Greater Greater Washington

Posts by John Muller

John Muller is an associate librarian, journalist and historian. He has written two books, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC, Mark Twain in Washington, DC, and also writes at Death and Life of Old Anacostia

Anacostia’s larger-than-life Big Chair is full of neighborhood history

There's a humongous chair at the corner of Martin Luther King Avenue and V Street in Anacostia, named, appropriately, the Big Chair. And while it is quite the spectacle, the Big Chair is also a symbol of economic opportunity in the neighborhood.


Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

Curtis Brothers Furniture, which sat on what was then Nichols Avenue, built the Big Chair in 1959. Ever since, even when it held the title of biggest chair in the world, it's been a homegrown landmark, out of sight of the monumental core.

Alice in "The Looking Glass House"

To distinguish themselves in the competitive home decor marketplace, the brothers launched a marketing idea that would immortalize them in Anacostia folklore.


A full-page ad ran in the Evening Star on August 12, 1960 advertising "Alice in the Looking Glass House." Photo from the DC Public Library, Special Collections.

On August 13, 1960, amidst the summer's heat and humidity, 21-year old Lynn Arnold began living atop the Big Chair in a 10-by-10 foot glass house complete with a balcony. "See her sleep, eat, exercise and sun bathe, a site you'll remember for years to come," read a full-page advertisement in the Evening Star alluding to the sequel of the Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Lynn had been offered the job while shopping at Curtis Brothers.

After 42 days, Arnold came down from "the smallest efficiency apartment in town." She told the Star, "I was in the store buying furniture for my own apartment when they asked me if I'd like the job. I've done a lot of modeling and the pay for this was a great deal."

Throughout her stay atop the big chair, Lynn's husband came to visit, and they often spoke on the phone. Lynn's accommodations included wall-to-wall carpet, TV, radio and a bathroom and shower covered by a wooden wall. In order to eat everyday Lynn lifted her meals up on a tray.

"If I had the same decision to make I still would have done it," Lynn, told a reporter. "But I wouldn't ever do it twice. I was never really lonely. After a day of people staring I was more than ready to close the curtains and be a bit alone."

Upgrades to the Big Chair

Curtis Brothers survived the 1968 riots unscathed (by posting employees outside its doors with shotguns, according to long-time residents), but the business closed its showroom and warehouse in the mid-1970s.

By the early 2000s the original Big Chair, made of mahogany, was deteriorating. Numerous holes in the seat had been patched with concrete, and in August 2005, the original chair was removed.

Eight months later, however, a $40,000 aluminum replica went up in the Big Chair's original location.

A "symbol of hope"

Today, the Big Chair endures as an over-sized emblem of Anacostia. A bar and grill across the street and a now-closed flea market use its namesake, and it nearly got its own ale named after it at Chocolate City Beer.

"Curtis Brothers was the Marlo Furniture of its time, and all sorts of festivities happened around the chair such as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny being in the seat during the holidays," says Rev. Oliver "OJ" Johnson, who as a student at nearby Birney Elementary School recalls taking field trips to the Big Chair.

"It was a sign of economic of progress for the neighborhood, and not just one of the best marketing moves in downtown Anacostia, but maybe in the history of our city," Johnson says.

Anacostia's revitalization has been in the forecast for decades, but it has yet to arrive. The Big Chair is a reminder of the neighborhood's economic potential.

"That chair has endured good times, bad times and good times reborn," Johnson declared. "It is a symbol of hope for this community."

For whom the bell no longer tolls: Historic Anacostia

Even as we discuss living in space, vestiges of the past are all around us. Neighborhoods are have reclaimed call boxes, named restaurants after area founders, and installed heritage trail markers. Giving history center stage puts life today into proper perspective.


St. Teresa's overlooks a small garden in the rear of the church. Photos by the author.

Centuries before wrist watches or mobile phones helped us keep our schedules or Twitter gave us the news, sextons tolled church bells to tell everyone what time it was. Some churches in downtown Washington still ring their bells today, but in Anacostia, the oldest church bell tolls no more.

Built in 1879 at the corner of Washington & Fillmore Streets (now 13th & V Street SE), Saint Teresa of Avila is the oldest surviving church east of the river.

While the church remains an integral part of the neighborhood's social fabric, a bell in its rear hasn't been struck for years, according to conversations with a number of local residents.

In 1893, 14 yeas after St. Teresa's opened, the congregation acquired a bell so it could tell the community it was holding services. With no place to install the bell atop the church, St. Teresa's built a wooden tower in the rear, and with the aid of horses, a crude winch, and a series of pulleys, raised the bell to the top. The city ruled the wooden tower a fire hazard in 1965, which led to the construction of a concrete and steel bell mount. The bell rests in that mount today.

"In former days bells were endowed with a large measure of personality, and were popularly supposed to be in league with the spirits of the air and other supernatural agencies," reported the New York Times in the late 19th century. "In consequence of such beliefs many of the old cathedral bells in England and on the Continent of Europe have some fine legends or fanciful stories connected with them in which they are made to play the part of good angels or ministering spirits with voices of warning or of hope and cheer to the children of men."


Close up of the church bell in the rear of St. Teresa.

I've heard many stories about the St. Teresa bell over the years. Earlier this year, a nonagenarian fondly recalled to me that as a child, when the lamplighters came around and the evening bell rang at St. Teresa, it was cue to go home. Others have recalled that in early April 1968, the bell rang simultaneously with small-scale riots breaking out on Nichols Avenue and Good Hope Road. More recent history agrees that the bell rang up until the mid-1980s and that new church leadership along with noise complaints from some of the neighborhood led to it being discontinued.

"One of the blessings about the Historic District and my block in particular was the abundance of places of worship," writes Angela Copeland, a resident of the 1300 block of W Street SE and administrator of the Great Ward Eight Facebook page. "When I first moved here, there used to be several religious parades conducted by multiple churches including St. Teresa. I don't see them so much anymore. I've visited St. Teresa. It's historic value to the neighborhood and the District's Catholic community cannot be overstated."

With the neighborhood slowly regenerating and being reborn, appeals to Anacostia's history are everywhere—for example, Anacostia was DC's first subdivision as well as the home of Frederick Douglass. As part of Anacostia reclaiming its past, should the bell ring once again?

Remembering Marion Barry

People around the nation who've never met Marion Barry nevertheless have strong opinions about him as a symbol of an era in DC, but he was also a man who touched many lives in many different ways. Our contributors look back at their memories of the "Mayor for Life."


Photo by Tom Bridge on Flickr.

Nick Keenan: I first saw him in person in the late 1990's. I was living in Shaw, the Convention Center was in the planning stages, and it was hugely controversial. There had been a series of public meetings which had grown increasingly heated, and the last one had ended in a near-riot after about ten minutes.

I still remember the president of the civic association standing on a table and blowing a whistle, trying to restore order (why he had brought a whistle to the meeting remains a mystery). Allen Lew had brought a detailed 3D model to the meeting, and I remember him scurrying out, obviously relieved and somewhat surprised that his expensive model had escaped the angry crowd.

It was against this backdrop that Marion Barry came into the neighborhood a few weeks later, to talk with us about the Convention Center.

He had an almost magical effect on the crowd. His charisma was obvious. The crowd was generally hostile, but he won them over. "We're not going to get anywhere," he started, "with people yelling at each other. I'm going to have an assistant hand out cards, and if you have a question or a comment write it on a card, and I will read them all."

And like that, it was over. People had come for a raucous meeting, but they were going to get a bunch of questions read off cards. Or course he never did read all of the questions, but it didn't matter. The Convention Center was approved a few months later.

Veronica Davis: My most vivid memory of Marion Barry was at the Ward 7 Economic Development Summit held last year. He sat next to me at the table as we discussed the future of Ward 7. This was my first time being able to have a one-on-one conversation with him about development. Although I disagreed with some of his ideas, I did not interrupt him. I sat there quietly listening to him and learning from him.

Marion Barry and I both had a hobby of live tweeting the TV show Scandal. One episode he and I were having a Twitter conversation trying to guess the mole. After giving my theory, he tweeted back "Now you're thinking politically." Granted, it was only Twitter, but I felt as if he had given me a gold star.

A common description throughout all the tributes to Marion Barry is he was a complex man. Despite his faults, he was fascinating and above all charming. There were times I found myself as one of his critics and others I was one of his defenders. He was indeed complex. There is no doubt he will be remembered as a legend.

John Muller: Growing up in the periphery of Washington City, I heard constant chatter of "Mary and Barry." It was not until grade school I understood "Marion Barry" was one person, the powerful and controversial Mayor of DC. Years later, as a local journalist I found myself covering Barry as the Ward 8 Councilmember.

Two memories particularly stand out that speak to the pathos of how and why Barry was near universally beloved in Ward 8. While putting the finishing touches on a story years ago about the Big K saga for East of the River I got a call from Barry around 9:30 pm. "John, I hear you're writing about Big K. I gotta get in that story." We spoke for 30 minutes. I obliged his request.

Last year as Barry entered one of the hundreds of community meetings I've covered, He saw me hanging near the back and offered his hand. "Congratulations on your book, John. We need to do a better job of honoring Frederick Douglass. You've done a great thing for this community."

To be recognized by Barry was, for the fleetingness of moments, to be caught up in his star-crossed relationship with Washington City. For many of the last, lost and least in our city who struggle with issues of illiteracy, employment, substance abuse, and housing Barry's mere acknowledgement of their existence was enough to overlook his personal demons and the failure of city leadership—often his leadership—to change circumstances of their lives.

Brent Bolin: I had crossed paths with Barry a few times in my Anacostia River work, but we activists were turning up the heat on the issue of remediating toxics in the river and scheduled a press conference for the week before the 2010 primary. We stood on one of the toxic sites on the banks of the river and challenged all of the councilmembers to sign a pledge that by the end of their terms there would be a plan in place to deal with the toxics (knowing the actual remediation would take years and years).

Ironically most electeds were just down the river at a Yards Park event, and then a few came upstream to our press conference—Chairman Gray, Marion Barry, Tommy Wells, and Harry Thomas. The press conference was on a dirt lot literally on the riverbank with a few cars parked along the side, and as a group of us waited for officials and press to arrive a Jaguar pulls up and parks smack in the middle of the site.

I was standing some distance away at angle thinking, who the heck is parking in the middle of the event? And then of course the Mayor For Life nonchalantly gets out of the car (even more nonchalantly than he parked) and starts chatting folks up like he owns the place (because he does). And here's the kicker sure to please the GGW crowd: a few minutes later Tommy Wells rolled up on his bike. The contrasting arrivals make me chuckle to this day.

Mr. Barry was coming off a serious illness and I'd heard some people say he had lost a step as a result, but as we talked I found him sharp as could be, and funny, and he really knew a lot about the river. I emailed the below picture to pretty much everyone.


Photo by Brent Bolin.

And you: Did you interact with Marion Barry personally as more than just a legend, an icon, a caricature, or a symbol? Post your recollections in the comments.

A new neighborhood rises east of the river. Is it a sign of change, or more of the same?

An entirely new neighborhood is rising just a minute's walk from the Anacostia Metro station. Nearly two dozen townhomes and apartments have sprouted at Sheridan Station, where public housing will become a mixed-income community. But will it be an economic catalyst for the community, or a new face for the area's existing struggles?


A view of Sheridan Station rising from the hillside across Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. Photos by the author.

When it first broke ground more than 4 years ago, Sheridan Station was supposed to have 344 units, equally split between market-rate homes for sale and rentals for low-income households. But in the fall of 2012, developer William C. Smith asked to reduce the ratio of for-sale homes to 25%, arguing that potential buyers would have trouble securing mortgages.

Today, 327 homes are planned for Sheridan Station, just 80 of which will be for sale with the rest for rent. Of the remaining 247 units, 200 will be affordable, and 100 are set aside for households on the public housing waiting list. Priority will go to residents of Sheridan Terrace, which used to occupy the site, and Barry Farm next door, which will be redeveloped in 2016.

New residents are hopeful, but anxious

James grew up in the neighborhood and lived in Sheridan Terrace, the public housing complex that predates Sheridan Station, in the 1980s. The units were falling apart. "I came home one day from work and the ceiling was on the floor," he said. Hazardous building conditions and street crime precipitated the departure of hundreds of families.


James, a resident of Sheridan Station, has been watching the quick rise of an entirely new neighborhood yards from the Anacostia Metro station. Photos by the author.

I ran into James, who is wheelchair-bound, while recently surveying Sheridan Road. When housing became available in the first phase of Sheridan Station, he was able to secure a unit due to his sister's network.

"I've been coming out here everyday just to watch," James said. "It's about time they started. They never said why it took so long to begin. They blamed the weather. People began putting pressure on them and asking questions. There's more demand for housing than there is supply. This looks like it is decent housing." He pointed out a building and said once completed he would be moving to the first floor.

Market-rate homeowners are excited about the development too. Darin Tuggle, an attorney for the Department of Housing and Urban Development Chris Miller, a 29-year-old business consultant, saw the signage for Sheridan Station on Suitland Parkway while commuting from Upper Marlboro. "When I decided to purchase a home, I looked at various neighborhoods but the rapid rise in prices in more 'trendy' neighborhoods priced me out," he says. Sheridan Station won him over with the proximity to Metro and the views of downtown DC.

"After moving in, I switched from driving to work to taking the Metro," he says. "The commute has been a big quality of life upgrade for me."


Townhomes line Pomeroy Road SE as part of the Sheridan Station development.

Miller Tuggle says he loves the "great urban neighborhood vibe and look" of the street where his new home is. "We are a microcosm of the city, young, less young, professional, artistic, black, white, Hispanic, foreign-born, single, couples, inter-racial," he says. Miller looks forward to the area becoming more walkable and getting a grocery store.

But there's been some tension between new residents and those who already lived in the area. Miller says kids have smashed his house windows three times, while neighbors have had their cars vandalized. "These incidents of vandalism can be attributed to some of the tension that existing members of the community feel towards the new development," says Tuggle.

