A Bittersweet Renaissance

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 23, 2006

As a kid, W. Norman Wood liked to bike around the corner, linger outside a fancy restaurant and soak up the glamour of blacks coming and going in their tuxes and gowns. Seven decades later, Wood still lives on Eighth Street NW in Washington's Shaw neighborhood. He bought a rowhouse three decades ago for $12,500.

Harry "Sonny" Brodgins was 9 when his mother moved into a rowhouse two blocks away, across from a lot where he and friends played football and hung out, sometimes 30 deep, drinking beer and talking about the Redskins, cars and girlfriends. He's still there, caring for his mother, who scraped and saved and bought the place for $65,000.

Moses Lofton was driving for Greyhound in 1976 when he paid all of $35,000 for a five-bedroom three blocks west. The rowhouse was run-down, but Lofton saw charm in the worn wood trim and the stained-glass window. "Look at it," he said recently, gazing up at its turret crown. "It's like a castle."

They are among the many homeowners who have lived in Shaw for decades -- through the 1968 riots, the crack epidemic, black flight. They are there now for the rebound. Their homes have mushroomed in value, and they are adapting to new neighbors, many of them white and more affluent.

And they find themselves confronting a question that arises in any neighborhood where prices skyrocket: Why not sell?

But this is not just any neighborhood. These owners are nagged by something deeper and more complicated than how far their new wealth would take them or how they would adjust to new surroundings. They fret about the future identity of the neighborhood, a bastion of black culture and history -- their history -- where Langston Hughes wrote poetry and Duke Ellington played piano, where African Americans started their own bank, built their own buildings and thrived for generations.

They know that much of Shaw has been transformed and is gone. But what about the rest? What would become of the black-owned barbershops and shoe shops, the familiar faces who still congregate on the corners? Would the presence of African Americans be erased and eventually forgotten?

Lofton, 65, turns those questions over, even as he calculates what he could get for his house: $700,000, $800,000? A million? More money than he has ever known, and more than enough to buy a place in his native North Carolina. Yet, to strike it rich . . .

He recalls an encounter he had one afternoon when it still was warm, an encounter not unfamiliar: An African American woman stopped for a red light and called to him as he swept the sidewalk in front of his steps. Was he the owner?

He nodded.

Don't sell, she said. No matter what they offer you. Pass it on, keep it in the family.

She drove away, Lofton said, but the message stayed: Keep the neighborhood as it was. Keep it black.

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