Post Magazine: Can Soldiers’ Home residents and urban gentrifiers overcome barbed wire?

March 1, 2013

The golf course is among the nice features of the grounds at the Armed Forces Retirement Home, which once served as Washington’s Central Park and later was surrounded by barbed wire and barbed words.
(Matt McClain)

ON THIS HUSHED HILLSIDE IN Northwest Washington, on an overgrown patch of meadow, Korean War veteran Jessie James, 82, kneels down and plunges his cold hands into the warm spring soil.

James is bone bald after three months of cancer treatment, his normally bright brown skin drained of color, his legs still “aching and shaking.” But under this gentle sun, with a breeze on his chapped skin, he starts to feel some energy.

Wearing his shredded-up garden gloves, he tears thick, prickly weeds from his vegetable patch. His only company is a scratchy transistor radio tuned in to a talk show about the Washington Nationals; he misses his wife, Mary, who passed away back in 1994.

“You have them carrots and sweet potatoes yet, so I can fix some supper?” he remembers her teasing.

Behind James are 272 acres of rolling green pasture, with some of the highest ground in the city. There are park benches that look onto the Capitol, forested pathways of spruce and pin oaks, honking geese wobbling out of fishing ponds, and a members-only nine-hole golf course and driving range.

In front of James, on this day last year, is an iron fence topped with three rows of barbed wire crowned with concertina coils, typically used to lock down prisons.

But this is the U.S. Armed Forces Retirement Home, where, for more than 45 years, barbed wire has enforced the separation between hundreds of military retirees such as James and the Petworth and Park View neighborhoods that surround them.

James, like a good number of the veterans living in the retirement community, doesn’t go outside the home’s boundaries very often. But in just a few weeks, he will have unexpected company inside the fence: neighbors from the other side of the divide.

***

The U.S. Armed Forces Retirement Home, known by its informal name, the Soldiers’ Home, is like a vast secret garden, despite its storied history.

It was here, in a hilltop summer cottage, that Abraham and Mary Lincoln found refuge after the death of their son Willie. And it was here that Lincoln struggled over every word of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Back then, the home, built in 1851, also served as Washington’s Central Park, with residents free to enter its majestic grounds. (The Park View neighborhood was so named because it overlooked the land.) Housing development plans didn’t include park space, because the home was nearby. For more than 100 years, there were Easter egg rolls and July Fourth parties and baseball games. The secluded tree-lined pathways were a place where young lovers would stroll, far from the view of parents.

In fact, when James was a child, he heard about the home and saw the black-and-white photographs from the 1930s showing families picnicking and flying kites on the grounds in summer and ice skating in winter.

But that all changed with the 1968 riots following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The grocery stores, movie theaters and soda shops of Georgia Avenue, the area’s main retail hub, were looted and burned, and the once-lively area entered a period of decline and desperation. Before the riots, only parts of the home’s fence had been supplemented with barbed wire. After the riots, wire topped with concertina coils was added to the home’s entire perimeter, to keep the residents secure. Neighbors were no longer allowed to wander the grounds.

James arrived in the early 1990s, after a career of fixing fitness equipment. It was during the city’s crack epidemic, and many of the retirees had grown even more fearful of the neighborhood.

Today, the neighborhood, which started seeing growth after the 1999 opening of the Georgia Avenue-Petworth Metro station, is part of the city’s ever-expanding renaissance. It has a string of upscale condos and hipster bars, a supermarket under construction, and waves of diverse new residents who consider the area — one of the fastest-gentrifying Zip codes in America — edgy and hip, and find the housing affordable and the pre-World War I rowhouses charming.

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Gentrification is changing the neighborhoods surrounding the Armed Forces Retirement Home, seen in the background.
(Matt McClain)

Development has been slower than in nearby Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights, and there are still rough and seedy patches: As night falls on Georgia Avenue, the new E.L. Haynes charter school, with its giant billboard reading “Prepare for the College of your Choice,” is just steps away from the “Girls, Girls” sign that blinks on and off at The House strip club. In the morning, schoolchildren walk over broken beer bottles and torn-up lottery tickets that litter the sidewalk.

But the streets have seen a dramatic drop in the audacious homicides that once defined them, and renovated rowhouses now sell for more than $600,000. It’s the type of place where aging African American neighbors sit on their porches and call out “how ya doin’, baby” to young hipsters, who wave hello and grow vegetables in the front yards of group houses, their rickety bikes locked up on the porch.

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Stories from the Soldiers’ Home:
Retired master sergeant Annie Aaron is one of the home’s residents.  “My great-grandmother was a slave in Virginia, and when slavery was over, she changed her name to Dunn, as in, ‘Done. Done. Done,’ ” she told reporter Emily Wax. Read more about Annie Aaron and  other veterans here.

