Hope Stirs In Fort Lincoln

Larcenaous and Aleah Williams, 4, spend an afternoon watering the freshly laid sod of their new home. The Williams family moved to Fort Lincoln in February. They are part of a stream of newcomers to the neighborhood; one is Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier. (Photos By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 30, 2007

On a warm spring night, only a gentle breeze passed through the empty baseball diamonds and tennis courts at Fort Lincoln Park.

Atop a ridge that offers some of the best views in the city, just steps from a new row of half-million-dollar townhouses, shattered lights kept the park in the dark. Drug paraphernalia, malt-liquor cans and condoms littered the field.

"This place is beautiful and atrocious at the same time," said Mark Williams, who has lived in the mostly sedate pocket of Northeast Washington all his life.

But change is coming to Fort Lincoln. There are newcomers filling homes as soon as the paint dries and plans for a shopping center to be anchored by a Costco. And there is one newcomer in particular who is creating much of the buzz: Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier.

"The new chief moved in. Policing has got to get better," said D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), who lobbied her to buy a home in his ward.

Lanier moved in a couple of months ago, lured by the District's mandate that top agency officials live in the city and the neighborhood's relative calm.

She grew up less than a mile away, across the Prince George's County line in the Tuxedo community. As a teen, she learned to drive on the hills of Fort Lincoln Drive and the narrow streets of the Fort Lincoln Cemetery, where several of her relatives are buried.

At her previous home, in Anne Arundel County, Lanier relaxed by watching the deer and woodpeckers in her back yard. But as a child, she was more used to the shrill horns of passing CSX freight trains that rattled her bedroom window. When she heard that blast at 10:30 the night she moved in, she realized that she was home again.

"Instead of it being annoying, it was a comforting sound," she said.

The neighborhood has been a bastion of middle-class black Washington for decades, although the new faces span the spectrum. But as a development, Fort Lincoln has been like a promising child who turns out to be something of an underachiever.

Conceived during President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society era in the 1960s, the idea was to design an urban community that looked more like a park, although it would come complete with homes, offices and even a monorail. Townhouses and apartments built at "Fort Lincoln New Town" in the 1970s, largely by developer Theodore R. Hagans, filled with laborers, government workers, doctors and lawyers.

About 40 years later, the neighborhood, originally the site of a fort built to protect the city during the Civil War, remains a place of promise and contradictions. Tucked between bustling, gritty Bladensburg Road and New York Avenue on the city's northeastern edge, much of the area feels like an enclave of quiet and open space. You could drive past on busy Route 50 -- the neighborhood is blocks from the entrance to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway -- and not even know it is there.

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