Anacostia’s historic homes see rebirth


Anacostia, DC: Anacostia residents say recent revitalization projects, including the rehabbing of a sidewalk along Martin Luther King Avenue, underscore a larger rebirth. (Photo by Amy Reinik/For The Washington Post) (Amy Reinink/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
February 2, 2012

Calvin Moon sees the torn-up sidewalk outside his workplace as a sign of things to come.

Moon, 39, a server at Uniontown Bar and Grill, an upscale sit-down restaurant that opened on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE in Anacostia last year, remembers when the sidewalk along that street was rutted and run-down, when residents saw little hope for improvement in the future. On a recent weekday, as construction crews rehabbed the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, Moon said he and other longtime Anacostia residents have reason to be optimistic.

“For the past 25 or 30 years, that sidewalk has been all broken up,” said Moon, who grew up in Anacostia and now lives in Landover. “A lot has changed here. You can see Anacostia going in a new direction.”

The new sidewalk, new restaurants — Uniontown Bar and Grill is one of a handful— and newly rehabbed houses all feed into a belief among many residents that their long-struggling Southeast Washington neighborhood is on the cusp of a rebirth.

Anacostia takes its name from the Native American village that preceded it, Nacotchtank, which Captain John Smith noted during his 1608 voyage up the Chesapeake Bay, according to the National Park Service. In the 1850s, developers established Uniontown for white Navy Yard workers, according to the park service.

In the beginning, covenants allowed only whites to buy property in the neighborhood. But by 1880, roughly 15 percent of the residents were black, according to the National Park Service. Notable black residents included abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who lived in the neighborhood from 1877 to 1895, according to the park service.

In recent decades, the neighborhood has battled poverty and unemployment. Ward 8, which comprises Anacostia, has long been the poorest section of the city.

But many residents say the neighborhood’s reputation for being crime-ridden and run-down is largely undeserved.

Charles Wilson, 35, a lawyer who serves as Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for the neighborhood, said he “kept hearing about this place called Anacostia,” when he was living in the Trinidad neighborhood of northeast Washington several years ago.

“Pretty much everyone told me not to go there, that it was crime-infested, dangerous, dirty, and that people were crazy,” Wilson said.

Wilson said he drove to Anacostia one Saturday afternoon, and found “the exact opposite,” and fell in love with the neighborhood’s historic charm and energy.

He moved into his 105-year-old wood-frame home five years ago, and founded the Historic Anacostia Block Association to improve communication between young professionals moving into the neighborhood and older, longtime residents.

Darrin Davis, 46, owner of Anacostia River Realty, said a host of young professionals have moved into the neighborhood in recent years, attracted by inexpensive historic houses and proximity to downtown Washington and Northern Virginia.

The neighborhood also boasts historic and cultural resources such as Frederick Douglass’ home and the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum.

Wilson said many of the neighborhood’s new residents have improved their homes through a program that offered D.C. residents up to $35,000 in grant funding to fix historic houses, resulting in more than $1 million in improvements from 2006 through 2011.

That has led to an increase in property values over the past 10 years, said Davis, who noted that he bought his own house for $80,000 in 2002, and that it now appraises for $230,000.

Davis said he anticipates another increase after the U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters opens on a new campus on the former St. Elizabeths Hospital.

“When I bought my house in Anacostia, I thought it was the next area of D.C. where you could buy low and sell high,” Davis said. “That’s starting to happen now with the new development starting to come into the neighborhood.”

That doesn’t mean the neighborhood has been free of poverty, blight and turmoil.

In November, Natasha Dasher, owner of the Uniontown Bar and Grill, was arrested on federal drug charges. Though the charges didn’t implicate the restaurant, which remains open, the news was a blow to those rooting for the neighborhood’s renewal.

“I think it hurt because this is one of the best things we had going for us,” said Dale Coachman, 31, a freelance writer who moved to the neighborhood last year. “To know that there was some negativity attached to it was a big disappointment.”

Coachman said many Anacostians were equally disappointed by recent news that a women’s homeless shelter was set to open in the neighborhood.

“Anacostians are looking for sense of balance,” Coachman said. “We have no problem with the shelter; we just also want businesses like a local bar, a cafe, a local spot where we can socialize, a grocery store. We want to not be forced to leave our own neighborhood to relax and feel at home.”

Wilson said blighted and abandoned properties pose a formidable challenge to neighborhood revitalization, and said he and other neighborhood activists have made refurbishing those homes one of their main priorities.

“We’ve had our bumps in the road,” Wilson said. “We’ve continued to have home break-ins and car break-ins. But we’ve seen a lot of improvements over the past year or so, and I believe we will continue to improve. I believe that when the economic revitalization boom comes again, historic Anacostia is set to reap the benefits of it.”

Amy Reinink is a freelance writer.

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