Is this a sign of change, or more of the same?

Sheridan Station serves as a preview of future development east of the river, from the reconstruction of Barry Farm to Skyland Town Center, the 11th Street Bridge Park, and Saint Elizabeths East Campus. But in contrast to the splashy opening of Sheridan's first phase, the groundbreaking and construction of Sheridan's second and third phases have gone on quietly. At a press conference earlier this month, Mayor Gray highlighted his outgoing administration's commitment to developing affordable housing, but did not mention Sheridan Station.


An elevated view of the 1st phase of Sheridan Station from Suitland Parkway.

William C. Smith's uneven promotion of for-sale units led homeowners to speculate that the development's initial goals would never happen. "I had to look for Sheridan Station; it didn't look for me," says Tuggle, noting that he'd received ads for other new developments in the area, like Arts District Hyattsville and Dakota Crossing.

He and other homeowners only found out recently there were only 20 homes for sale in the development's last phase, with the rest being rentals. "[My neighbors] had advised friends and associates that there would be a lot more opportunities to buy in the last phase," he says.

Furthermore, many public housing tenants I've spoken with express a fear that when the new buildings are filled with disparate families from various public housing developments, long-standing feuds, similar to the Hatfields and McCoys, may erupt.

Although private investment has hesitated to cross the Anacostia River, long-term residents point to developments like this, as well as the new schools and recreation centers that have been built recently, as infallible evidence of "the Plan," which seeks to make the area attractive to a new demographic who will displace them. But Sheridan Station and its inability to deliver a mixed-income neighborhood as first promised illustrates the tenuousness of the "new Ward 8," as Councilmember Marion Barry calls it.

The need for tenant and workforce housing in Ward 8 is overwhelming. Despite Sheridan Station's success in attracting affluent professionals, the continued concentration and retrenchment of disadvantaged people in this area has the potential to suppress the economy of communities east of the river for yet another generation.

Metro savvy: There's a free ride in them thar trash cans

Finding discarded farecards that still have money on them: It's one of the oldest tricks in any late night Metro rider's handbook, and for me, it's been a go-to Metro secret since my undergrad days. I estimate that I've foraged over a thousand dollars worth of fares over the last decade.


Photos by the author.

A friend and I once collected about $100 in discarded paper farecards every day while clipboard canvassing at the Smithsonian Metro station. An average of $100 per year bump to my SmarTrip just for picking up scraps out of the trash? Not bad.

Don't believe me? Neither did a co-worker when I told him about my little trick of the trade. But as we walked into a station earlier this week, I showed him how it's done.

A how-to guide

Start by giving a slight glance into the trashcan, like you're looking for the day's newspaper. If you spot a farecard resting on top, quickly grab it. To excavate fully, lightly shake the edge of the trash bag to jostle any remaining cards. If liquid appears at any point during either step, immediately cease, since wet farecards are no good.

In this particular case, the bag on the trashcan we approached had just been changed, which is always helpful for spying clean farecards. While we didn't see any on the surface, I told my co-worker to watch and learn before cautiously pinching the left side of the bag and giving it a gentle tug.

"No luck," he said, not seeing anything.

"Spoke too soon," I said as I snatched a farecard that had been crumpled into a small ball.

"No way," he deadpanned.

I proceeded to flatten the balled-up card by placing it against the fare machine and running the edge of my SmarTrip over it a few times. I then tapped my SmarTrip, pressed "Add Value," and slid my find into the machine.

"Slink!" $0.55 value added. I tapped my SmarTrip and turned to my friend as we headed toward the faregates.

"The Metro Jedi Force is now with you, my son."

A dying art

Next year, this trick of the trade will come to a sad but largely unknown and unceremonious end. The elimination of the paper farecard will make it a bit harder for people to throw their money away, meaning that some of Metro's savviest riders will no longer get their trips subsidized by the trash.

For now, though, those paper farecards are still out there, waiting to be found and traded in.

Later, I received an email from my co-worker with the subject line, "WOW!"

Along with a picture of himself holding three cards, each with values of $1.30, he wrote, "$3.90 pulled out of the SS Metro trash can and added to my SmarTrip card. Thank you teacher."

If you keep your eyes open, you too could add a few free bucks to your SmarTrip card.

Anacostia residents feel "meeting fatigue"

In my half-decade as a reporter covering the Anacostia neighborhood I have attended nearly 400 meetings. On many occasions I've left one to run to another on the same evening. Some residents who've trundled through these meetings say there have been too many, with not enough results. Is there a better way, or is this necessary to get community input?


William Alston-El and Denise Rolark Barnes at a community meeting in 2013. All photos by the author.

"All these meetings are pseudo-participation at their finest," says Rev. Oliver "OJ" Johnson, a former ANC Commissioner who's lived in Anacostia for 55 years. "Generally, the community never gets the feedback or follow-up reports from these meetings that we are promised."

