Greater Greater Washington

Posts about East Of The River


For David Adjaye's DC libraries, seeing is believing

Among all of the new DC public libraries, the Bellevue and Francis Gregory branches east of the river have the strongest design. Without sacrificing functionality and accessibility, they put sophisticated works of architecture in historically underserved neighborhoods. But photos don't tell the whole story. You have to go see them yourself.

Francis Gregory Library in Hillcrest.

Designed by British architect David Adjaye, who's also designing the Museum of African-American History and Culture, the libraries are a reminder that it's possible for a work of world-class architecture to also be a comfortable third place.

Francis Gregory library atrium. Photo by the author.

When the first renderings of the new libraries were published, I was unimpressed by them. But after a day-long excursion to see all of the libraries built under the tenure of library director Ginnie Cooper, I have to admit that I was surprised at how brilliant Bellevue and Francis Gregory are.

Unlike the new libraries at Benning, Anacostia, Tenleytown, and Shaw, which were designed by Freelon Group and Davis Brody Bond, Adjaye's libraries don't have an immediately recognizable, iconic look.

They're both fairly straightforward. Bellevue Library is a box pierced with skylight shafts and a few large "pods" in front. Francis Gregory library is a diamond-patterned box, filled with blocks to divide the space. What distinguishes them is how Adjaye and associate architect, Wiencek+Associates, divide the spaces with layers of books, glass, and glossy surfaces that produce a warm, flexible environment.

Both libraries use glass to interact with the street

Glass is an important part of Adjaye's recent projects, like the Moscow's Skolkovo School of Management, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, or the Whitechapel Idea Store in London, which like Bellevue and Gregory is a library in an inner-city neighborhood.

The side of the Francis Gregory in winter.

Adjaye doesn't use glass to erase a building's form like so many modern office buildings. Although the architects typically want the building to be transparent, minimizing the difference between outside and inside, this effect only works under the right light. Otherwise it's a mirror or it's so dark you can't see the building. This is why we see so many depictions at the twilight "rendering hour." Dusk is the only time when, because the interior of a building is as bright as the exterior, the glass disappears.

Instead, Adjaye uses what are usually undesirable reflections to multiply the sensation of the building's surroundings. Viewing the Gregory Library from dead on, the alternating diamonds of gray mirror and clear glass playfully juxtapose reflections of the neighborhood with views of the interior.

Interior and exterior. Photo by the author.

Moving to the side, the reflectivity of the clear glass increases, and the diamonds, the walls, and the building disappear more and more into its wooded site, leaving a steel canopy soaring above a symmetrical forest. In the back, the building disappears. In the front, inside and outside are superimposed on each other, reminding viewers that both are public spaces.

The Bellevue library has a strong street presence. Photo by Eric Fidler.

The Bellevue Library has a stronger street presence, but it still plays with openness and transparency. Its glass facade creates a relationship between the interior and the street. Adjaye placed windows to provide clear views out to the sidewalk. Outside, glulam beams, a kind of timber, help screen the interior and heighten the transparency by cutting glare on the windows.

Like a sidewalk cafe, Bellevue's front room "pods" become wonderful places to observe city life while feeling comfortably separate from it.

Inside, reflective surfaces create a sense of place

Inside the Bellevue Library, the wide-open spaces are divided by different-colored sheets of glass that reflect and distort views. Black glass hides the bathrooms on the first floor, while upstairs, dark yellow glazing hides the glare from a skylight. Through the glass partitions you can see to the other end of the library, through several sheets of glass. However, because each pane is also reflecting its surroundings, you see transparent images of the space you're in, with other reflections giving readers the feeling of being in an intimate, private room.

Well-lighted desks are arranged so readers can watch the street in moments of pause.

Dark, reflective walls also add to both libraries' sense of place. They use the well-worn trick of implying space behind the wall's surface, "opening it up," while avoiding the hokiness of an optical mirror. They bring light in from outside, and mix it with the colors of the room they contain.

Both the dark walls and the translucent glass let readers sense their surroundings, but loosen the figure of reflected individuals. A viewer can perceive a presence without having to worry about staring or even looking up. To have that kind of casual awareness while focusing on a book felt very relaxing.

Lights in pentagonal arrangement imply the presence of rooms, even if there are no walls.

However, the most astonishing use of reflective surfaces is in the story room at the Gregory Library. Physically, it's just an oval room bounded by walls of vertical lumber. Every other piece is removed at a child's eye level and the resulting slots are painted gloss black. Within the wall reflect in the trees, books, and structure through drawing in street scenes. As you move around, the angles change and the reflections move and blur, like you're animating them.

See buildings in real-life, not renderings

Neither the Bellevue or Gregory libraries have a "wow" moment. They are very much about the experience of individuals in the spaces the building creates. Because the architecture relies on a person's physical presence, it's hard to understand through a photograph. In fact, the images I've seen are less beautiful than the ambiance of the building.

Early rendering of the Bellevue Library from DC Public Libraries.

In 2013, architecture is seen mostly through carefully curated images. An architect's largest audience is often on the web, who will consume and discard architecture through images. Renderings, because they look almost real, can be the most misleading. This emphasis on the photograph feeds back on itself to aggravate a fixation on "iconic" buildings, whose memorable images can be telegraphed around the world and recognized instantly.

But the people who are most affected by a work of architecture, whether positively or negatively, are the ones who live with the building. Dramatic architectural gestures are only so relevant to the creation of great urban spaces. Often, they're detrimental to to the sense of place.

More than anything, Adjaye's buildings remind me that to understand a work of architecture, you have to visit it. The basic architectural elements of space, program, and material are so interrelated that the quality of the buildings is impossible to capture. Don't trust me, and don't try to form an opinion during your lunch break. Go east of the river and see for yourself.

Cross-posted on цarьchitect.


Future of Sharpe Health School still uncertain

Sharpe Health School, a school for disabled students in Petworth, could close, sending students to the former River Terrace Elementary School in Ward 7. Not only is River Terrace inaccessible to disabled students, but parents fear its location could put their kids at risk.

Photo by Healthnewsnet on Flickr.

Sharpe and Mamie D. Lee, another school for the disabled in Fort Totten, will be combined in fall 2014 and moved to River Terrace, which closed in 2012. Tamara Gorham, whose son has attended Sharpe Health School for the past six years, believes that students will be worse off at River Terrace.

She cites a number of reasons including the limited input from parents, the short timeline and inadequate funding given for River Terrace to accommodate students with disabilities, and the emotional toll these changes will take on the students.

DCPS, community already invested in Sharpe

Sharpe, located at 13th and Upshur streets NW, is a part of its community. It's located less than a mile from the Petworth Metro station on a tree-lined street with wide, ADA-compliant sidewalks. The school is adjacent to Upshur Park, several other public and charter schools, and the newly renovated Petworth Library. Sharpe has relationships with local businesses where students can receive job training, and is located close to Children's National Medical Center, which many students visit frequently.

In addition, DCPS has already invested in physical improvements to the school, recently refurbishing its therapeutic pool.

Sharpe parents say teachers have developed a rapport with students and tend to their needs beyond what is expected of them. Teachers at Sharpe change soiled diapers for incontinent students and clean their tracheal tubes frequently.

While DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson says she doesn't "believe effective teachers will lose their jobs," there's no guarantee that they'll be rehired at River Terrace or that they'll want to teach there.

Parents worry about River Terrace's location

The playground with unused smokestacks from the power station in the background.

Even if Sharpe teachers come over to River Terrace, the school's surroundings could put children at risk. The school is one block away from the 100-year-old Benning Road Power Plant, which is being decommissioned. Pepco is currently trying to figure out how polluted the soil and water are in the surrounding area.

Meanwhile, the nearby Minnesota Avenue Metro station is a repeat offender on the list of Metro's 10 most dangerous stations. Students taking the bus may have a hard time finding a space on one, as each bus only has two spaces for wheelchairs. And those who walk will have to cross over the Anacostia Freeway on a narrow sidewalk.

Gorham worries that disabled students could endure teasing from people on the street while going to school. She also fears that students in need of medical help would be taken to nearby Prince George's Hospital Center, which has poor ratings.

River Terrace isn't ready for disabled students

The entrance to River Terrace is still locked up.

Meanwhile, renovations at River Terrace haven't even started yet. Today, a high, chain-link fence surrounds the shuttered building. The school isn't wheelchair accessible, and there's no guarantee that it will be before opening day.

DCPS has set aside between $15 and $20 million for the work to be completed in a piecemeal fashion, though parents estimate it could cost as much as $30 million to provide everything they feel their kids will need. They recently gave a wish list of things they'd like to see in the new school to the architect hired by DCPS, but were told he was "trying to work [their requests] into the budget."

There are also concerns about plans to co-locate a community center with the school, which neighborhood residents asked for after the school closed. Sharpe parents wonder if the community center will be open to the public during the school day, which they feel could be a safety risk.

Last week, a federal judge decided not to grant a preliminary injunction against DCPS closing Sharpe and 14 other schools across the city. Judge Boasberg argued that students could go to better schools, citing several examples of students who would be moved to schools with better test scores.

However, that won't be the case for Sharpe Health School. If DCPS wants to do school reform right, they should take a second look at the closings list. For now, parents and students are hoping the judge will see things from their perspective and allow them to have input into decisions that so drastically affect them.


Suitland Parkway Trail is a mess. Will leaders seek change?

I'm biking on the Suitland Parkway Trail to work, swerving around broken glass and under low-hanging tree branches. Highway traffic roars past just inches away. Suddenly, the trail ends.

All photos by the author.

Friday is the official Bike to Work Day, so on Monday, I did a test-run of a new route from my home in Trinidad to work in Suitland. What I found is that DC, Prince George's County, and the National Park Service, which maintains Suitland Parkway, still have a long way to go to make cycling a viable option for many communities east of the Anacostia River.

