Greater Greater Washington

Posts about East Of The River


Barry Farm street names reflect post-Civil War history

For denizens of the Barry Farm community in Southeast Washington, the 19th century still holds strong at the corner—Charlie's Corner store. The neighborhood's street names memorialize Union generals and Radical Republicans who advanced the rights of black Americans during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Zabia Dews, the "Mayor of Barry Farm," outside Charlie's Corner store at the junction of Sumner and Wade Roads SE. Photo by the author.

"Look up at these street names," says Zabia Dews, 63, of the 2700 block of Wade Road SE, pointing to signs above for the junction of Sumner Road SE and Wade Road SE. "There's a history here people don't know about, or they forgot. We can't let it disappear."

The original names remain today: Howard Road SE, which runs past the Anacostia Metro Station, for General Oliver Otis Howard; Sumner Road SE for Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner; Wade Road SE for Ohio Senator Benjamin Wade; Pomeroy Road SE for Kansas Senator Samuel Pomeroy, an early member of Howard University's Board of Trustees; and Stevens Road SE for Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, prominently featured in Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln."

The James Barry farm

In 1801 the board of commissioners of the embryonic capital city wrote to the principal landholders "asking to be furnished with lists of lots sold by them." Benjamin Stoddert, the first Secretary of the Navy, Notley Young, a prominent plantation owner, and more than a dozen other men including James Barry, "one of the incorporators of the Washington Canal Company," received the letter.

"Mr. Barry was largely invested in business, both foreign and domestic, and he was very zealous as an advocate of the interests of the eastern section of the city, in opposition to the claims of the western section," according to the Records of the Columbia Historical Society.

Map of East Washington, circa 1870s. Photo from the DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Division.

More than 60 years later, in April 1864, the surveyor of Washington County (all land in the District east of the Potomac, outside of the L'Enfant Plan and Georgetown) was "instructed to stone the new road between the northwest and southwest boundaries of the Barry Farm, known as the Stickfoot Branch road," reported the Daily National Republican.

In September young men were drafted off the farm to fill President Lincoln's call for a half million more Union troops. By now the Barry Farm, across the Eastern Branch from the Washington Navy Yard, was sandwiched between the United States Government Hospital for the Insane (Saint Elizabeths) which saw its first patient in 1855 and Uniontown (Anacostia), the city's first subdivision.

At this time, during the Civil War, the city was brimming with "the floating colored population" of runaway slaves from "Maryland, Virginia, and farther South," according to General Oliver Otis Howard's autobiography. In 1865 Howard became Commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau, a government agency established to aid freed slaves and their families.

General Oliver Otis Howard. Photo from the Library of Congress.
Riding through congested areas of Washington north of K Street, between 13th and 17th, Howard came upon a large group of freedmen.

"What would make you self-supporting?" asked Howard.

"Land! Give us land!" several replied.

In the spring of 1867, Howard used $52,000 in Freedmen's Bureau funds to purchase all 375 acres of the Barry Farm. He sold 1- and 2-acre lots. Within 2 years, 266 families called Barry Farm home, including the sons of Frederick Douglass.

Old Barry Farm develops

"The land all the time was constantly inquired for by working freedmen," Howard recalled. "It was taken with avidity, and the monthly payments, with very few exceptions, were promptly and regularly made. The prospect to the freedmen of owning a homestead was a great stimulus to exertion." A schoolhouse for 150 pupils was quickly erected. Barry Farm was a self-sufficient, self-contained community.

An 1894 Hopkins map (plate 34) of Barry Farm shows streets names still in currency today. Photo from the DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Division.

Today, Barry Farm is almost exclusively associated with the faded 26-acre Barry Farm Dwellings, a 432-unit (nearly a third vacant) property of the DC Housing Authority. The name association hasn't always been that way, says Dews, known as the "Mayor of Barry Farm" for his familial roots on Wade Road SE for nearly a century and his mentorship of neighborhood youth. "It's been a long time since we've been a tribe. But that's what we were and it's important for the younger generation to know this history."

As the city restarts its redevelopment planning process for Barry Farm Dwellings, at an estimated cost of $400 million over a timeline of two decades, the Barry Farm Resident Council, with assistance from Empower DC and local activists, has communicated to the DC Housing Authority that alongside issues of public safety, displacement and employment, a heritage preservation plan is a key concern. 140 years ago, Barry Farm residents and the city were similarly at odds.

