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Longtime resident talks Barry Farm's changes over 50 years

Talk to anyone returning to DC who's been away for a few years, and you'll get an earful about how much the city has changed. Even to residents, DC has been rendered unrecognizable by the changes, setbacks, blunders, and improvements of the past 50 years.

Leon Dews of 2717 Wade Road SE in Barry Farm.

But there are those who have been around long enough to recall another time entirely. Leon Dews, 62, has been on-hand to witness multiple transformations in his own neighborhood of Barry Farm.

"It was like voodoo," says Dews, recounting memories of his childhood in Barry Farm. "When the sun ducked down behind the trees, there was no kids in the street. Nowadays you see kids out at 11, 12, 2 o'clock in the morning. Kids talk back to the parents, cuss the parents out and all that (expletive)."

In the Barry Farm community there are two historic homes on the 2700 block of Wade Road, SE that are not included in the city's thus-far unrealized redevelopment plans. Dews' home at 2717 Wade Road, built in the early 1920s, is one of the two.

"When they do that redevelopment, it doesn't matter to me. I plan on having my senior citizen's apartment," said Dews. "See, this is not part of the dwellings," he says, referring to the neighboring public housing project of Barry Farm Dwellings.

Yet, Dews has noticed recent changes that have affected his family's two-story home, one of the last remaining houses in the neighborhood with a basement. In recent years, a sidewalk was installed out front of the house. During his childhood and adolescence, Dews said it was a dirt road.

"I've watched them change the houses down there twice since I was coming up," he remembers, citing an influx of refugees from the urban renewal efforts in Southwest Washington. "At first it wasn't those big houses. It was little what we called shotgun houses. Open the front door and see through the back door. Back in the 40s & 50s."

2717 Wade Road SE was built in 1923. Photo by the author.

Born in 1949, Dews says, "Most of the neighbors I know died."

Even with turnover in the area's housing, there was always a tight community. "It really didn't change the neighborhood that bad. See Barry Farm was always like a tribe," he said. Then, referring to the nearby Garfield Heights neighborhood, he added "they had the Garfields on the other side of the bridge. They didn't come over here and we didn't go over there. It was no guns, it was sticks and baseball bats back then, and fists."

During our conversation, along with local filmmaker and artist Tendani Mpulubusi, Dews shared some insights into his background. "I'm one of the original Teenorama dancers," Dews says reticently of the popular local teenage dance show of the 1960s. "I got on the cameras a couple times."

Dews and his extended family are well-known in southeast Washington. They were members of the Seafayers Yacht Club, founded in 1945 as the nation's oldest black yacht club. At one time, Dews owned a 55 foot boat.

He credits his life's success to his father. "My father had a third grade education. I thought he was the dumbest mother-(expletive) in the world, back then. But after I grew up I realized he was the smartest man in the world with a third grade education," Dews recalls fondly. "He always lectured us and whooped our ass."

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


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by selxic on Apr 10, 2012 10:58 am • linkreport

*scratching head*


Not sure what we're supposed to get from this one.

by HogWash on Apr 10, 2012 12:00 pm • linkreport

I like this one.

by d on Apr 10, 2012 12:25 pm • linkreport

Please excuse my last comment. It was not meant to "tear down others" nor do I intend my comments to "just serve to criticize the site or authors." I like how the post began and the premise, but like HogWash, I was "not sure what we're supposed to get from this one." I wanted more. That's not a bad thing.

by selxic on Apr 10, 2012 12:48 pm • linkreport

I always thought that Barry Farm was named after you-know-who!

by Jake on Apr 10, 2012 12:48 pm • linkreport

I like this series in general. IMHO This is not the best example from it. To me this article seemed more like a bio of man who, in my opinion, has an attitude amounting to, "kids these days!", and not enough (for me) about history of place. Yeah, a lot of 62 year olds, and 52 year olds, and 42 year olds and even 32 year olds think kids are different and worse now than when they were kids.

by Tina on Apr 10, 2012 1:10 pm • linkreport


@Tina, you've summed up my take on this in super fashion.

I like this series too and agree that this is a head scratcher and dude sounds like he's stuck in time.

by HogWash on Apr 10, 2012 1:39 pm • linkreport

There are a few great examples of shotgun houses on that block, the last remnants of the original Freedman's Bureau community.

by D.M. on Apr 10, 2012 1:45 pm • linkreport

A great example of the intergenerational violence in poorer communities in the US and the inability to break the glorification of us vs. them and turf wars. There's literally no reason why kids in Barry Farms and Garfield Heights should be fighting one another, yet, this story is told as a badge of honor.

It's sad how easy it is to destroy the hopes and optimism of young and impressionable youth no matter how much money gets pumped into education and youth centers. As long as there's an older person still advocating the 'good ol' days' of violence, the violence will be transmitted.

by Name on Apr 10, 2012 1:51 pm • linkreport

Yeah, I don't think that house is from the 1920s. Pretty sure it is one of the original historic Barry Farm houses... the architecture (or what is left of it) here looks a little more consistent with the 1800s, with a newer addition on the back of the house.

DC tax records are not always correct in this regard, btw.

That area has some interesting history.

by nativedc on Apr 10, 2012 3:40 pm • linkreport

Name, I think he was saying that they still have turf wars but now they actually cross over to the other side and shoot one another. He may be longing for violence but apparently he views their sort of violence as toned down in comparison. He's wishing for the lesser of two evils.

by Tracey on Apr 11, 2012 10:20 am • linkreport

@Name -- see _Code of the Street_ and _Streetwise_ by Elijah Anderson.

by Richard Layman on Apr 11, 2012 9:08 pm • linkreport

Interesting! Good old days.

by Princess on Apr 12, 2012 3:39 am • linkreport


According to the best and only source, Mr. Dews memory is dead on. During our conversations he said his grandfather, Joseph Ellis, built the house in the early 20's.

DC's building permits indicate that on May 29, 1923 Joseph Ellis applied for and received Building Permit No. 11154 to construct the home that today stands at 2717 Wade Road SE. Furthermore, maps indicate that prior to 1923 there was no home at 2717. The house next doors appears to be older, however.

Additionally, the homes the next block down on Wade Road towards Sumner Road were constructed in the mid 1930s. The row of homes on the 2600 block of Wade Road cost an average of $2,500 to construct and were designed by noted DC architect Lewis W. Giles.

H/T to BK for the confirms.

by John Muller on Apr 14, 2012 3:11 am • linkreport

There are three houses on the 2800 block of Wade Rd (2814, 2818, 2820). Any idea on how to get the the dates they were built? The houses each have an awesome view of the city with views of the Washington Monument and The Capitol. I'm pretty sure they are "original" because you have to look on some "King's Plat" map for info.

by Ibrahima on May 30, 2012 2:39 pm • linkreport

I really appreciated this article. I found it by googling 2710 Wade Road SE. I am doing genealogy research on my son's father's side of the family. My son's great-great grandfather lived at on Wade Road SE according to the 1910 census with no house number except a "234 enumeration district", and the 1920 census at 2710 Wade Road SE, and on the 1930 census at 2608 Wade Road SE, and in a city directory in 1935 states 2608. In each of the census records it states that Robert J. Millard owned his homes.

by hholeus on Nov 30, 2013 8:11 pm • linkreport

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