Many of those younger folk and new homeowners think it’s past time that the home opened its gates to a once-again vibrant neighborhood. And since the home sits on one of the largest pieces of Washington’s undeveloped land, it’s not surprising that it has become the focus of new attention that has raised hackles inside and out.

From 2004 to 2008, a bruising battle occurred over the home’s desire to develop more than 100 acres to generate income. Nearby residents objected: They wanted at least some of the acreage used for park space.

The development plans were put on hold when financing dried up because of the recession, and neighbors decided to let things quiet down.

Then, in September 2011, a new leader, Steve McManus, was named as the home’s chief operating officer. He had been involved in removing some barbed wire along Rock Creek Church Road, and was open to removing more.

When a small group of neighbors met with him shortly after he assumed the job, they found he also was receptive to developing volunteer projects. That made the neighbors think it could be time to reach out to the home again.

John Hughes, 49, whose family lives in a rowhouse with a view of the grounds, formed the Friends of the Soldiers Home with 10 volunteers who planned to engage in activities such as gardening or jingo, a form of bingo.

“We would ask for nothing but friendship, and we would have no agenda other than wanting to help veterans,” Hughes said.

The neighbors weren’t expecting to get a park, or even consideration of a park, Hughes added. “But maybe we got something we ourselves were surprised by.”

***

Kendall Bentz and Carrie Green first noticed James’s garden through the fence.

The couple, then in their late 30s, had heard the almost mythical tales of the sealed-up retirement home, where deer raced through misty ponds and trails, and historic buildings and statues stood in the distance.

It was almost as if London’s Hampstead Heath had set up at the end of their neighborhood of densely packed rowhouses. “We longed to see what was behind those gates,” Bentz said.

Bentz and Green had bought a 100-year-old renovated rowhouse nearby in 2004 because the real estate was affordable, and Petworth felt to them like a real neighborhood, with a mix of ethnic groups and income levels.

Green, a lawyer, wanted to find a way to connect, maybe volunteer and meet the veterans. Bentz, a media consultant, wanted to hear the veterans’ stories.

At the same time, they were looking for a place to learn to garden.

Maybe the moment was right.

On the northern corner of the grounds, President Lincoln’s Cottage had been restored and opened as a National Landmark in 2008. Guests with tickets were starting to visit.

Last spring, the couple read an Internet post announcing that the Soldiers’ Home was looking for volunteers to garden with the retirees.

“We leapt at the chance,” Bentz said.

 ***

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The friendship between retired veteran Jessie James and two neighbors has helped change attitudes regarding the Soldiers’ Home.

James was ready for them. With his treatment finished, his body was weak “like a noodle,” as he put it. But his mind was rambunctious — “like the old me” — and he was aching for something beyond his room.

When mornings came into his 200-square-foot space, James would rise triumphantly out of his twin bed. He would dress carefully, struggling to fit his severely swollen feet into his most stretchable walking shoes. He would put on his favorite beat-up baseball hat from way back when he was young and strong and served in Korea and Vietnam as a helicopter mechanic, and pack his radio, an apple and a sandwich.

He would move slowly at first. But he would walk fast once he got going, head held high, past posters announcing “wheelchair cleaning day” and schedules for shuttles to doctors’ appointments and bus trips to malls and casinos, past old men who sat in their wheelchairs, nodding off, until a friend in another wheelchair rolled up and nudged them awake.

He was determined to go outside. But he was one of the exceptions.

Inside, every day, an hour before lunch, a line of veterans would hunch over their walkers and inch forward as they queued up at the cafeteria, waiting for it to open. The cafeteria, known as Jerry’s Diner, is like a journey back to the 1950s, its walls filled with posters of Elvis records and images of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and convertibles.

The typical Jerry’s regular cherishes the home because it’s so affordable — the monthly expense for independent living residents is capped at $1,305.

The residents, the majority of whom were enlisted and warrant officers, also have a sense of ownership: One stream of funding for the two Armed Forces Retirement Homes (the other is in Gulfport, Miss.) is a monthly payroll deduction for those active-duty service members, currently at 50 cents.

The home offers holiday dances and exercise classes and storytelling training with the Double Nickels Theatre Company, along with day trips to the Kennedy Center and museums, which many of the younger veterans take advantage of. But the average age here is 82, and many of the older veterans simply wear a path between their room and Jerry’s.

“There’s a lot of older guys here who are still afraid of what’s beyond the gates,” said Vietnam War veteran Esker McConnell, 69. “They still think it’s 1969 out there. And they shouldn’t; it’s a wonderful city out there.”

And, of course, age creates its own barriers. James’s relatives had been passing. His childhood friends had started dying. His knowledge no longer seemed to be needed.

“I didn’t know anyone would want to get to know an old-timer like me,” he said.

***

But one Saturday, Bentz and Green were waiting for him, eager to help and learn.