According to the Baltimore Sun's Washington correspondent writing in the summer of 1872, "The board of public works propose to open streets in the village and as the residents there have each a deed of one acre of land for his cottage, they are not disposed to surrender any portion of their homesteads for streets or anything else without compensation." When a contractor "appeared in the village to cut up the lots, he was beset, the horses taken from the street plows, the wagons upset, and the laborers driven away. In the afternoon the work was begun under the protection of the police."

Then as now, self-preservation and kinfolk survival is the indigenous creed of Barry Farm, Dews says. "These street names are what's left of the tribe that represented the hard work and sacrifice necessary to build families and businesses. We need to get back to the old way of living."


Will economic renewal reach Anacostia in 2013?

Farm vehicles no longer have their own parking privileges in Historic Anacostia. A weathered sign offering them special treatment is now gone; a new perimeter fence and fresh asphalt recently appeared on a site where, in 2008, a developer envisioned a $500-700 million mixed-use project.

The 2200 block of MLK Jr. Ave SE. Photos by the author.

Vacant storefronts, social service providers, treatment centers, art galleries, city government agencies, carry-outs and liquor stores, barber shops and beauty salons, cash checking spots and branch banks, small contractors and creative class incubators, a coffeehouse-bar hybrid and a progressive radio station roughly define Anacostia's commercial strip. A flower shop and faded grocery store recently shuttered.

By spring, new management plans to open a restaurant in former Uniontown Bar & Grill space. The Anacostia Playhouse, leaping across the river from H Street NE, will pull back its curtains in a former training center on Shannon Place SE.

Through fits and starts, more than 5 years after President Obama spoke nearby on his way to becoming the first black President (although widely reported as being in Anacostia, Obama spoke at THEARC, a short walk from the Southern Avenue Metro), Ward 8's Anacostia remains on the periphery of the city's economic renewal.

Will the neighborhood, more than 2 decades after its own Metro station opened, finally begin to attract sustained investment this year?

Can new retail take root?

A sleepy Sunday morning in Anacostia.

What happens to the former Anacostia Warehouse Supermarket at 14th and Good Hope Road SE will demonstrate if the neighborhood economy can move from government-subsidized service delivery, such as a dialysis center and childcare, to support places of commerce such as a restaurant, bookstore, hardware store and grocery.

The former Yes! Organic Market, now the Fairlawn Market, over on Pennsylvania Avenue SE in Ward 7, has endured many struggles, perpetuating the perception of the area as being a difficult market for retail. (Chipotle turned down free rent in 2010 to serve as the anchor tenant on the ground floor of The Grays, where the Fairlawn Market is.)

The corner of Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, July 2011.

Ground zero in historic Anacostia remains Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE, the same corner where John Wilkes Booth met Davy Herold on his escape to southern Maryland. In the summer of 2011, renderings were released that teased at the intersection's potential. Since that time, despite the backing of Victor Hoskins, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, and other city agency heads, no development of note has happened at the corner.

A public art installation has been planned for nearly a year; it would replace an art installation that was previously torn down. The waiting game continues.

Stanley Jackson, now head of the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation, predicted in 2005 when he was Mayor Williams' Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development that Anacostia would be "one of the hottest markets in the city" by now. Not yet.

In 2008 the Department of Housing and Community Development, whose signs adorn dozens of vacant properties in the neighborhood, moved into the $18 million Anacostia Gateway development at the northeast corner of Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. Initial plans were to relocate the city's Department of Transportation here but that did not materialize.

Across the street from Anacostia Gateway, the iconic "ANACOSTIA" neon sign continues to light up a corner that at night is an economic dead zone.

Anacostia's Business Improvement District is slowly coming to life; the pop-up arts festival LUMEN8Anacostia will return this June and storefront renovations are planned to begin in the coming months. In December of this year will Anacostia's BID have more members than it does now?

1300 block of Valley Place SE; preservation and demolition by neglect

To walk the residential streets of the city's first sub-division is to see up close and personal a shining example of preservation and regeneration next-door to an eyesore of demolition by neglect and neighborhood decay. On the 1300 block of Valley Place SE five homes remain that were developed in the mid-1880s by real estate investor and president of the local streetcar line, Henry A. Griswold.

1300 block of Valley Place SE in Historic Anacostia.

Over the past few weeks the exterior of 1328 Valley Place SE has been fully renovated, in part through a popular grant program coordinated by the Office of Planning that targets 14 Historic Districts citywide. Next door, 1326 Valley Place SE, is one of the properties DHCD owns. The crumbling building is literally going to seed, as nature attempts to reclaim what's left.