Suitland Parkway is a near-freeway connecting neighborhoods like Anacostia, Barry Farm, and Shipley Terrace to employment centers at Suitland and Andrews Air Force Base. Next to it is the Suitland Parkway Trail, a bike highway similar to the Mount Vernon Trail in Northern Virginia, but it doesn't make it out of the District. It appears to be DDOT's responsibility to maintain the trail, but judging from the lack of maintenance, it's clearly not a priority for them.

After a pleasant ride southbound against the commute rush on Martin Luther King Avenue, I turn onto Sheridan Road SE. This on-street section is the western extension of the Suitland Parkway Trail. It could certainly use sharrows or even a bike lane/cycle track, as the travel lanes are very wide.

Construction debris from the unfinished Sheridan Station development litters the sidewalk adjacent to the road. I swerve around something that was burned to the curb cut and a pile of mulch that sprawls onto the trail. There's no clear signage for the trailhead, but this is where it starts.

This is the nicest part of the trail in the city, though. There's separation from the parkway, and weeds and garbage haven't colonized the path yet.

It quickly gets worse, though. In some areas, there's so much underbrush, weeds, plant debris, garbage, and broken glass on the far side of the trail that there's just one passable "lane." I'm now limited to a space 3 feet wide, keenly aware that cars traveling over 50 miles per hour are just inches away.

The trail separates from the parkway for a short distance, where it's quickly overtaken by nature.

Grass grows through cracks in the pavement, reaching the point where the trail needs to be completely rebuilt. The surface is completely broken here.

When I get back to the parkway, the lane farthest from the road is still blocked, whether by trash and dead leaves or by low-hanging tree branches. I either have to get off my bike or move into oncoming traffic to pass it.

There's a speed limit sign placed not next to the trail, but in it. There's plenty of room 4 feet to the right.

Here's an uncharacteristically clear section of the trail. It's right in front of the speed limit sign, though, so I get the feeling it was kept that way so drivers could see the sign.

East of Stanton Road, the garbage littering the path makes me think I've found a mobile automobile repair shop.

A stream culvert passes under the trail and road here. Unfortunately, it narrows the trail.

This is the steepest climb on the trail, though thankfully it's much less steep than taking parallel streets like Good Hope Road or Pennsylvania Avenue. Here, you reach two places where the trail is collapsing due to erosion of the ground below.

After crossing two exit ramps, the trail continues under the Alabama Avenue bridge. The trail is very overgrown here, and I can pick out mulberries, Ailanthus (Tree of Heaven), Virginia creeper, and other weedy plants overrunning the pavement.

Under the bridge, the trail is barely 3 feet wide, making it impossible for two cyclists to pass each other here. The lanes of the parkway must be at least 12 feet wide, and they should be narrowed to give enough space for the trail.

If you haven't noticed by now, the parkway itself has a brand-new layer of asphalt, while the adjacent trail has not seen the same level of care or investment.

At Southern Avenue, the boundary between DC and Prince George's County, the trail abruptly ends.

I trudge up the hill through waist-high weeds to get to Southern Avenue. To add insult to injury, there's no gap in the guard rail, so you have to lift your bike over the rail to get to the sidewalk.

Improving the Suitland Parkway Trail is a chicken-and-egg argument: no one uses it because it goes nowhere, so it isn't used, which means it isn't maintained. But if the District and Prince George's County are serious about making cycling a viable option for communities east of the Anacostia River, they have to do a better job of creating trails and other infrastructure, and they have to actually maintain them. If our leaders are serious about all their claims about "One City" and working with our neighbors, they'd sit down together and find a way to make this a priority.

There are rumors that the trail will one day extend to at least the Branch Avenue Metro station, if not farther south to Andrews. In 1994, the National Park Service did a feasibility study of extending the trail, but nearly 20 years later, nothing has happened.

It's also unclear who would be in charge of this construction, the National Park Service or Prince George's County. I'll believe that the local governments actually see some level of priority here when I see shovels in the ground.

In the meantime, DDOT and Mayor Gray should at least send a crew to pick up debris and clear the underbrush so what's there can be used by District cyclists and pedestrians. It's literally the least they could do.


Vacancy at the Parkway Guest House abandominium

Perched atop a hill overlooking historic Anacostia, tucked behind a new condominium development is an abandominium from an era the city has left behind and this neighborhood is trying to forget.

A sign for new condos lays on the ground, the Parkway Guest House abandominium in the background.

From the 1960s until the last decade the Parkway Guest House was a gathering spot for drugs, prostitution and all forms of illegality. During the 1990s it essentially became "a cheap crack hotel," according to activist William Alston-El. "This was the place you could go to die if you wanted to. They had so much drugs up in here it was crazy."

According to tax records, Stanton View Development LLC purchased this abandominium (SSL 5807 0008) and the empty land around it in January 2012 for an even $1,000,000. A placard on the ground announces the coming of 46 new condos at River East at Anacostia Park and encourages folks to reserve their units. The website, however, advertises a less ambitious development that has yet to break ground. For now, this cracked-out abandominium abides, stuck between time awaiting its next guest or demolition.

A look inside the Parkway Guest House

No Vacancy at the Parkway Guest House. All photos by the author.

On a recent visit Alston-El and I found the building wide open. As we entered through the front door we found two handwritten notes to the left of the pay window.

One, bearing the date "5-8-97," reads, "Excessive smoke will set off smoke alarms. Anyone caught tampering with these devices will be banned from these premises. Fire dept. Detective The Manager!!" Beneath reads, "NO DRUGS POSSESSION OF DRUGS OR USE OF DRUGS ON OR IN THESE PREMISES IS PROHIBITED NO WARNING MGR." A concentrated layer of dust covers the yellow phone books on the counter. Alston-El picks up a "NO VACANCY" sign.

We move through the house makings odds on which we expect to find more of, drug paraphernalia or antiques. In a back room former guests have left their mark on the wood paneling.

Graffiti inside the Parkway Guest House.

"'Pootah Boo' from that South Side MOB MUGGIN HARD DRIKIN HENNESEY BUSTIN Off the Roof At My enemies Watch em bleed Till Im 6 feet DEEP" was here. So were "Frank & Rita '92" who proclaimed their love by drawing an arrow through a heart and two smiley faces.

Alston-El points to the floor at an empty green drug baggie. "Yep, that's crack. Yeah, this is still the place you can come and do your thing only now it's better, no room fare for an abondominium," he says with a laugh.

Out in the hall a mirror reflects the emptiness and darkness of this place as we move towards the back of the vacant building and past another reception area. The intercom next to the rear door emblazoned with "Parkway Guest House" in black trimmed gold-lettering stopped working years ago. We hit the stairs to rooms 6, 7, and 8.

Rooms 6, 7, and 8 of the Parkway Guest House abandominium.

Upstairs, a narrow hallway leads past three rooms. Much of the ceiling in each is now on the floor. Through the windows, sun refracts off the siding of the Grandview Estates, a 46-unit complex that opened nearly four years ago alongside hopes of local economic regeneration. Further down the hall in room 8, the roof has given in.

The roof of the Parkway Guest House is starting to collapse.

"You don't see this sort of craftsmanship anymore," Alston-El says as he unwinds an antique Ruby Red Glass Globe Exit sign from a light fixture above. Were you to follow the exit blindly, you would go out the door and fall to the ground below.

The upstairs exit of the Parkway Guest House leads to the ground below.

For Anacostia and the surrounding neighborhoods of Hillsdale, Barry Farm, and Ft. Stanton, the initial step towards sustained economic revitalization can be a doozy. The contrast of a new condominium complex filled with young professionals side-by-side with a vacant building equally accessible and dangerous to roving populations of the area's homeless, substance addicts, and prostitutes will continue to be the prevailing paradox east of the river, from Talbert Street SE to Brandywine Street SE, until greater public and private investment is joined by robust citizen activism and wherewithal.

The concentration of abandominiums from single family homes to apartment buildings to the Parkway Guest House presents a portfolio that with the right leadership, partnership and vision presents as much opportunity as challenge. Now that restaurateur Andy Shallal has announced his plans to open new franchises in Takoma and Brookland, it seems a logical location to begin expanding east of the river would be in an abandominium such as the Parkway Guest House.


Georgetown walks a mile in Kenilworth's shoes

On a pleasant, sunny Sunday afternoon, a group of Georgetown University students went for a walk. This was not simply a leisurely stroll. They were taking on the challenge of walking a mile in someone else's much-smaller shoes: those of the preschool through 5th grade students of Kenilworth Elementary School, who would make this walk daily to their new school once their school closed in June.

All photos from The Walk Video.

The group gathered to start their walk at the Kenilworth School Building. They walked through the neighborhood's public housing and across a highway...

... through a tunnel, out of the Kenilworth community, and into another neighborhood.

Once in the Deanwood neighborhood, they walked past a bus bay, across a field, pass a recreation center and middle school, all to arrive at their new school, Houston Elementary.

The distance totaled 0.8 miles, almost one-tenth the width of the District.

DC Public Schools' consolidation plan, beginning this fall, assigns students from Kenilworth Elementary to attend either Houston Elementary or Thomas Elementary. There's transportation for students traveling to Thomas School, but not for those students traveling to Houston Elementary. These students would have to take the same journey as Nasir, a 9 year old who shared his thoughts on what would be his new school.

Nasir is the star of an interview which gives his perspective on the consequences for, and causes of, his neighborhood school closing. Normally, the suggestion to walk a mile in someone else's shoes is a figurative one. Nasir and the Georgetown students afford others the opportunity to participate in the call to action with their video and the community walk.

Over the last few years, Kenilworth has partnered with Georgetown to provide tutoring for 1st through 3rd grade students reading below grade level. The program seeks to combat educational inequalities by tutoring, mentoring, and engaging students in challenging environments. In doing so, DC Reads fosters relationships among elementary youth, college students, families and community members through increasing knowledge of the larger social justice issues that surround education. As a result, these college students have become a part of the Kenilworth School community.

The walk's organizers hoped to continue the community dialogue about the future of Kenilworth School, highlight the potential consequences of the school closures, and demonstrate the challenges the students will face walking to Houston Elementary, their newly-assigned school. They consider themselves concerned community members representing an unheard perspective. This perspective comes from the students, their fellow young people and the most affected community members.

A community is not just the people who live in it. Most communities exist before any of its current residents were born and are likely to continue to exist after its residents have passed on. It is something beyond the individuals or components—the residents, buildings, and community members. Members can and often include individuals living elsewhere but with remaining connections. Rather than physical boundaries, the demarcation of a community is often one of a common interest.

One community member was grateful for the support of the students but disappointed at the dismal numbers of Kenilworth parents and residents who joined the walk. One of only a handful of residents in attendance, he apologized to the organizers on behalf of the community. However, it seemed unnecessary, since at that moment, all of those in attendance were the community.

Despite not being parents, everyone in the group shared a common interest with the families who send their children to Kenilworth School everyday. They care for and want the best for the children of Kenilworth, and undeterred, they planned to walk again to show their support.

Their showing of support demonstrates the promise to share in a vibrant community, not a deficit in community spirit. It means no matter how physically isolated, the Kenilworth community has a common interest worth sharing and investment. All of these persist despite currently suffering the potential loss of another institution and much needed service in a community where the school is the only remaining public investment. Still, sometimes it takes welcoming in someone who is seemingly an outsider and following their lead, allowing a change in perspective.

A community is healthy when the members show love and concern for one another. Hopefully, with the community walk, the organizers have accomplished their goal of placing their community's interest at the forefront in the conversation on school closures—educating and caring for children.

You can watch the full video below.


Does DCPS need application-only schools east of the river?

DC Public Schools must serve both "kids who are ready to learn" and "under-performing kids," according to David Catania, chair of the DC Council's Education Committee. To accomplish this, he has asked DCPS to think about application-only secondary schools east of the river.

Ron Brown Middle School, Deanwood. Photo from DCPS.

Will this strategy improve options for District families, especially those east of the Anacostia? Or will it further drain neighborhood schools? And what does this bifurcation of "ready" and "under-performing" mean for DC students?

Catania proposed this idea to DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson at the March 1 oversight hearing for DCPS. Rachel Baye reported in the Examiner:

As I look at our communities in [Wards] 7 and 8, there is a morning diaspora where many families get up and take their children to schools west of the [Anacostia] River. I want to put on the table the idea of an application middle school for 7 and 8 and an application high school in 7 and 8 for those kids who don't have the ability to transport themselves to Hardy or to Deal or to any of the excellent middle schools that exist west of the river.
Henderson wasn't given time respond at the hearing, but Baye later asked DCPS "whether the school system has looked into Catania's suggestion" and received no response.

Must special programming equal "application-only"?

Catania specifically mentioned language immersion and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs as "things that open doors" for students, continuing:

These are the things that I think are going to attract parents. But I really want to think—without demanding or mandating, I want you to think about how the communities could create an application middle and an application high in [Wards] 7 and 8 that could compete with the charter schools and meet the needs of those children who are not in a position for whatever reason to be transported west every morning. This [presumably, the "morning diaspora" mentioned above] has to stop. All right?" (see Council archives)
This appears to conflate attractive programming with application-only schools. Which of these concepts DC pursues depends on the goal. Is it to provide more challenging and interesting programming in east of the river schools? Or is it about dividing "under-performing" children from "ready" students?

The DCPS lottery system already allows students from all over town to take advantage, space permitting, of special programming at the neighborhood schools. Language programming is available, for instance, at Oyster in NW and at Tyler in SE; these are not application-only schools. Anne Beers Elementary (Ward 7) has a STEM program, including a partnership with NASA; it is available to anyone in the city by lottery, without special application.

These special programs are, as Catania notes, rare east of the river. And there is a long history of failed promises in this regard. A recent example: H.D. Woodson SHS (Ward 7), when newly built and reconstituted in 2011, was to be a STEM school with a focus on green technology. The special programming was to serve in-boundary students and, it was hoped, attract out-of-boundary students as well. But DCPS failed to develop the promised offerings.

Specialty programming, like any schooling, may work more easily for "kids who are ready to learn." And research on peer effects would seem worth considering in this context. But is there any reason "under-performing kids" cannot be served by language, arts, or technology programming? And is it true, as Catania contends, that teaching the "ready" and the "under-performing" together "serves neither"? Are application-only schools the only, or best, way to attract talented students or invested families?

Would selective schools serve wards 7 and 8?

In addition to the 5 entirely application-only high schools (Banneker, Ellington, School Without Walls, McKinley Tech, and Phelps), DCPS has a variety of selective programs within schools at Woodson, Dunbar, Wilson, and Hardy.