Meetings come from Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8A, Anacostia Coordinating Council, Anacostia Economic Development Corporation, ARCH Development Corporation, Anacostia Branch of the DC Public Library, DC Housing Authority, Historic Anacostia Block Association, Councilmember Marion Barry, Office of Planning,

United Planning Organization, Metropolitan Police Department, DC Commission on Arts & Humanities, Cultural Tourism DC, Union Temple Baptist Church, Urban Land Institute, DC Department of Transportation, WMATA, Chief Financial Officer, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, DC Public Schools, and more.

Meeting fatigue is not a condition unique to Anacostia. Residents of Capitol Hill and other neighborhoods have been inundated with meetings for decades. Washington, for all that it lacks in local sovereignty makes up for the near endless opportunity to participate.

Most meetings happen in the immediate neighborhood or surrounding ones. But important meetings, which can determine the future of Anacostia, like with the Zoning Commission or the Alcohol Beverage Control Board, frequently occur outside of the neighborhood. Anacostia's status as a Historic District adds an extra layer of regulation over building and renovations. There are more than 30 other Historic Districts in the city, with residents enduring a similar litany of meetings.

Johnson adds, "The meetings have slowly evolved over the decades. These meetings used to be about holding the city accountable and now they've become events on the social calendar. For people who've lived in the neighborhood for more than 15 years or longer, these meetings serve as reunions. I've seen people at meetings now in their mid-30s I first met attending meetings before they were in grade school because their parents initiated them decades ago. There's a lot we may not have in Anacostia, but it's not for a lack of meetings."


A Mayor's Agent hearing on the Big K development earlier this year.

New leaders restart the meeting process, frustrating longtime residents

While the cliche of Washington being a "transient city" holds true in certain sections of town, Anacostia and areas east of the river have a core of activists that have outlasted changes in local leadership.

"The community has had the same issues for decade," says Angela Copeland, a resident of old Anacostia for more than two decades. "But, we get a fresh crew of bureaucrats every election cycle and start again from scratch. 'What does Anacostia want/need?' You can go crazy after a number of years having this same darn conversation."

At many meetings, community members express their dismay at how the meeting was organized and presented. They offer statements, not questions. Some offer respectful critiques, while other residents lash out. Older residents often citicize the city for duplicating efforts; in reaction, newer people offer a willingness to do whatever is necessary to help the neighborhood revitalize.

Some people ask questions but are told it is not the correct meeting in which to ask that particular question. For example, at a Big K meeting, a resident will ask about the Anacostia streetcar. At an affordable housing meeting, a resident will ask about the CBE process for local businesses applying for government contracts. Confusion and disorientation often reigns.


A young professional speaks out at a community meeting.

On top of administrative turnover, in my 5 years covering Anacostia I've noticed an exodus of upstart activists, regenerated by a new wave of enthusiastic young professionals. In September 2009, I attended a meeting of the River East Emerging Leaders (or REEL). At least eight people I spoke to either no longer live East of the Anacostia River or have left the area entirely.

REEL continues to hold meetings. "Every time I go to one of their meetings they have a new Vice President or someone with a leadership title who I've never met before," said one local business leader who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They interrogate me, asking who I am. I kindly tell them I helped support the formation of the organization."

Can technology provide more ways to participate?

"Before I had a family, I used to go to meetings," said Copeland. "It's just harder for me to make the time, now. And, people get an attitude if you ask for an agenda in advance or minutes after or live social media interaction during or anything that attempts to break old molds. The old guard appears to enjoy keeping newer voices (I'm not a newer voice) out of the process by hanging on to old ways and dysfunction—namely lack of transparency."

I've intermittently live tweeted public meetings on Big K, Barry Farm, and pending development. As a result I receive messages from residents who are unable to attend but share their thanks for documenting what is being discussed.

Although agencies maintain strict control over Anacostia meetings, leaving many to feel their participation is not valued, accessibility has improved over the years, Copeland said. "The joke for me is that the city used to hold meetings during business hours like the community didn't work. The only people getting paid for their effort at the meetings were those who worked for the city."


Kaya Henderson speaks to a community gathering including Councilmembers Anita Bonds and Marion Barry as well as clergy and commander of the 7th District Police Station.

Meetings play an important role

"Meetings are important," Copeland, who is also the administrator of the Great Ward 8 Facebook page, wrote. "The most dedicated make the time and commitment and shoulder most of the burden. There are tools available (all kinds of meeting facilitation tools online, via phone) that could help spread the responsibilities. But, people have to want to let go of the control."