According to tax records, 1326 was sold in 2005 at a foreclosure auction for a throw over $2,000. Local residents provided documents in 2011 from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs indicating that Darwin Trust Properties, LLC acquired the property at that time.

Darwin Trust's CEO was incarcerated while the city pursued legal action against the company under the demolition by neglect statute. Through the litigation, the city was able to get a court order to let DCRA abate the property. After half a decade of further deterioration, the city finally bought the property in a November 2011 foreclosure sale for just under $12,000. According to a 2013 preliminary tax assessment, the land is worth $116,410 and the total value of the property is $118,520.

Based on the valuations alone, the city got a steal, purchasing the property for less than 10 percent of its assessed value. But the time to take advantage of this bargain is running short. The 2013 assessment is down nearly 15% from the 2011 value of $135,900, as the building continues to crumble.

Given the home's historic character, we can hope the city finds a way to restore what's left and continue to rejuvenate this old street in Historic Anacostia.

Abandominiums abide

Keeping a watchful eye on the vacant properties around her youth center, Hannah Hawkins has seen hundreds of squatters come and go in and out of the surrounding abandominiums over the 2 decades she and her volunteers have supported the community from 2263 Mount View Place SE. On a recent morning Hawkins caught a woman going into the Southeast Neighborhood House. Hawkins asked what she was doing. "I'm looking for artifacts," the trespasser announced before Hawkins chased her off.

The Southeast Neighborhood House, organized to combat poverty is now an "abandominium."

The portfolio of abondominiums in the neighborhood is well-known both throughout circles of the city's chronic homeless as well as real estate agents, developers and city officials. While housing prices continue to rise across the city, in Anacostia they have remained flat. Abondominiums shelter the homeless and criminal class for free while suppressing property values and property tax revenues for the city.

Big K site, 2234 & 2238 MLK Jr. Ave SE.

After demolishing 2228 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE last year, DHCD selected a developer for the Big K site. According to a press release, plans are to "construct a new office building that features commercial and retail space, as well as restore the existing historic houses on the site." Time will tell when this block, first developed by coach painter James Beall in the early 1880s, finally comes back to life.

The real estate site DC Curbed recently featured listings for 8 condos, townhouses and single family homes in the neighborhood and nearby. Asking prices topped out at $229,000 with a low of $43,000 for a condo in Barry Farm.

On the fringes of each end of the Anacostia Historic District are multi-unit residential complexes, the Bruxton Condos and a cluster of 3 vacant apartments on High Sreet SE, whose development has been too long in coming. While most eyes are focused on Anacostia's exterior, its commercial strip, the interior, the integrity of its housing stock, continues to be endangered.

Based on responses the city received at a handful of Ward 8 summits and town halls in recent years, cleaning up existing vacant residential and commercial properties is a top concern of citizens, taking precedent over new development. Multiple reports released over the years by city government and think tanks list strategies to deal with the area's blight, but if there's been any implementation of these methods, the blight largely remains. A 2004 study noted, "The area's combination of natural beauty, waterfront access, transportation resources and cultural heritage is unrivaled in the city, however, it is important as well to note challenges in existing conditions."

Now that the days of old Anacostia's farm vehicles are bygone, can the neighborhood move beyond the limitations of its past and attract new residential and commercial investment?


Where could a small grocery store thrive in Ward 8?

The Yes! Organic Market in DC's Fairlawn neighborhood has struggled to survive, and Anacostia's only grocery store recently closed. Why can't grocery stores thrive here? Mainly, economics. But one spot could work.

There are many factors that determine the success of a retail enterprise, including marketing, accessibility, visibility, competition, demographics, and location. Yes! Organic may have been difficult to access for westbound drivers, and it could certainly have benefited from an improved outreach campaign, but the fundamental challenge for the store is that it is located in an area with low aggregate income, a result of relatively low household incomes and the presence of relatively few households.

Much of the area around Fairlawn's Yes! is undeveloped (Anacostia Park and River, Fort Dupont Park, etc.), and the developed blocks are low- to medium-density. The graphic above helps illustrate how the purchasing power the store's service area compares with those of other grocery outlets in the city.

The Anacostia Warehouse Supermarket closed its doors because the former owner sold the property. The buyer is optimistic about the site's potential, but in a presentation to the Historic Anacostia Block Association in February of this year, he all but ruled out the possibility of bringing in another grocery store. He said that the potential grocery tenants he spoke with were deterred by the presumed arrival of Walmart at Skyland, just up the street.