As Catania pointed out, there is no application-only DCPS secondary school east of the river. And there is no entirely application-based middle school.

An application-only school in ward 7 or 8 could serve as a magnet for talented students, attracting students to DCPS that are currently enrolled in charters, preventing further attrition to charters, or even encouraging more residents to move to those neighborhoods on the basis of stronger educational offerings.

On the other hand, such a school could take the remaining high-performing students out of neighborhood schools in the two wards, reducing enrollments, lowering average test scores, and removing positive peer effects of those high performers on the students that remain in neighborhood schools.

There is a great deal of research on peer effects and other aspects of magnet programming on student achievement. Less prevalent are studies exploring the effects of magnet programming, whether application- or lottery-based, on neighborhood schools.

One 2004 study found :

The data from this district indicated that the composition of most of the lowest achieving neighborhood high schools is affected little by magnet schools because few students from these neighborhoods have the academic credentials to qualify for admission to magnet schools. In contrast, magnet schools have a greater effect on achievement at neighborhood high schools in high-achieving residence areas.
A 2008 study mapped magnet students' home addresses, correlating them with failing neighborhood schools.

Before actively pursuing application-only magnet schools as the solution for Wards 7 and 8, DCPS and Councilmember Catania should evaluate the potential positive and negative effects of such a school on the quality of education for students attending existing schools in those wards, in addition to how it would serve the students it attracts.

Creating a new school might be more cost-effective and better serve Ward 7 and 8 students than improving existing neighborhood schools, and an application-only school might be the best approach. But policymakers should not simply assume this without more thoroughly evaluating the options and the available research.

Update: David Catania's staff followed up to say that the councilmember was only asking DCPS to consider the idea, not necessarily to move forward with it. We have updated the post to clarify this.


H.A. Griswold and Anacostia's streetcar story

When the streetcar eventually returns to the Anacostia neighborhood, it will be more than 150 years since the industrious spirit of Henry A. Griswold and his investors developed the first horse-drawn line connecting communities on the east and west sides of the Eastern Branch of the Potomac River, now known as the Anacostia.

Anacostia's first street car. Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Washington.

The first streetcar since 1962 will soon start running in DC on a 1.1-mile test track the District Department of Transportation has built along South Capitol Street.

During the last 2½ decades of the 19th century, the streetcar in Anacostia ran up and down present-day Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, SE. It brought residential and commercial development to the city's first suburb thanks to Henry A. Griswold, President of the Anacostia & Potomac River Railway Company.

A community "lifeline" is born

"Following the original horsecar line in New York in 1832, a number of more progressive American cities—New Orleans, Brooklyn, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Chicago—all had horesecar systems in 1859," writes LeRoy O. King Jr. in the definitive 100 Years of Capital Traction: The Story of Streetcars in the Nation's Capital. "Yet in 1860, Washington's public transit consisted of one line of horsedrawn omnibuses. The omnibuses were nothing more than urban stagecoaches, and, given the condition of early Washington streets, were indeed primitive transit."

During the Civil War, in 1862, the streetcar was introduced to Washington. Nearly 2 decades later the easternmost terminus of the line was at M Street near the Navy Yard, just before the foot of the Eastern Branch Bridge. Those living east of the river had to walk the rest of the way home or catch a carriage ride.

Thus, before Griswold subdivided his Anacostia property in what would become known as Griswold's Addition, he knew that he first had to build a streetcar over the river, ensuring a critical lifeline to the neighborhood to spur growth.

In February 1875, a prospectus of the Anacostia and Potomac River Railway Company (A&P), chartered by Congress, was distributed throughout Washington and in Griswold's native state of Connecticut. The line began running within the neighborhood later that year.

The A&P grows but hits an obstacle

When Frederick Douglass and his family moved to Anacostia in the waning months of 1877, the neighborhood gained an advocate of national consequence. Douglass was an investor in the streetcar line and lobbied Congress on Griswold's behalf. In 1880, Douglass sent a letter to Senator George F. Edmunds, an advocate of the city's development, adding his support for the an extension of the Anacostia route.

The A&P ran 2.9 miles of track over the Eastern Branch Bridge, rebuilt in 1874, then horizontally back and forth past the Navy Yard to the Southwest waterfront. There, it connected with the Metropolitan line, which ran vertically up and down 7th Street Northwest. Other lines reached the city limits in all directions with the 3 other extant street railway companies of Washington & Georgetown, Capitol, and Columbia.

Map of 1880 Street Railways. Image from the DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Division.

By 1887 the A&P had run for 8 years from 7th & M Streets SW to the grounds of the US Government Insane Asylum, now the planned headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security at St. Elizabeths. Griswold now sought to expand his route into the heart of the city, but the District Commissioners worried about "the unnecessary multiplication of railroad tracks" downtown.