Almost right away, James enjoyed flirting with Green. And Bentz was all right, too, James decided. He was tall. He could talk baseball. James, a former minor-league player, liked that. And Bentz really seemed to listen when James shared his advice on planting cucumbers and watermelon.

“You couldn’t find a nicer gentleman,” Bentz said. “What really struck me, though, was how he really wanted to share his garden with us.”

The couple spent every weekend helping James cultivate carrots and tomatoes, squash and zucchini. “He would just load us up with squash,” Bentz laughed. “We couldn’t use it all.”

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Bounty from the garden at the Soldiers’ Home. (Courtesy John Hughes)

Their friendship became a turning point at the home, a true story that got passed around like local lore. Other veterans started wondering if the folks beyond the gates weren’t so bad.

There were other outreach efforts, too. Jingo, of course, in the assisted-living home’s recreation room, where James Tillery, 95, would cheer when he won, even with his eyes shut against the pain in his swollen legs.

There was a monthly happy hour, where Hughes and other volunteers coaxed residents out of their rooms for fried shrimp and beer, and where Raymond Anderson, 83, would play “It’s Been a Long, Long Time (Kiss Me Once and Kiss Me Twice)” on his keyboard. “I like visiting with them, and now I think these volunteers are pretty nice,” Anderson said, adding with a giggle that some of the female volunteers were “pretty-looking.”

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John Hughes, who founded the group Friends of the Soldiers Home, talks with Celia Raddatz during a happy hour event.
(Matt McClain)

Perhaps the most successful event for the Friends of the Soldiers Home took place on July 4, when, for one evening, residents once again had access to the grounds.

On that Independence Day, Vietnam veteran Billy White, 67, known to have the best CD collection in the home, brought out his favorites: Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, the Beach Boys, Elvis, Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson.

Nearly 2,000 people came. Toddlers danced with veterans. Veterans, even self-described grouchy ones, warmed in the glow of the moment, the music bumping from White’s DJ station, the fireworks lighting up the sky.

“Oh, it was a beautiful night. I played music for five hours and 15 minutes, the longest time I had ever spun,” White said.

At the end of the night, he saw veterans sitting on blankets with families from the neighborhood.

He knew just what to play: Sly and the Family Stone’s “It’s a Family Affair.”

“I thought, This is the way it’s supposed to be.

***

While Bentz and James watered onions and pruned basil, the Washington Nationals were having their best season.

“I was thinking of a way we could thank him for all the vegetables and all that he had taught us, and I thought: I can take him to a Nationals game,” Bentz said.

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From left, Jessie James, Carrie Green and Kendall Bentz working in the garden on the ground of the Soldiers’ Home.
(Courtesy John Hughes)

At first, Bentz thought about driving James to the game in his old Toyota pickup. But he wanted the veteran to be comfortable, so he decided to hire a sleek, black Lincoln Navigator from the swanky Uber car service.

James got ready hours ahead of the August evening game. He sat on a bench outside the home, waiting to be picked up.

“I was real happy,” he said. “When the other vets saw me going into that fancy chauffeured car, they were jealous.”

But it rained so hard on their way to the game that James turned to Bentz and said, “It reminds of me the rains in Korea, like a monsoon.”

Bentz was worried. “But by sheer luck, our first-level seats were under an overhang from the upper level,” he said, “so we stayed dry and comfortable throughout.”

Phenom second-year pitcher Stephen Strasburg came back after a rain delay, and the Nationals beat the Braves 4-1.

“It was pretty exciting for me, because Jessie had a real nuanced understanding of the game,” Bentz said. “It was just this pleasure to spend time with him off the grounds.”

When the game ended, the car picked them up. With the air conditioner humming, James fell into peaceful sleep on the buttery leather seats.

“Looking back, it’s one of the best night I’ve had in years,” James said.

***

The Friends of the Soldiers Home has grown to 100 volunteers, and has kept up its monthly jingo nights and happy hours. Other events have included a movie night and a fundraiser at Georgia Avenue’s chic bistro Chez Billy.

James hasn’t been able to go to many events. His cancer returned and spread into his stomach and the bones in his right leg, which swelled so badly that it has been painful to walk.

Bentz and Green call him and talk about what they might grow together in the garden this year. But come spring, there will be one key difference.

McManus, the chief operating officer, had thought a lot about the friendships veterans such as James had made.

“With everything that’s happened this year, now residents can walk outside the gates and know there will be some neighbors they might recognize from a jingo night or gardening. That’s a such a powerful thing.”

The barbed wire atop the home’s fence, McManus said, “sends the wrong message about what’s beyond the gates.”

So, on a recent frigid morning, workers in sturdy gloves started removing some steel wire, tossing it into trucks and hauling it away.

Emily Wax is a Washington Post staff writer. Since July 2011, she has lived in one of the neighborhoods near the Armed Forces Retirement Home.

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Elizabeth Chang · March 1, 2013