An identity reclaimed


Rowhouses line Third Street NE in the Truxton Circle neighborhood. (Photo by Amanda Abrams/WASHINGTON POST)
May 27, 2011

It may not have attracted much attention elsewhere, but for residents of Truxton Circle, the issue was a weighty one: An organization serving Latino youth wanted to redevelop a local school and build affordable housing in the neighborhood. But the residents were digging in their heels. “No more social services or subsidized housing in this community” was the message broadcast repeatedly on local blogs and in a string of meetings with public officials leading up to a decision last December.

In the end, the residents prevailed and the project foundered. That marked one more step in Truxton Circle’s growth from a run-down, unsafe community populated by a majority of renters to a neighborhood with its own distinct identity and a bevy of active, home-owning neighbors.

The name of the neighborhood, bordered by North Capitol Street and New York, New Jersey and Florida avenues, is a bit of a puzzle: There’s no traffic circle in that part of town. But a hundred years ago, streetcars and other vehicles navigating the intersection of Florida Avenue and North Capitol Street had to go around a circle honoring Commodore Thomas Truxtun, and the adjacent neighborhood went by the same name, albeit with an alternate spelling.

The circle was eliminated in 1947 to make way for a growing North Capitol Street, and the area lost its identity, gradually becoming part of Shaw. But the environment east of New Jersey Avenue is different from that to the west: The busiest road bisecting the neighborhood is two-lane P Street, which makes for a quiet, homey vibe. The homes are smaller, too. Most are simple, two-story rowhouses lacking porches or basements. The main exception is Bates Street, a leafy two-block avenue between P and Q streets whose rowhouses were all built in 1901 and have bay windows and small stoops.

Despite the mellow atmosphere, Truxton Circle wasn’t a particularly peaceful place 10 or 15 years ago. “It used to be more commonplace to hear gunshots,” said Bradley Thomas, 57, the area’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and a resident for two decades. He remembers hearing shots one afternoon and watching a bullet go though his bedroom window.

Marie Maxwell, an archives specialist who moved into her home 10 years ago and writes a blog about the neighborhood, has similar memories. “My street was cute, but it was a little rough. There were friendly neighborhood drug dealers who’d hang out on the corner — day, night, rain, snow.” The neighborhood had a lot more litter then, too, said Maxwell, 40, and many homes were vacant or undermaintained. Plus, several social service providers were nearby, bringing homeless or indigent people to the area daily.

All that began gradually changing in the early 2000s, but the neighborhood received a big push about five years ago, when more than 40 rowhouses clustered around Bates Street went on the market at once. The homes had been serving as Section 8 subsidized rental units and were relatively dilapidated. Many wound up in the hands of first-time home buyers.

That brought a clutch of new homeowners into the community and kicked off a serious spurt of activity. A group covering much of Truxton Circle, the Bates Area Civic Association, formed to address issues such as community beautification and crime and helped galvanize longtime residents. “What I like is that we have a very strong population of homeowners who’ve been there 20 or 30 years,” said BACA President Geovani Bonilla, 41. “Many of my neighbors own their homes, so I think they’re very excited about the renovation.”

The association sponsors a variety of events, including tree-planting drives and twice-weekly public safety walks. It has an active Web site, but Bonilla said the group also communicates the old-fashioned way — by fliers and word of mouth — to reach those who aren’t online.

Meanwhile, surrounding communities have also been developing. Bloomingdale, just north of Florida Avenue, now has several hip, independently owned businesses; east of North Capitol Street, the NOMA area features new restaurants and a Harris Teeter grocery store; and Shaw is slated for some long-awaited development.

But not all neighbors are on board with the changes. Bryon Fulton, Tom Long and Darryl Johnson were in front of Fulton’s house one evening, talking about the neighborhood. All three grew up in the area and still live there. “People won’t speak to you — they look at you like you’re crazy,” said Johnson, 27, trying to explain what it feels like to watch his neighborhood shift. “Change is good, but it’s only good when everyone’s involved in the change. We need to come together more,” he said.

The name Truxton Circle can itself serve as a flash point. Despite its historical legitimacy, some longtime African American residents think it’s an import designed to rebrand the area. They’d rather call it Dunbar Shaw, with a nod to the school located in the neighborhood, the District’s first high school for African Americans.

In other aspects as well, not everything’s Shangri-La in Truxton Circle. Though crime is not as bad as it once was, it remains a problem. In January, a Bloomingdale resident was killed in a park at Florida Avenue and North Capitol Street, and Bonilla said he’s seen a spike in robberies in that area over the past year.

Some of that, residents say, is due to the presence of at least a dozen services catering to homeless, mentally ill, or drug-addicted populations. Getting rid of the agencies, or persuading them to change their practices, may not be a realistic goal, but many Truxton Circle residents agree on one thing: No new such outlets are going to be welcomed into their neighborhood.

Abrams is a freelance writer.

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