The commissioners sought increased oversight and influence over streetcar lines. In a letter, they said:

[T]he commissioners should have some lawful jurisdiction and direction of the operation of the roads; that the affirmative petition of property-owners upon the line of the proposed routes should be obtained; that a certain proportion of the proceeds of the business of the roads be paid into the District treasury, and that the details of construction, including the pattern of rail and the method of paving the inner-train and inter-rail spaces, should be subject to approval of the commissioners.
Using facts, figures and a chart, Griswold went before the city commissioners in the summer of 1890 to advocate for an extension of the A&P route. Flush with cash after the company carried more than an estimated 800,000 passengers the previous year and a "rapidly increasing population" along the A&P route, Griswold wanted the line to connect "with other companies in the center of the city, so as to transport their passengers to such parts as the City Hall, the Center Market, and the business houses on F Street and Pennsylvania avenue between Sixth and Tenth streets northwest."

"Road Side Sketches of Anacostia," Evening Star, Dec 5, 1891. Looking up present-day MLK Jr. Ave SE. Photo Washingtoniana Division, DC Public Library.

Circulating throughout the city in the spring of 1893 were ten thousand illustrated pamphlets Griswold printed and mailed promoting places of interest in Anacostia and the surrounding neighborhoods. Each pamphlet held a coupon for one free ride over the Anacostia road. At the time the A&P had 52 cars and 230 horses running over 8.5 miles of track which now extended through Capitol Hill.

In the coming years investors would favor electrification over the horse-drawn system. "As the decade wore on, the argument turned from the idea of equipping each car with two horses to the idea of compressed air motors and finally to an underground electric system," King writes in Capital Traction.

Griswold maintains control

When Frederick Douglass passed away at his Anacostia home on February 20, 1895 Griswold lost both a friend and long-time business partner. Douglass held considerable stock in the A&P at the time of his death. Less than a month later, Griswold denied reports that a syndicate of the Philadelphia Traction Co., Baltimore Traction Co., and local Belt Company and Eckington Soldier's Home line was making an offer to buy the A&P and its valuable charter which included rights to extend west to 14th & Pennsylvania Avenue and as far east as the Maryland border.

Griswold continued to maintain control of the A&P despite labor unrest, citizen complaints, and a preponderance of fare evasions. In January 1897 he submitted a report of the receipts and expenditures of his company to the US Senate. In the previous year the road carried 1,127,562 passengers amounting to revenue of $164,762.06. Salary and wages totaled more than $23,500 along with $12,205.59 for hay, feed, and straw, $1,796 for track maintenance, $832.54 for shoeing horses, and other costs including interest payments of nearly $1,900.

Griswold's last years & legacy

Griswold finally ceded control of the A&P in an equity suit in 1899 to the Washington Railway and Electric Company. Under new management the A&P fully began the process of electrifying its route from Florida Avenue to the foot of the Insane Asylum. (A shuttle then continued up the hill to Congress Heights.) On May 26, 1900 the A&P's electrification was complete.

Griswold had by now disposed of his property and retired to his mansion on Mount View Place in Anacostia. In late March 1909 Griswold reportedly told a neighbor (whose home was demolished last year) that he was feeling ill. After shopping downtown Mrs. Griswold returned home in the late afternoon on March 30. Her husband was nowhere to be found in the house.

The body of the former president of the A&P was discovered in a disused attic. He had been shot through the heart and had been dead for some time, a local physician concluded. Police on the scene found mysterious circumstances, but the coroner eventually ruled the death a suicide.

By the dawn of the 20th century, Griswold was the principal businessman in Anacostia. He served as postmaster, developed entire blocks with new housing, and lobbied Congress for his neighborhood's interests which included more police, paved streets, and a firehouse. Before his untimely self-inflicted death at the age of 63, Griswold was instrumental to growing the city's first subdivision, guiding its cross-town streetcar for more than 2 decades in the last quarter of the 19th century.


Fire deaths in abandominium raise call for action

Two people died in a fire last week in a vacant low-rise apartment building in Fairlawn. Meanwhile, Mayor Gray pledged $100 million towards new affordable housing. The two together present a clarion call for solutions to the housing problems east of the Anacostia River.

Community activist William Alston-El outside of the former Parkway Guest House, 1262 Talbert Street SE. Photos by the author.

"Marion Barry told Gray the only way he's going to get re-elected, if the Feds don't get him first, is if he plays that affordable housing game," said community activist William Alston-El. "But it ain't a game, it's a matter of life and death. His pledge is too late for them two. [Mayor Gray] needs to come out to the neighborhood and see how people on the lower level are living."

Over the past year, Alston-El and I have toured the Anacocostia neighborhood's extensive portfolio of abandominiums. As dangerous as guns, HIV/AIDS, alcohol, and drugs, the accessibility of vacant properties is a public health concern.

What happened at 1704 R Street SE?

Anacostia High School just down the way, a group of women sit with a child on the front stoop of 1706 R Street SE, next door to the boarded-up middle row building, 1704 R Street SE, where a two-alarm fire took the lives of 2 squatters days before. Yellow tape surrounds the scene. Police cruisers idle across the street as we walk by acknowledging their presence.