Does the eventual presence of two full-service grocery stores at the top of the hill mean that Ward 8's flatland neighborhoods will be forever without their own market? If there is a location best suited for a store to fill the gap, it is at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Ave SE and Howard Rd SE, immediately adjacent to the Anacostia Metrorail station and Metrobus hub, and the meeting point for the Anacostia, Hillsdale, and Barry Farm neighborhoods.

The ideal, and most feasible, site for new development at this intersection is the vast lot owned by Bethlehem Baptist Church, currently used as parking. It is not uncommon for churches, often major landowners, to develop the land they own for a purpose consistent with their mission.

Matthews Memorial Baptist Church, two blocks from Bethlehem, recently oversaw the development of a new affordable housing complex on one of their parcels. Across town, at 10th and G Streets NW, the First Congregational United Church of Christ was part of a redevelopment team that delivered a new facility for the church on the ground floors of an office building.

Bethlehem Baptist lot. Photo by the author.

By developing their vacant land as housing, office space, or a community or spiritual facility, with ground floor retail including a grocery store to replace the shuttered Anacostia Warehouse Supermarket, Bethlehem Baptist Church, and its pastor Reverend James E. Coates, DC's inaugural Ward 8 councilmember, could cement a legacy in the District while doing a huge service to their neighbors in the heart of Ward 8.

Cross-posted at R. U. Seriousing Me?


Who’s commuting to east of the river DC neighborhoods?

WMATA's latest data release confirmed what we already knew: most Metrorail riders take the train from the suburbs into DC. But relatively few ride to the District neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. Where are they coming from and going to?

About 75% of total trips in the AM peak terminate at one of the 42 stations in or immediately adjacent to the District (within 500 feet). Only 2% of these riders, or 1.5% of all trips, get off at one of the 7 stations in or bordering the portion of the District east of the Anacostia River.

Of the more than 3500 riders who make up the numerator of this statistic, 40% get off at Anacostia and 20% at Minnesota Ave, affectionately known as the downtowns of their respective wards (8 and 7). The reason nearly 5 times as many people take the train to Farragut North as to all East of the River stations combined is obvious: Land use.

The Anacostia and Minnesota Ave station areas offer fairly similar non-residential uses, which include a limited number of destinations one would commute to on a weekday morning. Both have a few schools nearby, one relatively new District government office building, a smattering of small retail stores and restaurants, mostly carryout, and a number of light industrial sites.

Anacostia has a couple additional office or medical buildings, while Minnesota Ave boasts a grocery store. For those who do commute to work or school in these neighborhoods, parking is cheap or free, and buses often offer a superior option to rail for those who are traveling between East of the River neighborhoods.

But what about the chosen few who do take Metrorail to these 7 stations? In contrast to the system-wide statistics, 63% of trips ending east of the river originated in DC, 28% in Maryland, and 9% in Virginia. The share coming from the suburbs is certain to increase when the federal Department of Homeland Security campus at Saint Elizabeths is completed.

Interestingly, 9% of riders traveling East of the River boarded at the Columbia Heights or Georgia Avenue-Petworth stations. Without additional data, one can only hypothesize why so many people (relatively) are making this specific commute. One driver may be the schools. For example, Thurgood Marshall Academy, a high performing public charter high school across the street from the Anacostia metro station, draws students and teachers from all over the city.

Perhaps WMATA could release a subset of their data showing trips made with discounted student passes? That would make it possible to further explore this hypothesis.

Cross-posted at R.U. Seriousing Me?


Cemeteries east of the river have rich histories

"There's a good probability if you dig anywhere in DC that's been undisturbed you will uncover evidence of human remains," says Paul Sluby, genealogist and historian of DC's cemeteries past and present.

Headstones at the Adas Israel Congregation Cemetery, adjacent to the Congress Heights Metro station. Photo by the author.

The first known cemeteries on land that would become the District of Columbia were family plots on farms throughout the Maryland countryside. East of the river, these family graveyards, along with congregation graveyards beside some of the area's first churches, are the oldest known cemeteries.

An 1889 article in the Evening Star mentions an "ancient church and cemetery, on the road from Anacostia to Benning" that has since been lost to time.

Over parts of five decades, Sluby's research has identified more than 30 private, public, military, chapel, and government-sponsored burial grounds east of the river.

Some of the earliest sites were for the Wood family of Anacostia, the Deans of Deanwood, and the Bells of the present-day Benning Road area. These family plots date back to the years immediately after the Civil War.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, subdivisions were planned and developed beyond the city's historic core, transforming what had once been bucolic and pastoral land. In the early summer of 1852, Washington's City Council passed an ordinance that prohibited any new burial grounds within the Boundary Street (today Florida Avenue) limits of L'Enfant's plan, according to Steven J. Richardson's article "The Burial Grounds of Black Washington: 1880—1919" in the Records of the Columbia Historical Society.

