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An Urban Neighborhood on the Rise

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, January 3, 2009

A hundred years ago, life in Eckington was all about the streetcar.

Now it's all about the Metro, with stations anchoring the north and south ends of the Northeast Washington neighborhood.

Often lumped in with nearby communities such as Shaw and Brookland, Eckington is increasingly becoming a requested area in its own right, real estate agents say. But more often, it draws people who were attracted to other, better-known neighborhoods with easy Metro access -- but found that they didn't suit their budgets.

That's what brought Vicki Gass to her light-filled end-unit rowhouse in 2002. "It was an extremely tight market," she said. "Finding anything I could afford was a challenge."

The neighborhood is a mostly a mix of two- and three-story brick rowhouses, many with bay fronts. Some blocks include grander homes. Condo developments have popped up in the past few years.

The housing styles vary from block to block, said Angela Jones, who lives in Eckington and works as an agent with Long and Foster's nearby Brookland office. The mix includes big Victorians and Federal-style homes; they're similar to those on Capitol Hill, "but with much lower prices," she said.

The land that became Eckington was once the country home of Joseph Gales Jr., Washington's mayor from 1827 to 1830 and publisher of the National Intelligencer. Gales built a two-story house on the site, naming his estate Eckington after the English village where he was born. The streetcar -- the Washington area's first -- came in 1878. Most of the houses in Eckington began going up in the 1890s, with another boom in development in the 1920s.

The streetcar line was shut down in the 1950s, and Eckington suffered the sort of decline that afflicted many urban neighborhoods in the ensuing decades.

But the whole neighborhood has transformed in the past five years, said Chip Lewis, an agent with Matthew Spicer Real Estate who has worked in the D.C. real estate business for more than 35 years. He sees interest in Eckington from a mix of young professionals, government workers, artists and young families who want to live in the city and avoid commuting an hour.

Those who choose to make Eckington their home say they are drawn by a diverse, friendly community, the solid housing stock and myriad transportation options.

Ben Lyttleton and his wife moved from the Virginia suburbs to Eckington about two years ago. They quickly felt welcome, he said.

"The thing about rowhouses -- you have to meet your neighbors," he said, acknowledging the close quarters. For example, more than 35 neighbors stopped by their election night party, he said.

Conversations in Eckington turn as often to plumbing as politics, though, as new residents often find themselves orchestrating major upgrades of older plumbing and electrical systems while trying to hang on to attractive details such as the wood trim. Many residents take on the projects themselves, a common point of conversation among old-timers and newcomers alike.

Lyttleton described himself as "in the throes of renovation" on his 1902 Victorian. Many of the neighboring houses have similar repair and renovation issues, even though "some of them are a little finer, some are a little grander."

Iris Mitchell, a retired postal worker, bought her house in 1993, paying just $101,000 for her three-bedroom, two-bath rowhouse. "I put a lot of work into that house," she said on a recent evening stroll with her dog, Ginger.

Fixer-uppers aren't the only option. Cristina von Spiegelfeld and her husband bought a condo in Eckington in July 2007 after they "outgrew Adams Morgan," she said. They were attracted by the neighborhood's affordability, given the relatively generous size of the units.

Eckington is quieter, she said, but still close to everything. They often cross North Capitol Street to check out the farmer's market and Big Bear Cafe in Bloomingdale.

Being bordered by major roads such as New York Avenue, