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Gardened and Glowing in Trinidad
Residents Turn Around Their Front-Porch NE Neighborhood

By Marianne Kyriakos
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 17, 2006

Garden club members in Mabel Blocker's D.C. neighborhood have a preferred pastime for balmy weekend evenings: "We do a little planting," Blocker said. "Then we all sit out together on a neighbor's porch until late at night. Wine and cheese and crackers and fruit are passed around. We do a lot of that."

Such a scene might be taking place in Georgetown or Cleveland Park, or all over the suburbs. But it also is happening where Blocker and friends live, in Northeast Washington's Trinidad, a community whose name not long ago shared sentences with words such as "blight," "neglect" and "drug-infested."

Members of the year-old Trinidad/Ivy City Garden Club and others in the neighborhood are finding new adjectives to describe their gentrifying inner-city enclave. A mix of longtime African American residents and newcomers -- black, white, Asian, Hispanic and deaf (from nearby Gallaudet University) -- they have embraced a changing neighborhood.

Elise Bernard, 27, created her Web log "Frozen Tropics," with news, observations and photos of Trinidad. Three years ago, the George Washington University law student paid $150,000 for her three-bedroom, 1,600-square-foot house on Florida Avenue.

In her blog, she does not shy away from the tough race and class issues of gentrification, its value, and what it takes to help people stay when a community changes.

Bernard is white, and the majority of Trinidad residents are black. "At first, I worried that people might not want me here, or [would] somehow be hostile towards me. This was not the case at all," the Oklahoma native said.

"We don't have all the close-by amenities you might find in Dupont -- a movie theater, lots of restaurants. But there is a good vibe in the air right now," Bernard said. "People want to get involved and meet their neighbors. Trinidad is a neighborhood where old people sit on the porch and talk to you about the weather when you walk by."

Bernard is looking forward to the planned revitalization of the H Street NE corridor, two blocks south of Trinidad.

In the meantime, the garden club has revitalized Trinidad's tree boxes, those green spaces between curbs and sidewalks. A core group of 15 "diehards" and lots of volunteers salvaged bricks from an old job site. Grants of spring-blooming bulbs came from GrowDC. Other donations arrived through resident Aaron Cox, whose family owns Cox Farms in Virginia. Cox brought "two truckloads of stuff," Bernard said. "All this mulch and dirt and all these flowers. And a watermelon and drinks."

When there is nothing to plant, grills are dragged out for alley-cleaning parties.

There is a special effort to get the children involved, and they are rewarded with small gifts or ice cream money. Said Yamilee Dambreville, a thirtysomething consultant: "We keep them busy. Finally, they see that their hands are into something, and it's beautiful. One little boy always knocks on my door and asks, 'Can I water? Can I plant?' "

"The kids, they're our eyes," Dambreville said. "No one has ever stolen any of our flowers. You never see holes where anyone has yanked them."

Four years ago, Tony Golden, 30, moved into the house that his "great-granddaddy Hawkins" once owned. The house had been vacant for years. "It was completely dilapidated. There were three holes in the roof and old furniture piled up inside. No flowers, no trees. There was nothing in nobody's yards."

An artist and hairstylist, Golden has created a showcase house with two kitchens, antique claw-foot tubs in the bathrooms, and two bay windows in his bedroom.

For years, housing prices in Trinidad were rock bottom by D.C. standards. "It is gradually changing," said Ralph Lee, an agent with Murrell Realtors. "The property values in the past two years have tripled. But two friends coming out of school can still buy a house in Trinidad for $275,000 or $300,000, and that's far less than what they can get a downtown condo for."

Some residents were shocked when the neighborhood's percentage change in tax assessment value for 2004-2005 -- at 33 percent -- ranked the highest in the city, according to the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue.

Blocker's brick home on Morse Street is typical of the area's 1920s porch-front row houses. The historic housing stock in lower Trinidad is similar to that of greater Capitol Hill: Three-story 1880s Victorian row houses with asymmetrical fronts, full-length windows and crown detailing at the roof peaks. Canopies of towering trees shade some of the streets.

"Trinidad" was banker William W. Corcoran's country estate, according to Patsy M. Fletcher, community liaison for the Historic Preservation Office of the D.C. Office of Planning. The land was sold in 1888 to the Washington Machine Brick Co., which held onto 65 clay-rich acres for brick making. The other 100 acres were subdivided. "The natural grade of Trinidad is very beautiful," an 1888 advertisement proclaimed, "in the centre is a high knoll."

Today, that "high knoll" is Holbrooke Terrace, not far from Alex Hastings's house. The 25-year-old physicist grew up in McLean and left the Washington area for college at the University of San Diego. He was offered a job with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, and knew he wanted to be a D.C. homeowner, "even though my parents didn't want me to live in the city."

"I was looking around on Capitol Hill," Hastings said, where list prices were sky high. Last August, he saw a $330,000, three-bedroom house on a corner lot in Trinidad and grabbed it. As for his parents, "I visit them more than they visit me."

He finds his new community "kind of exciting. It's real cool, what's going on."

"We doin' it over here," Golden said. In front of his detached garage, some elderly men congregate in the evenings. "They're contractors. They're all friends," Golden said. "I'm thinking about putting a table and umbrella out there; serve them some coffee. I like to see old dudes talking."

Golden has transformed his garden into an "outdoor room" with fish pond, a huge L-shaped cinderblock banquette and a marble-and-granite patio. The marble and granite were throwaway pieces, courtesy of a neighbor who makes countertops.

"This area, four years ago, I used to see people sell drugs on the corner," Golden said. From his sidewalk on Montello Avenue, it appears the drug dealers are gone.

"I think it was the flowers that did it. I like to say that beauty calmed the beast."

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