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Civic activism is a century-old tradition in D.C.’s Deanwood

By Amy Reinink,

With its airy library, competition-ready swimming pool and gleaming glass exterior, the new Deanwood Community Center and Library is the pride of the Northeast Washington neighborhood.

But the part of the center that best exemplifies the area’s character might be 10 extra yards on each end of the football field. Plans initially called for an 80-yard field, but, in just one example of their civic activism, Deanwood residents spent months lobbying for an extra 20 yards to make the field, used by the community’s youth football team, regulation-size.

“It was just 20 yards, but we did a lot of fighting to make sure that extra 20 yards happened,” said Perlia D. Smith, president of the Deanwood Citizens Association. “We fought hard, and we got it — and goal posts, too.”

Whether it involves youth sports, street beautification or economic development, civic activism has a long history in Deanwood, one of the city’s oldest majority-black communities.

In Deanwood’s early days, its location on the District’s border with Prince George’s County was considered far-flung and rural, and residents had to fight for basic city services, according to Kia Chatmon, chairwoman of the Deanwood History Committee.

In 1909, civil rights leader and activist Nannie Helen Burroughs opened a school in the neighborhood, aiming to offer new opportunities to the young black women who attended.

And over the years, a host of black-owned family businesses in Deanwood have sought to offer residents access to the same goods and services their white counterparts enjoyed. Those businesses included Suburban Gardens, a segregation-era amusement park, Chatmon said.

“There were things that weren’t available to African Americans at that time, and people in Deanwood took it upon themselves to develop their own enterprises to fit those needs,” said Chatmon, a 30-something Deanwood homeowner whose grandmother grew up in the neighborhood. “We have never been part of the central power seat of the city, and that has always led to a certain level of self-sufficiency and activism.”

Deanwood was developed along the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad in the late 1800s, according to “Washington, D.C.’s Deanwood,” a history compiled by Chatmon and other residents.

Lots didn’t sell as expected, which made it easier for black residents to buy land and build houses in Deanwood, according to the book, and by the 1920s, the neighborhood’s population was predominately African American.

Black architects such as Lewis Giles Sr. and Howard Dilworth Woodson, for whom the neighborhood’s high school is named, designed many of the small wood-frame houses that define the neighborhood’s housing stock.

Those houses now come at a relatively low price, leading Washington City Paper to dub Deanwood “Affordia” in a 2008 feature.

Sherrie Lawson, 37, a professor at Nyack College’s Washington campus, moved to the neighborhood from Arlington County four years ago. She said she is one of many young professionals attracted to Deanwood’s relative affordability and its proximity to Metro.

“When I decided to purchase a home, I couldn’t afford Arlington, but really wanted to live in or near the District,” Lawson said. “I looked all over D.C. and couldn’t find anywhere as affordable as Deanwood that was on the Orange Line, which was important to me.”

At the same time, Lawson said she liked that Deanwood’s family-owned businesses and single-family houses with yards and fences reminded her of smaller towns where she grew up in North Carolina.

“A lot of the seniors here sit on their porches when it’s nice out, and they’ll say hello when I walk by,” Lawson said. “This is a place where people still speak to each other.”

Those residents, many who have lived in Deanwood for decades, take pride in their neighborhood and its history, said Chatmon, who helped organize the Deanwood Neighborhood Heritage Trail, the city’s first heritage trail east of the Anacostia River.

Residents also take pride in the neighborhood’s ample green space, including Marvin Gaye Park, with its new playground and walking trail.

Before a massive public-private revitalization effort about 10 years ago, the park was known as “Needle Park” because intravenous drug users tossed their empties there, The Washington Post reported at the time.

Smith, who moved to Deanwood in 1979, said crime “has gone down substantially” since the late 1980s. She is one of several residents to say they feel safe in the neighborhood today.

“Even at night, I will walk from the Deanwood Metro to my condo, which is almost exactly a mile away,” Lawson said. “Even thought Deanwood is considered a lower-to-middle-income neighborhood, I have never felt unsafe here.”

The neighborhood has a few carryout and fast-food joints, but no other restaurants to speak of. That’s a problem residents are working to solve through the Deanwood Citizens Association and the Deanwood Heights Main Streets Association, which aims to revitalize the neighborhood’s business district.

“We are working to bring in the economic growth we need while keeping our community’s character,” said Sylvia C. Brown, Deanwood’s advisory neighborhood commissioner. “I see us having a variety of retail, including coffee shops and sit-down restaurants within walking distance, not just driving distance.”

Residents said they’re confident their civic activism will make that — like the extra 20 yards on the football field — a reality.

“Deanwood residents have always worked hard to get the things they feel the community needs and deserves,” Chatmon said. “That’s still the case today.”

Reinink is a freelance writer.

© The Washington Post Company