Front of 1704 R Street SE in Fairlawn, the scene of the deadly fire.

The smell of smoke and burnt wood is still thick in the air. "It smells like death out here," Alston-El says before explaining his connection to one of the deceased; he boxed with her brother while imprisoned in Lorton. "There aren't too many Toogoods around." We walk around to the alley to investigate.

A large sandy colored cat bounds over a backyard fence and suddenly stops, plopping down in the charred remnants in the rear of 1704 R Street SE. "Get away from here," yells an onsite fire restoration specialist as the feline scurries away. He approaches us and asks our credentials, "We're reporters looking for the truth," Alston-El offers.

Rear of 1704 R Street SE.

At that the man who says he's been "standing next to dead bodies for 10 hours," begins to tell us the circumstances he knows.

"All indications are that the four-apartment building had been modified by the people who had been living here without permission," he says. "The bottom right dwelling, how you got into it, before the fire, was you opened the door but someone took a piece of plywood and sheeted that off from the inside probably for their own protection against someone injuring them while they were sleeping. That became the cause of death.

"When the fire started in this room here, in the back right, and I mean right because everything in construction is discussed facing the front of the building, so when it started in the back right and really started to spread it's really very difficult for the human mind to run through 1,400 degrees."

I ask if the cause of fire is known. "No, that's under investigation. So they didn't have a way out and were overcome by smoke. Passed out. There was no skin injury when we found them they just suffocated from lack of oxygen. The entire inside of the building is 100% unstable. My job is to structurally support the building so they can do an investigation to answer the question you just asked which is, 'How did it start?'"

Reports from the DC Fire Department corroborate the restorationist's details. "After the heavy volume of fire was knocked down, units re-entered the building, where they located two civilian fatalities. Two firefighters were hurt in the early stages of the firefight and taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries."

According to Alston-El, Toogood was an alcoholic with a bad leg and had been living in the abandominium for three years. "No wonder she didn't make it out. Somebody was firing up their drugs, something went wrong and they dipped out leaving that fire behind."

Police have been canvassing the neighborhood seeking information and any eyewitness accounts of a third party fleeing the blaze.

With a housing crisis, buildings should not remain vacant

Mayor Gray made it a priority in his State of the District address to provide more affordable housing. One place to start is to push for action on existing abandoned buildings the city already owns, or where bureaucratic hurdles are blocking owners' progress.

Take the sprawling Bruxton abandominiums at 1700-1720 W Street SE, still owned by the "DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA SUITE 317" according to tax records. A sign from the Department of Housing and Community Development announces "No Trespassing or Dumping."

City-owned abandominiums, 1700-1720 W Street SE.

In separate colors someone from the neighborhood has spray painted "FUCK" "CRuddy" just beneath the sign. The winter has slowed the ivy's growth which has begun to cover the banner advertising "spacious" 2 bedroom / 2 bath homes "coming soon."

The District has given affordable housing developer Manna the rights to redevelop the Bruxton, but it remains boarded-up and vacant to this day. A Manna staff member commented in March of last year:

SE Manna, Inc. is committed to making this property part of a vibrant Anacostia community. Manna was awarded the property in 2009 through the District's PADD program and began developing the property as the Buxton Condominium. Along the way, Manna has invested over $300,000 in pre-development costs and has encountered several "speed bumps" those in the affordable housing field would be very familiar with, including:
  • Permitting issues dues to lack of water availability;
  • The District's Department of Housing and Community Development terminated our contract on the building, though we were in compliance with all terms. This decision was reversed through the intervention of Mayor Gray, Deputy Mayor Hoskins and DHCD Dir. John Hall;
  • The units were originally priced from $170,000-$205,000. Manna soon realized that the market in this neighborhood could not bear that price, applied and received funding through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program to reduce prices to $95,000-$140,000.
Manna is currently in compliance with all terms required by DHCD and its private lender, including 9 units pre-sold. The Buxton is awaiting DHCD approval to move forward and we are eager to begin this project, and continue to market the available units to qualified buyers.
City needs help reporting abandominiums

Although the city owns its share of abandominiums or has initiated the long and involved litigious process of getting vacant or blighted properties back into productive use, the greatest number of abandominiums are held by tax delinquents, absentee owners, or dissolved companies.

"Because these vacant properties are privately owned, we are bound by very tight statute on what we can reasonably do," said head of the DC Office of Consumer and Regulatory Afair's Vacant Building Enforcement Division, Reuben Pemberton, respected in Anacostia for his responsiveness and attendance at civic meetings.

Pemberton works with 4 investigators. In order to classify a property as vacant or blighted it has to have two inspections.

"We have a lot of eyes out there in the neighborhood. People can send us an email at or call 202-442-4332 to report a property," Pemberton said. DCRA's Vacant Building Enforcement division performed more than 4,200 inspections in fiscal year 2012 and is on schedule to do more than 5,000 this year.

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