Existing cemeteries east of the river

Of the more than 250 public and private cemeteries documents show have interred Washingtonians for over 2 centuries, 22 remain, according to the DC Historic Preservation Office. More than a half dozen are found east of the river: Woodlawn Cemetery on Benning Road, a clustering of Jewish Cemeteries in Congress Heights, and the Saint Elizabeths Hospital Civil War Cemetery, on a hillside slope on the West campus that can be seen from I-295.

Seeing its first patient in 1855, during the Civil War, the United States Government Hospital for the Insane swelled with patients. "Many of the battlefield victims received at St. Elizabeths Hospital were dead on arrival, and others, too seriously wounded to be saved, died in the hospital," Sluby writes in Bury me deep: Burial places past and present in and nearby Washington, D.C. "These deaths necessitated the establishment of a hospital burying area for these causalities."

In more than 20 rows of head stones rest the remains of nearly 300 Civil War dead, both Confederate and Union, black and white soldiers alongside local civilians. According to a historic marker, "When the foliage of the local forest subsides in winter, the cemetery is visible from a considerable distance since the white headstones are placed in the form of a cross."

Old Jewish cemeteries

The presence of Jewish burials in southeast Washington dates back to the 1860s, when the first internments interments were made off Hamilton Road, now Alabama Avenue SE. More than 150 years later, the Washington Hebrew Congregation and Adas Israel Congregation maintain their cemeteries adjacent to the Congress Heights Metro station and Malcolm X Elementary School on the 1400 block of Alabama Avenue SE.

Ohey Sholom Ohev Shalom Talmud Torah Cemetery. Photo by the author.

Tucked behind Adas Israel and Washingtin Hebrew are two additional Jewish graveyards on 15th Place SE, bordering the Henson Ridge development. Ohey Sholom Talmud Torah Cemetery purchased its land in 1895, according to the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. Its neighbor cemetery, Elesavetgrad, which sold plots to fraternal organizations, is named for a town in Russia.

In recent months, the caretaker's house at the Washington Hebrew Memorial Park has been refurbished and a new visitor's center has been built. The cemeteries are open on Jewish holidays and to the public by appointment.

Woodlawn Cemetery

Volunteers with members of the Woodlawn Perpetual Care Association at a clean up of Woodlawn in September 2010. Photo by the author.

Off the 4600 block of Benning Road NE rests Blanche K. Bruce, the first black American to serve a full-term in the United States Senate, pioneering lawyer at Howard Law School and United States Congressman from Virginia, John Mercer Langston, a chronicler of black authors and history for nearly a half-century at the library of Congress, Daniel A. P. Murray, and leading physicians, educators, and pastors of 19th and early 20th century Washington.

According to an independent study by the DC Department of Environmental Services, there were 35,895 internments interments at Woodlawn from 1895 through June 17, 1971. Woodlawn received its last burial in 2000. In recent years the Woodlawn Perpetual Care Association, led by Tyrone General, has advocated that the city transform the 22.5-acre cemetery into a living history park to "honor our ancestors."

Lost cemeteries

More than one third of the cemeteries in the 1909 Boyd's City Directory of Washington, DC are east of the Anacostia River. Recorded, but no longer surviving, are the Macedonia Cemetery in Hillsdale, Good Hope Cemetery on Hamilton Road, Jones Chapel Cemetery on Benning Road, and Payne's Cemetery on Benning Road, on ground where the Fletcher Johnson Education Complex stands today.

1903 Baist Map shows Woodlawn Cemetery and Payne's Cemetery across from each other on Benning Road SE. Washingtoniana Division, DC Public Library.

Along with Woodlawn, Payne's Cemetery buried predominantly black Washingtonians. Reports of the Health Commissioner to the District's Board of Commissioners in the 1880s indicate the first activity at Payne's Cemetery. Official records confirm that from 1880 to 1930 there were 10,951 internments at Payne's Cemetery. Of that number, only 29 were white. In the 1960s the remains of the buried at Payne's were transferred to the National Harmony Memorial Park in Prince George's County.

The Historic Preservation Office has just released a brochure, Gone But Not Forgotten: Cemeteries in the Nation's Capital, that explores the history of burials in Washington, from Native Americans through the Colonial era and early development of the new Federal City, and into the Romantic age of highly-designed garden cemeteries. The brochure is available at the Washingtoniana Division of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library or online.