One of the co-founders of REEL, Historic Anacostia Block Association, and current 8A ANC Commissioner Charles Wilson said that regular gatherings are invaluable to build a physical sense of community that trumps a digital community. "Monthly community meetings are important because it is an easy way to keep residents thoroughly informed of the issues and it allows them to communicate in person with each other. Email communication is great, but nothing beats the effectiveness of face-to-face conversations."

When revitalization and development begin to arrive in Anacostia and the surrounding neighborhoods is uncertain, but one thing is for sure; the meetings will continue.

How Ward 8's thoroughfares have changed since 1870

In 1870, the areas between the old city and the District line were still fairly rural. But many of the thoroughfares that shape the city today were already around then. Let's look at the roads that connected communities in what is now Ward 8.


1870 map of DC roads. From the DC Public Library.

Until 1871, the District was made up of the cities of Washington and Georgetown while the rest was in unincorporated Washington County. Present-day District neighborhoods like Brightwood, Columbia Heights, Tenleytown, and all land east of the Anacostia river laid outside the city in Washington County, DC. An 1870 map held in the Washingtoniana Room at the DC Public Library shows the roads that ran through the city's early suburbs, including those that crisscrossed Ward 8.

Nichols Avenue
What's now Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE, the thoroughfare that runs from the junction with Good Hope Road all the way to just short of the Maryland line is an old Native American path. Long ago it was colloquially known as Piscataway Road, after the dominant regional tribe in the 1700s.

When the US Insane Asylum (today Saint Elizabeths Hospital) opened in the 1850s, Piscataway Road changed to Asylum Road or Asylum Avenue.

By the late 1860s, people were calling the road Nichols Avenue, after Dr. Charles H. Nichols, the long-time superintendent of Saint Elizabeths.

The road carried this name for over a century before taking its present designation.

Good Hope Road
Another major thoroughfare still traveled today is Good Hope Road. The origins of the name Good Hope Road have been debated for years. Some have speculated the road's name is derivative of the Good Hope Tavern that once stood at the modern-day intersection with Naylor Road, while others have told of Native American origins.

In 1924, John Harry Shannon wrote of Good Hope Road in the Evening Star:

"It was one of those gray, level, shadeless roads, bordered by signs, gas stations and ice cream, and sausage refectories which nearly all of us have come to call a good road. It was without the virtues and the charm of a bad road."
Hamilton Road
Further east, the 1870s map shows "Hamilton Road" running north-south. Churches, schools, and cemeteries that once lined Hamilton Road now line Alabama Avenue.

An early generation of Allen AME Church is depicted in the 1870 map near the junction of Good Hope Road and Naylor Road as an "African Church." Today the church stands at 2498 Alabama Avenue, and is notable for a 2010 visit by President Obama.

In June 1908 the District Commissioners formally changed Hamilton Road to Alabama Avenue.

Naylor Road
One road name in use in 1870 that remains on the map today is Naylor Road, named after Colonel Henry Naylor. His early forefather came to America as an indentured servant before the Revolutionary War. As reported by the Evening Star in his January 1871 obituary, Naylor, was an "old and highly respected citizen of Washington county, died at his residence, Mount Henry, near Good Hope, yesterday afternoon in the 73d year of his age."

Naylor was "born, raised and lived continuously on his farm, but was well and favorably known throughout the District." For years Naylor was responsible for the care of the land records of Washington County, duties later performed by the Recorder of Deeds. Naylor was an officer of the militia, holding a commission as colonel, and several times he was a member of the Levy Court. He is buried in Congressional Cemetery.

The communities that were outside the city in 1870 have changed dramatically in the nearly 150 years since. But the basic framework of thoroughfares has remained fairly constant, especially in Ward 8.

While many things have changed, it's sometimes amazing to find things that have stayed the same.

Anacostia's historic homes are on the mend

On Monday, more than a hundred people gathered in front of 2010 14th Street SE to cut the ceremonial ribbon on a new day in old Anacostia. This isn't the only one; renovation is coming to a half-dozen historic yet decaying homes in the immediate blocks.


Ribbon cutting at 2010 14th Street SE. Photos by the author.

The L'Enfant Trust, a preservation organization, is rehabilitating 2010 14th Street, SE. The work from it and other property owners herald a larger regeneration reverberating throughout the neighborhood.

"There are 3 types of people," said local activist William Alston-El, who first introduced me to the back story of 2010 14th Street SE years ago. "Those who make things happen; those that watch things happen, and those that wonder what happened. Anyone with their eyes half-open can see things are happening in Anacostia. It's time for us to start working to make things happen. The time for wondering and watching has passed."


1347 Maple View Place SE.

While 2010 14th Street SE is expected to go on the market in August, The L'Enfant Trust is continuing its work on 1347 Maple View Place SE. As a crew worked on the exterior of 1347, across the street private investors had teams hard at work on 1344 and 1348 Maple View Place SE, which sold last month for $400,000, according to property records.


