gone, replaced today by a dollar store advertising Newport cigarettes for sale and letting customers know that it accepts EBT and food stamps.

History


Visit an abandoned Catholic school in Anacostia

Since June 2007, a three-story Catholic school in Historic Anacostia has sat quietly, unused and largely unnoticed. Last week, staff from the Archdiocese of Washington took me on a tour of the abandoned building, last known as the Our Lady of Perpetual Help School, with a small group of architects and contractors.


"Schools [sic] out." All photos by the author unless noted.

The school opened on V Street SE in the first decade of the 20th century for children of the nearby parish of Saint Teresa of Avila. It's one block over from the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site and its cramped visitor's center. With capital, vision, and proper management, this vacant school house could complement the Douglass site as a true visitor's center, capable of capturing out-of-town dollars from the more than 50,000 annual visitors to the neighborhood destination.


The old Saint Teresa School at 1409 V Street SE in Historic Anacostia. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.


The boarded-up school was last used during the 2006-2007 academic year and awaits a rebirth and reuse.

But until then, let's take a tour of the school as it is today. Perched on a knoll above V Street, the brick exterior of the school is painted white and green and is in good condition.


The vacant multi-purpose room in the rear of the school.

I enter the rear of the school with the group through the multi-purpose room. The basketball backboards remain, without the rims. On a door hangs an activity calendar from March 2006. According to neighborhood sources, the school also served as a community center in the evenings during the 1980s and 1990s.


A dark hallway.

The school still has electricity, but many of the lights are out as I walk into the hallway. To enter the school, a facilities manager had to disarm the alarm. A member of the group remarks, "Kind of eerie."

Other than peeled paint, cracked floor tiles, and bathrooms with destroyed sinks and toilets, the interior of the building is sound, but there is probably a lot of asbestos in the building. Any possible renovation would require removing asbestos or lead-based paint.


"Choppa City" was here.

Inside one of the classrooms, it appears that neighborhood children at some time gained access to the school. Across a blackboard someone wrote "V-BLOCK" with "Choppa City," the name of a local street crew, written in cursive inside of the "O."


Classroom adorned with Warner Brothers characters.

You can see how the classrooms once looked when school was in session. Above one blank chalkboard, Sylvester the Cat, Tweety Bird, Speedy Gonzales, Bugs Bunny, the Roadrunner, and Yosemite Sam with two pistols drawn look out on the spirits of former pupils. Casper the Friendly Ghost adorns the walls of another room. Underneath one of the apparitions is a road sign that reads "Ghost Town." Being a former Catholic school, in this room and other parts of the building are signs and drawings of Jesus.


A plaque in the library.

In the second-floor library, no books remain on the wood shelves that line the perimeter of the room. Three of the room's four windows are boarded up. A plaque on the wall states, "Library Established by Sr. Mary Dolorine 1955 Sponsored By The Mother's Club."

On a chalkboard in a 3rd floor classroom, "Taylor Tucker," remains alongside a note reading, "Schools [sic] out -> So Ugly." In the upper left-hand corner is the date of the last day of school, June 4, 2007. As I pick up a loose piece of chalk to write my name on the board, I hear someone call out, "The roof's open!"

I ascend the stairwell and walk on to the roof. Everyone in my cavalcade has their cell phone out, snapping unobscured panoramic photos of the city's skyline: the Washington Monument and the Capitol Dome the most noticeable, the Washington Cathedral further off in the distance.


A panorama of Washington's skyline from the roof.

Someone points to the Douglass house. "What's that?" They ask.

I respond, "The home of Fred Douglass, resident of Anacostia from fall 1877 to his death in late February 1895." I snap a few photos of Douglass's mansion through the southside canopy.


View of Frederick Douglass's home from the roof.

"This would make a great rooftop restaurant, don't you think?" someone asks.

"Yeah, but they would have to go through zoning and [Historic Preservation Review Board] first," replies another visitor, a contractor. "But it sure would be one of the coolest restaurants in the city. You can look at the Douglass house or you can look at the Capitol."

After ten minutes of marveling at the views, we make our way back through the empty school. Two young architects ask the facilities manager if the school has a basement. It doesn't he replies, it has a boiler room which he shows the two visitors.

Once we are all back out on V Street, we thank the staff of the Archdiocese for the tour and promise to be in touch. In the meanwhile the old Saint Teresa School sits and awaits a rebirth and productive reuse. With recent news that the city wants to get tourists off the National Mall and brand its neighborhood attractions as "cool," the old Saint Teresa School might be the perfect place to launch the campaign.

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