Every time Kadija Bangura walks past a dilapidated Victorian house on a desolate stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Anacostia, she imagines it was part of a neighborhood of proud African American families of yesteryear. And for her, preserving that history is a good enough reason to fight for the house to be redeveloped right where it is.
Bangura is part of a group of community residents, many of them new homeowners, who hope that the city will encourage its redevelopment into a coffeehouse or bakery. Saving the house — and another one next door — will preserve the original feel of the neighborhood, they say.
“I love that house,” said Bangura, a public relations executive who moved to the neighborhood in October. “I hope that they can preserve that house, but I have to make my coffee at home. We need more places to go to.”
What to do about the Southeast property at MLK Avenue and Morris Road has been an ongoing conversation in Anacostia for years. Now a developer wants to move the houses off the site and tear down an adjoining vacant building that once had a liquor store so the land can be turned into a mixed-use development.
For some residents, the houses are quaint, but not worth fighting over. Arrington Dixon, a longtime Anacostia businessman and community leader, who later became a D.C. Council member from Ward 8, said the house does not illustrate an African American past in Anacostia worth celebrating.
“What is the historical value to that house?” asked Dixon, who finds himself on the uncomfortable side of a historic preservation debate about what to do with the house and a boarded-up store in the 2200 block of MLK Avenue.
He pointed out that many longtime African Americans in Anacostia remember a segregated community and the neighborhood, first called Union Town, was “built for Irish and ethnic workers who walked across the bridge for jobs at the Navy Yard.”
He added, “When I was a child, I tried to get a haircut in a barbershop [in the neighborhood] and he started to cut my hair and then stopped abruptly when he realized that [I] was black.”
Dixon, like many older residents, said he is less worried about the fate of houses and more focused on encouraging new development, whatever it takes.
“I am more worried about preserving the cultural history of Anacostia: the great spirit of the community that I grew up with,” said Dixon.
At stake is how historic Anacostia should attract commercial development. For years, residents, both old and new, have lamented that Anacostia lacks basic services and amenities.
The neighborhood has had off and on success in finding long terms solutions to its lack of commercial development in recent years. For instance, a restaurant and bar that opened to much fanfare in 2011 was shuttered after the owner was arrested on drug charges. That establishment h has been reopened under new management.
To help attract more retail, many think the property — known as the “Big K site” — can help be a catalyst. In November 2012, the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development awarded the rights to develop the block to Chapman Development. But to move the houses, the developer needs approval from the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board.
In a 2013 report financed by the developer, Delta Associates states that the “highest and best” use of the property would be apartments or an office building. It says leaving the old properties in place would “severely complicate efficient design of potential development.”
Housing and Community Development officials met with local members of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission on Tuesday night to discuss the plan. The board is scheduled to take up Chapman’s request to move the houses Feb 27.
The Anacostia Historic District in question stretches along Martin Luther King Avenue from Good Hope Road to Morris Road. The “Big K” site fills the last block of the District, which is designated as historic because between 1854 and 1930 more than 500 homes and properties were built along that corridor.
Victor Hoskins, deputy mayor for economic development, said that the site is pivotal to the city’s plans for redevelopment in the neighborhood. “We are envisioning a mixed-use project — residential and commercial in nature, with additional places to eat and additional places to purchase goods and services,” he said. “All of us agree that this is not what is there now.”
But Greta Fuller, an ANC member whose district includes the site, said neither the city nor developer is doing enough to preserve the historic character of the community. For Fuller and others, the key to Anacostia’s future is keeping the neighborhood intact: the quaint homes and narrow streets, after all, are the reason why many moved to the community in the past 15 years.
“This is not about a house,” said Fuller, who moved to the community 13 years ago. “It is about preserving a historic district. [The city] wouldn’t be having this conversation in Georgetown or Capitol Hill. We are trying to save the foundation of a community. Why not preserve what we have?”