1344 Maple View Place SE.


1348 Maple View Place SE.


2126 15th Street SE

At 2126 15th Street SE, adjacent to the entrance of the parking lot of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, a local development and contracting team was active inside and outside of the house.

Built in 1892 at the junction of Jefferson and Adams Street, the home's foundation rests on compact clay. The young owners of the home, who have formed an architecture firm, expect to move in later this fall.


View from the 2nd floor of 1352 U Street SE.

From the 2nd floor of the recently interior renovated 1352 U Street SE, formerly Jackson Street, one enjoys a panoramic view of the historic corner of 14th and U Streets SE. To the left is the old Masonic Lodge built in the early 1890s; in the middle is an open-air market space that predates the Civil War; and to the right is the old Anacostia Methodist Episcopal Church built in 1892.

A local construction crew has cleared out the over-grown back yard and transformed the home's interior. The home next door is vacant and the backyard is a "jungle," said the lead contractor on site.


1350 U Street SE sits vacant, awaiting renovation.

A presence in the neighborhood since 1967, Alston-EL said after watching the ribbon cutting at 2010 14th Street SE and visiting a number of homes with active construction crews, "It's been a 'new day' in Anacostia for as long as I've been here." After a pause and consideration, "But they might just be right this time."

Before the Anacostia Metro, there were these houses

Across Howard Road SE from the Anacostia Metro station, the DC government wants to develop a vacant lot for affordable housing. The site was not always vacant; to build the Metro station three decades ago, 11 houses were razed. Here is their story.


DC plans to develop this vacant lot on Howard Road, SE. Photo by the author.

According to a detailed report from the Historic American Buildings Survey, Howard Road, SE was originally developed as part of the 375-acre Barry Farm, a model community for freed slaves initiated by General Oliver Otis Howard of the Freedmen's Bureau in 1867.

By the turn of the 20th century, better transportation and citywide population growth had led many owners to subdivide the original one-acre lots. Housing from the late 19th and early 20th centuries was distinctly urban, following narrow, side-hall plans suitable for the narrow street frontages of the new lots. In the Howard Road District, housing from the 1880's to the 1940s demonstrated how the once pastoral landscape gradually urbanized.


1023 Howard Road SE, razed to make way for the Anacostia Metro Station. Photo from the Library of Congress.

At the time of the survey in the mid-1980s, the buildings in the 1000 and 1100 block of Howard Road ranged in condition "from extremely deteriorated to fairly well kept." Four buildings were vacant and "had suffered varying degrees of vandalism." Six of the seven occupied properties "appeared to be adequately maintained." Nearly all of the homes had porches with lots that included small sheds and garages.

Due to the physical deterioration of the homes and their association with a criminal element it was apparently justified to demolish and clear the properties.

1010 Howard Road


1010 Howard Road SE, circa 1985. Photo from the Library of Congress.

In April 1929, Maggie Sharp of 1010 Howard Road SE died at the age of 61. Nearly a decade later, in June 1938, her husband, Lloyd, died in the home. He was 76.

Police raided 1010 Howard Road in September 1953. They arrested Daniel Ferguson on charges of operating a lottery, and his wife, Lucille Ferguson, on charges of keeping and selling whiskey without a license. According to a story in the Post, "Police said Ferguson, who had three numbers books and a quantity of numbers slips in his possession, ran into an undercover man as he attempted to run out of the back door." In October 1954 Ferguson was indicted as part of a "$1500-a-day lottery ring."

Lucille, apparently living by herself, died on September 20, 1972, according to a death notice in the Evening Star. According to property records the home, which was built in the early 1880s, sat vacant for more than a dozen years before WMATA seized it.

1004 Howard Road SE


1004 Howard Road SE, circa 1985. Photo from the Library of Congress.

In early November 1981, two men entered the home of 86-year invalid Rosella Newman. The would-be-robbers found Newman, who had grown up in the home, in her bed and shot her dead. The home remained empty until WMATA seized and demolished it.

Howard Road Then & Now


1959 Baist Real Estate Map showing Howard Road SE where today is the Anacostia Metro station and bus terminus. Photo from the DC Public Library, Special Collections.

Before the the Anacostia Metro station opened in 1991, the houses faced another demolition threat from the then-new Bolling Air Field in 1943. A legal notice printed in newspapers said the government may take the homes "for the construction of a military access road from Bolling Field to the District of Columbia." But subsequent newspaper accounts and period real estate maps show that residents of Howard Road were momentarily spared.

As plans the current Metro system were developed during the 1960s and 1970s, residents in the greater Anacostia and Barry Farm communities did not apparently object to losing the homes on Howard Road. According to a 1979 article in the Post, "The new proposal [to build the Anacostia Metro station] would require a relocation of 12 residential units, most of them in tiny, decrepit apartment buildings on the south side of Howard Road; three business, one church and the J. Finley Wilson Memorial Lodge No. 1731."