See DC from east of the river

Without question the most stunning and majestic perspectives of the city lie east of the Anacostia River. As we approach a new round of debates over the height limit, it's important to understand the contemporary and historic value of these astonishing sight lines.

View from atop Cedar Hill, the former home of Frederick Douglass. Photos by the author.

Views from the campuses of Cardozo High School in Northwest and McKinley Technology High School in Northeast cannot compare to those from Saint Elizabeths' West Campus. The panorama of the sunset from atop Cedar Hill, with the Capitol and the Washington Monument in the foreground, is surreal.

Despite the current stigma of many east of the river neighborhoods, Anacostia, Barry Farm, Buena Vista (Spanish for "good view"), Bellevue (French for "beautiful view") Fairlawn, Fort Stanton, and Hillsdale have a romantic naturalism that has been recognized in literature and paintings since the early 19th century.

Last week, Congressman Issa (R-CA) and Congresswoman Norton (D-DC) announced a study to re-examine the 1910 law which limits the height of buildings in Washington. There are strong, well-reasoned arguments to both maintain and revise the law. In that study, the National Capital Planning Commission is very concerned about preserving views of the monumental core from across the city.

1834 view of the Washington Navy Yard & US Capitol. Image from the Library of Congress.

In March 1873, 12 years before the Washington Monument was finally finished, Lippincott's Magazine of Popular Literature and Science waxed poetic about the sight lines:

"A stranger visiting the national capital should begin by leaving it. He should cross the Anacostia River at the Navy-yard, climb the heights behind the village of Uniontown, be careful to find exactly the right path, and seat himself on the parapet of old Fort Stanton.

His feeling of fatigue will be overcome by one of astonishment that the scene should contain so much that is beautiful in nature, so much that is exceedingly novel if not very good in art, and so much that has the deepest historical interest. From the blue hills of Prince George's county in Maryland winds the Anacostia, whose waters at his feet float all but the very largest vessels of our navy, while but six miles above they float nothing larger than a Bladensburg goose. To the left flows the Potomac, a mile wide. Between the rivers lies Washington.

A vast amphitheatre, its green or gray walls cloven only by the two rivers, appears to surround the city. 'Amphitheatre' is the word, for within the great circle, proportioned to it in size and magnificence, dwarfing all other objects, stands the veritable arena where our public gladiators and wild beasts hold their combats. This of course is the Capitol, whose white dome rises like a blossoming lily from the dark expanse below.

View of the Capitol Dome from the bluff of Saint Elizabeths' West Campus.

In form and feeling the symbols of federal Washington yield aesthetic and therapeutic influence on the east side of town. Across the other side of the deep divide of the river is where the political influence is felt and permeates daily life. East of the river you can feel the literal sense of geographic disengagement and detachment from official Washington. There's a sense of pride in this disconnection. Life still moves slowly here. The historic development of the community personifies this truth.

In 1855 the United States Government Hospital for the Insane, later renamed Saint Elizabeths, saw its first patient. The palatial landscape situated high on a bluff overlooked the Washington Navy Yard and the first efforts to erect the modern cast iron Capitol Dome, that now defines the city skyline. For the first inmates and staff, alike, the scene was as palliative then as it is today.

View of the Washington Monument from atop Howard Road SE.

Ascending Howard Road SE, in the Hillsdale neighborhood, the Washington Monument, illuminated at night, is the sentry keeping a vigilant eye over the "southside". Over on Morris Road SE is Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Church, known to the go-go community as the Panorama Room. The name is purposeful, from here the entire city unfolds before your eyes, revealing itself. In the award-winning independent movie, "Slam," actor Saul Williams ponders his existence and future as a low-level drug dealer from this sweeping indigenous veranda.

View of the Capitol Dome from 15th Street SE in Historic Anacostia.

Down in historic Anacostia, the Statue of Freedom, crowning the Capitol Dome, has watched over folks of this inner-city suburban village with village folk watching right back for nearly 150 years. Whether on foot, peddle, bus, or car, formerly on horseback, carriage, and streetcar, glimpses of the Capitol often flash in and out of the periphery between buildings, alleys, and fences.

As feasibility studies and further analysis of the city's height limit moves forward, we hope the character of these vistas are protected and not ignored in favor of political calculus and economic expediency.


Vacant Congress Heights building holds relics of the past

"Look at that thing! That's an antique!" says William Alston-El as two workers in yellow vests and hard hats emerge from the long-vacant Wilson Courts in Congress Heights. The men carry an aged band saw.

