The conflict between Ralph Nader and neighborhood groups in the District’s West End over a library project brings to mind the range wars that raged into the early 20th century.
In those days, cattlemen fumed that sheepherding intruders were disrupting their plans for the land. Sheepherders accused the cattlemen of taking public assets for their private use. Blood was spilled.
In the West End conflict, Nader and his group, the Library Renaissance Project, strongly oppose a public-private land deal that would replace the West End Neighborhood Library and a nearby fire station with luxury apartments, retail space and a new library and fire station. The deal is a giveaway to developers and is bad for taxpayers, Nader argues.
According to The Post, West End Citizens Association officer Barbara Kahlow argues that Nader and his group are “following their own personal agenda” against public-private asset deals. “But that is not how the community felt” about the agreement, she said.
During the long-ago range wars, the cattlemen asserted that they were there first and thus had a claim on unoccupied land not put to good use.
Today’s West End neighborhood groups, behaving as though the area is only for themselves, charge that the Nader agenda is being advanced “at the expense of the community’s wishes for new residents and amenities,” The Post reported.
Observing this “Hands off — this is mine” struggle, I can’t help but think of those Native Americans who watched as cattlemen and sheepherders went at each other with their proprietary airs.
There was, after all, life in the West End well before its “discovery” by real estate developers and those settlers who followed.
The location of the West End Neighborhood Library, described by The Post’s Mike DeBonis as “a fraying, 46-year-old concrete-and-brick edifice at 24th and L streets NW,” was, for years, the site of the King family home.
Now, however, the “West End stops you in your tracks with the allure of DC’s top-shelf luxury condo buildings and some of DC’s finest dining,” according to a Web site for stylish penthouse living. “The entire neighborhood buzzes with the successful drawn to live between the charm of Georgetown and the power of downtown.”
In my day, the West End did not offer fine dining or luxury condos. And I can’t say the old neighborhood buzzed with successful folk.
But we were a community with a history.
My house at 1101 24th St. NW was across the street from the Columbia Hospital for Women, where my brother and I were born. Another home, at 2326 L St. NW, was where my sister was born. The bodies of my paternal grandparents lay in repose in that house.
I heard my maternal grandmother take her last breath in our home. She, my grandfather and one of my aunts also lay in repose in our living room.
The West End library site is where the King family got its first telephone installed and had its first television set — black and white. A newfangled natural gas furnace eventually replaced the coal-fired one that heated the three-story home purchased by my parents. We cared for the home as if it were a celestial kingdom.
In those days, the West End wasn’t a glitzy place to live: no corporate lawyers, no wealthy retirees, no international visitors and guests housed at nearby hotels, and no highest-end condo buildings.
The community extended south of Pennsylvania Avenue to encompass Foggy Bottom.
Upscale our community was not. Mom-and-pop grocery stores, shoe shops, schoolteachers, preachers, liquor stores and family physicians were scattered throughout our neighborhood. And we had churches — yes, Lord. They seemed to be on every corner.
Everybody in my West End community worked at something. Mostly low-income jobs — laborers, domestic workers, light industrial labor. But ours was a working-class community, with heavy emphasis on working.
Yes, we had alley dwellings in Foggy Bottom, where many of the worse-off lived, including several of my classmates.
But the West End was not an impoverished backwater waiting to be discovered and claimed by the elite.
Like the neighborhood’s current occupants, we had our dreams. Our parents imagined lives for their children that were unlike their own. That’s why they worked their fingers to the bone.
While there was no lack of dreams, there was a lack of homeownership. With the exception of my family and a few others, most residents were renters. Their roots were deep but their equity thin.
And so when that wonderful expanse of land tucked between Rock Creek Park and K Street was brought to light by developers, the community I lived in and loved was forced, like Native Americans of an earlier dark era in our history, to give way to settlers.
And their modern-day range wars.
Read more from Colbert King’s archive.