At a meeting that attracted 50 area residents, "Nobody fought for the buildings, but some expressed concern about the impact of heavy Metro traffic on children attending nearby Nicholas [sic] Avenue Elementary School (today Thurgood Marshall Academy]."

Although a federal judge's 1983 ruling temporarily halted construction of the Green Line through Anacostia, the future of the homes on Howard Road SE was a foregone conclusion. Bernard Gray, an attorney and long-time community activist in Historic Anacostia, said people did not try to save the homes on Howard Road, because they had become a source of blight and concern.

According to the 1985 report, "Preliminary examination of city directories, census and tax records for two periods (1899/1900 and 1909/1910) indicates that the subdivision and redevelopment of lots in the Howard Road neighborhood was not the work of large disinterested outside developers, but to a significant degree that of local, small-scale entrepreneurs, both male and female, many of whom lived on, or near, their subdivided lots."

Nearly thirty years later, life and residential and commercial use may finally return to this small corner of Howard Road SE.

In 1979, was your neighborhood "sound" or "distressed"?

DC looked very different in 1979. A map of neighborhood housing conditions shows just how much. In many neighborhoods in Washington now in high demand, 35 years ago the housing stock was in danger.


Image from the DC Public Library, Special Collections. Click for larger version.

This map is from a report by the Department of Housing and Community Development in June 1979, during Marion Barry's first mayoral term, entitled "Housing Problems, Conditions & Trends in the District of Columbia."

The report sounded the alarm for "Petworth, Parkview, Columbia Heights, LeDroit Park, Bloomingdale, Eckington, Edgewood and most of the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River." Those areas already had, or were in danger of developing, "deteriorating building conditions because resident incomes are not keeping pace with increasing costs of home ownership."

Here is the explanatory text and key for the map:

This map clarifies neighborhoods according to the categories shown in the legend. They are based on the following factors which are illustrated in subsequent maps: ownership patterns, yearly income of residents, real estate sales and prices, welfare assistance and the condition of housing.

Sound [Yellow]: Residents in these neighborhoods have high enough incomes to maintain their properties without public assistance. Northwest areas west of Rock Creek Park are classified as sound neighborhoods together with Capitol Hill. The only sound neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River are located south of Fort Dupont Park.

Distressed [Blue]: Residents require considerable assistance because of low incomes and poor housing conditions. Many of these areas also contain a concentration of public housing in need of significant improvement. Distressed neighborhoods west of the river include Ivy City and portions of the Southwest. East of the Anacostia River, the poorest housing conditions are found in Deanewood, Burrville, Northeast Boundary, Greenway, Anacostia, Congress Heights, Washington Highlands and Douglass.

Stable / Declining [Green]: Neighborhoods are in stable condition, with households of moderate income and high ownership, requiring little or no public assistance; or, are beginning to show deteriorating building conditions because resident incomes are not keeping pace with increasing costs of home ownership. West of the River, neighborhoods in this category are south Petworth, Parkview, Columbia Heights, LeDroit Park, Bloomingdale, Eckington, Edgewood and most of the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.

Transitional (early or advanced) [Red]: Neighborhoods in the early stages of transition are characterized by a surge in reinvestment and rehabilitation; whereas, neighborhoods in the most advanced stages are those experiencing extensive displacement of low and moderate income families by higher income households. Change began in Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan and spread east into Shaw and north along 14th Street, as well as into LeDroit Park and Eckington. The change which began in Capitol Hill spread further east into Lincoln Park, south to the Southeast, and north to the Stanton Park. No radical changes are occurring east of the River, though real estate activity is becoming significant but at a lower level of intensity.

This map further serves to highlight the different characteristics between areas east and west of the Anacostia River. West of the River and west of Rock Creek Park, neighborhoods are in basically sound and stable condition. The most concentrated real estate activity is found in and around the central city. Displacement is, therefore, the major problem west of the River; whereas the main concern east of the Anacostia River is the declining condition of the housing stock. Also, the majority of distressed and declining neighborhoods are found east of the River.

It's also interesting to look at the neighborhood names. NoMA didn't exist; it was "NE 1," adjacent to "NW 1" across North Capitol Street. What we now call U Street is "Westminster." And "Stanton Park" extended all the way across H Street. East of the River, neighborhood names such as "Good Hope," "Buena Vista," and "Douglass" have fallen out of currency.

The Green and Yellow Metrorail lines had not yet opened, the Red Line didn't go beyond Dupont Circle, and the Blue Line stopped at Stadium-Armory.

What else do you notice? How was your neighborhood categorized in 1979? Would it be categorized differently today?

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