Workers take a 19th century band saw from the Wilson Courts. Photo by the author.

"Man, I've been working with tools my entire life and I've never seen anything like that," Alston-El observes with reverence as we angle for a closer look.

"That has to be from Saint Elizabeths. We're nothing but a couple blocks over," Alston-El says. "There are probably tools, medical equipment, diaries, and who knows what else that's been lost in this community and still hasn't been found. Who knew Ward 8 is filled with hidden treasures?"

An innovation of the early 19th century, the band saw could cut both wood and metal. Its original design is little altered today, albeit with current materials. More than one hundred variations of the modern band saw sell today at Home Depot from companies such as DeWalt, Steel City, and Rockwell.

The band saw.

The former Wilson Courts, 523-525 Mellon Street SE, a 4-story multi-family apartment complex with a faint art deco touch outside the building's two respective front entrances, was sold in September 2008 to Affordable Housing Opportunities Inc. for just under $1.5 million, according to tax records. (The value of the building's inventory of antiques is unavailable.)

A year later a firestorm broke out within Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8C when a local non-profit introduced plans to develop transitional housing units. Many old-time residents joined neophyte arrivals in opposing the plans, arguing the neighborhood was over-burdened with similar facilities and a further concentration of social service agencies would do more harm than good.

The vacant Wilson Courts at 523 - 525 Mellon Street SE. Photo by the author.

Now, a couple years later all seems to be forgotten as the building has remained uninhabited. Per the permit posted by the DC Office of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs since February, after demolition of interior walls, there are plans to convert the building's existing 20 units to 43.

However, before redevelopment happens an untold number of relics from late 19th and early 20th centuries remain in the basement, according to the demolition crew's foreman.

Together with the 6-man crew, William and I speculate what the band saw might be worth—not just for scrap parts, but to collectors of antiquarian tools. The foreman thinks it could bring a couple hundred dollars. Weschler's, the long-time downtown auction house, could probably help with an estimate, I suggest.

An engraving around the arc of the base will surely provide clues of its provenance for an appraiser specializing in 19th century tools. (Comparable antique band saws on Ebay list for $250 to $500, often selling for more.)

Through preservation groups and local media work, I have toured the campuses of Saint Elizabeths a handful of times over the past 3 years. What little I have seen of the abandoned halls, rooms, basketball courts, and book cases show most of the remnants of the past are gone, cleared out over the years by former employees and recent contractors.


On the calendar: Parking Think Tank today and much more

Today at noon is our online Parking Think Tank with DDOT's Angelo Rao. Stop by from 12-1 to weigh in with your comments on parking in DC!

Photo by michael_reuter on Flickr.

I'll also be speaking on a few panels next week, Wednesday night with Ward 3 Vision to talk about how to advocate for smart growth, and Thursday at Congresswoman Norton's parks town hall.

These and many other important events in the coming weeks are on the Greater Greater Washington calendar. Here's what's coming up that you might want to go to:

Virginia Environmental Assembly (Sat. 10/20, 8 am-4 pm at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington): The Virginia Conservation Network's conference focuses on infrastructure, especially home energy efficiency and transportation.

An afternoon panel will talk about how residents and communities are pushing back against VDOT to get better transportation choices. Greater Greater Washington readers can get a $10 discount on the $45 registration, which includes a reception Friday night as well. Register here and use code GGW.

DC Historical Studies Conference (10/18-10/21): The annual conference on the District's history starts tonight and runs through Sunday. Registration is $20 and gives access to many panels, tours and lectures.

Hearings on Metrobus changes (10/22 to 10/30, 6 pm): WMATA's latest slate of Metrobus route tweaks and changes will make the A9 into a limited-stop MetroExtra, add Saturday 79 service, split the 2A/2B and 23A/23B, and many more.

Public hearings are Mon. 10/22 in Anacostia, Wed. 10/24 in Shirlington, Mon. 10/29 in New Carrollton and Falls Church, and 10/30 in Lamond-Riggs, all with an open house at 6 and then a presentation at 6:30. To speak, sign up by emailing; or submit written testimony at

5 Gyres Last Straw Tour's DC stop (Tue. 10/23, 3 pm at the National Aquarium): A team is biking 1,400 miles along the East Coast to raise awareness of the garbage patches plastic bags and other waste have formed in the oceans. Their stop in DC includes a forum with folks from the Anacostia Watershed Society and Trash Free Maryland to talk about how plastic pollution affects our local waterways as well. RSVP here.

