The Far Side of Rebirth
Monday, March 19, 2007
The rubble stretches toward the horizon, a wasteland of broken bricks, chunks of concrete, upended trees and shrubbery yanked from the earth. This is the crushed vestige of a lost neighborhood where 1,200 public housing residents once lived, where 50 apartment buildings once stood.
And there, amid the vast emptiness, stands a virtual afterthought: a lone strip of surviving rowhouses. Inhabited.
Before a neighborhood becomes the new hot place, before developers christen their creations and retailers and restaurateurs open their doors, there is an inevitable rite of passage, a transition, in which the past and future can be glimpsed at the same moment.
So it is here on the cracked pavement of Third Street SE, a mile south of the Capitol and just north of where the Washington Nationals are building their stadium. It's a neighborhood on the precipice, about to transform from blue collar to white, from industrial grit to marble grandeur. Yet, for now, it's a ghost town.
To walk the neighborhood is to come upon a montage of incongruous sights. A spry 70-year-old man selling bundles of firewood across from a cavernous hole. A $1 million penthouse lair overlooking a former trash-transfer station. An old church clinging to a corner surrounded by vacant blocks once occupied by its congregants. Four horses inexplicably stabled beneath the elevated Southeast Freeway's thumping clamor.
"It's bizarre," Scott Swenson, 44, a writer who recently moved to the neighborhood, said of the vista as he walked Boo-Boo, his black Labrador and whippet mix, along the perimeter of a leveled block. "But it's bizarre with a lot of potential."
To an outsider, it might seem lonesome or just plain odd to live in a dust bowl of isolation. But for Vivian Turner, who has resided on Third Street for 17 years, it is a respite from what was once all too common: police sirens shrieking, neighbors fighting, people yakking at all hours on the pay phones once bolted to the sidewalk below her bedroom window.
"It's peaceful," Turner said, sitting in her living room across from a hanging woodcut of two hands clasped in prayer. "It's a blessing that I'm here."
For generations, this terrain was the other side of Washington's proverbial tracks, literally and psychologically separated from Capitol Hill and the rest of the city by the freeway. Repair shops, cab companies, greasy spoons and dance and strip clubs resided here, not to mention the families and seniors occupying the 758 units that were the Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg housing project.
In 2001, District and federal officials decided it was time to take down the wall and lure the rest of the region to the banks of the Anacostia River. They hatched plans to raze the housing project and build offices, a park and 1,500 units of market-rate and subsidized housing. Three years later, the Nationals claimed the southern side of M Street for their ballpark, adding another sprawling dimension to one of the largest redevelopment projects in the country.
Now, from Turner's corner, she can see more than half a dozen bulldozed blocks as well as harbingers of the gilded future: a new Transportation Department complex to the left, a Marriott hotel and the Capitol Hill Tower apartment building straight ahead, all of it a short walk from the Nationals' new stadium, rising on the horizon like the Taj Mahal.
"From the pits to the palace, from nightmares to dreams," said Turner, 52, a receptionist at a Northwest apartment building and the mother of two adult daughters. She shook her head. "I just watch with amazement."