Amid leafy streets lined with well-kept rowhouses in a small residential neighborhood off Georgia Avenue NW lies what might be the city’s most important Civil War site.
Brightwood, just south of Takoma Park and east of Rock Creek Park, is home to Fort Stevens, the site of the only Civil War battle fought within the District’s boundaries.
It was at Fort Stevens nearly 150 years ago that Union soldiers stopped Confederate troops from capturing Washington and attacking President Abraham Lincoln, who came under fire during the battle.
Fort Stevens, now maintained by the National Park Service, is one of many historical resources in Brightwood. Historians say the neighborhood is also the site of one of the city’s first black settlements, and it is home to a national cemetery where about 40 Union soldiers are buried.
Residents say Brightwood’s history is only part of what makes the neighborhood special.
“It was nice to move to a place with such a keen sense of history, that wasn’t just a bunch of brand-new houses,” said Karrye Braxton, a 40-plus owner of a management consulting firm who moved to Brightwood in 2003. “I grew up thinking it was important to live in a neighborhood with a real sense of community, and that’s definitely the case here.”
Brightwood first developed along the Seventh Street Turnpike, now Georgia Avenue, in the early 1800s, according to “Washington at Home: An Illustrated History of Neighborhoods in the Nation’s Capital” by Kathryn S. Smith.
Some of the neighborhood’s earliest residents were free black people who owned houses and farms in Brightwood as early as the 1820s, according to “Battleground to Community: Brightwood Heritage Trail,” a historical guidebook written by Mary Konsoulis and produced by Cultural Tourism D.C.
Fort Stevens drew even more free black people to the neighborhood during and after the Civil War, and the fort was built on land owned by Elizabeth Thomas, a free black woman, according to Cultural Tourism D.C.’s guidebook.
After the war, Brightwood residents opened the Military Road School, one of the city’s first public schools for black children, in a small building near Fort Stevens, said Patricia A. Tyson, 69, a retired federal worker who attended the school as a child and is executive secretary of the Military Road School Preservation Trust.
The school moved to a stately brick building on Missouri Avenue in 1912, Tyson said, and the building serves as a Montessori school today.
“When the war ended, parents wanted their children to learn to read and write, and at the time, schools and churches were truly the heart of every black community,” Tyson said.
The neighborhood’s historical resources also include the George M. Lightfoot family residence, which for the past 82 years has been owned by descendants of Lightfoot, a Howard University professor of Latin who entertained high-profile black intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois in the house, said Carol Lightfoot Walker, Lightfoot’s granddaughter.
Walker, who now lives in the house, said she believes it was built shortly after the Civil War.
The neighborhood saw a population boom in the early 1900s, after a streetcar line enabled residents to commute downtown, according to Cultural Tourism D.C.’s guidebook.
The hundreds of rowhouses built off Georgia Avenue in the early 1900s are relatively affordable now — a feature that has increasingly attracted young professionals in recent years.
“You can get a gem of a house here for drastically less than what you’d pay west of the park,” Braxton said.
Many houses in the neighborhood are within walking distance of Rock Creek Park, which residents said is another upside to living in Brightwood, along with the neighborhood’s leafy, quiet atmosphere.
“I like the fact that we’re very under the radar,” said Rebecca Mills, a 30-something contractor who writes about the neighborhood on a blog called the Brightwoodian. “I like the fact that we don’t have a lot of people coming in to hang out on Friday nights. If I lived on 14th and U, the noise and crowds would drive me crazy pretty quickly.”
Residents also said they prize Brightwood’s cultural diversity.
“I usually hear three or four different languages in the few minutes I spend waiting for the bus,” said Brightwood Community Association President Anthony Briggs, 32, alawyer who moved to the neighborhood in 2006. “I love that my daughter will grow up surrounded by such a diverse group of people.”
Residents also touted the neighborhood’s cohesive nature, on display at community events such as Brightwood Day, an annual summer festival, and the D.C. Caribbean Carnival, which includes a parade that runs through Brightwood.
The neighborhood’s battles are now fought over development and urban renewal, most recently in the form of a proposal to build a Wal-Mart at Missouri and Georgia avenues that is “dividing the neighborhood,” Briggs said.
“On one hand, there’s a lot that’s not being used, and everyone would like to see some development there,” Briggs said.
On the other hand, some residents say such a big-box store would clog the neighborhood’s roads with traffic and hurt its independently owned businesses.
“It would be nice to not have to get on a bus or drive across town to get to a Wal-Mart or Target,” said Walker, 63, a senior adviser at a federal agency. “But it also means some of the small businesses on Georgia Avenue will wither on the vine.”
The debate underscores larger issues about the neighborhood’s future.
“It raises the question: Why aren’t we getting a Wegmans or a Trader Joe’s?” Braxton said. “Why do we have to put up with a pawnshop? There’s no worse blight than an empty storefront, but it seems like we should be seeing more new retail.”
Several new businesses have opened in Brightwood in recent years, including the Brightwood Bistro.
Many residents said no matter what comes of the Wal-Mart proposal, Brightwood will continue to be defined by more-lasting resources.
“When I first moved here, I thought of Brightwood as being on the verge of revitalization, and I wanted to be part of that,” Braxton said. “It was also nice to move to a place with so much American history. How many people have a national treasure like Fort Stevens footsteps away from their front door?”