Advocating for Smart Growth with Ward 3 Vision (Wed. 10/24, 7 pm at the Tenley/Friendship Library): The pro-Smart Growth citizen group Ward 3 Vision is hosting me, former DC planning director Ellen McCarthy, and Cleveland Park activist Jeff Davis to talk about how residents can advocate for more walkable, bikeable, livable, and inclusive neighborhoods.

Norton's parks town hall (Thu. 10/25, 6:30 pm at the Wilson Building): Congresswoman Norton's 2nd annual town hall with officials from the National Park Service will cover how NPS can best work with neighbors and contribute to a better DC. I'm speaking on the panel alongside NPS Regional Director Steve Whitesell, Rich Bradley of the Downtown BID, Danielle Pierce of Downtown DC Kids, and Catherine Nagel of the City Parks Alliance.

Getting Parking Right with Jeff Tumlin (Mon. 10/29, 5:30-8:30 pm at NCPC): If you haven't gotten your fill of parking talk, CSG is hosting a forum with Jeff Tumlin of Nelson\Nygaard, a consulting firm that is, among other things, a national leader on parking. He has a list of 16 ways parking policies can better match demand and reduce negative consequences.

How to ride your bike through winter and at night (Sat. 11/3, 2-4 pm at Francis A. Gregory Library in Hillcrest). A clinic from Black Women Bike aims to help black women and all other humans feel more comfortable riding at colder or darker weather, which is a necessary part of most bike commuting as we get into the winter.


Ward 8's Parklands a model for neighborhood revitalization

As the federal government returns control of St. Elizabeths East and Walter Reed to the DC government, the District has an opportunity to re-envision those neighborhoods. The Parklands in Ward 8, a neighborhood that has seen dramatic improvement over the last 2 decades, offers a successful model of equitable development.

Photo by DG-rad on Flickr.

The Parklands succeeded with a combination of a for-profit developer, passionate residents, a community development corporation, nonprofits, newly-opened federal land, and federal investment incentives. Hey, no one ever said this stuff was easy.

In the early 1990s, the Parklands in the Congress Heights neighborhood of Southeast, DC was a 1,400 apartment complex with a rate of a murder a month per block. "But in 1991, in the midst of a drug and crime wave that had hit Southeast especially hard, the high rate of casualties was hardly unprecedented" writes Tony Proscio, author of Becoming What We Can Be: Stories of Community Development in Washington, DC.

The book then goes on to chronicle the magnificent turn-around of first the Parklands, then the neighborhood as a whole. Despite the blight and crime, a number of residents were determined to work together to make it a better place. Even before redevelopment occurred, community leader Brenda Jones founded the Parklands Community Center to provide youth with a safe space to learn and play.

Then in 1991 William C Smith & Co. acquired the Parklands apartment complex and renovated it to include "smaller scale clusters of 'villages' within the wider area. The renamed 'Villages of Parklands, which formally opened in 1994, made room for the humanizing lawns and walkways that contribute not only to social interaction and recreation but, just as important, to safety."

It became clear amid the rejuvenation of the neighborhood that children needed a place to grow and learn. William C Smith & Co teamed up with the nonprofit Building Bridges Across the River (BBAR) to create a community center for Ward 8. Through generous contributions from local philanthropic organizations and the District of Columbia government, and the hard work of BBAR, the Town Hall Education, Arts, and Recreation Campus (THEARC) was born.

THEARC sits on a site formerly used by the Department of the Interior, which was returned to the District after sitting vacant for years. Today, it houses the Washington Middle School for Girls, Boys and Girls Club, a Children's National Medical Center clinic, the Washington Ballet, Corcoran College of Art & Design, and the Levine School of Music.

By 2007, a grocery store opened in the neighborhood, the first in two decades. The Giant at the Shops at Park Village was made possible through the city's use of land that had previously been Camp Simms Military Base, investment leveraged by the New Markets Tax Credit, the advocacy of the East of the River Community Development Corporation, and William C Smith & Co. Today, a neighborhood once ridden with crime and blight now has a grocery store, a sit down restaurant, a world class community center, and truly mixed income housing; from subsidized housing, to rental, to single family homes.

This large-scale redevelopment was made possible because of the commitment of the private, nonprofit, and government sectors. It was the ability to leverage investment in a multitude of ways that made redevelopment of the Parklands inclusive for all levels of income. The redevelopment of St. Elizabeths and Walter Reed should look to emulate this model.

For more stories of community redevelopment in Washington, including Columbia Heights, Edgewood Terrace, and H St, check out Becoming What We Can Be: Stories of Community Development in Washington, DC by Tony Proscio.

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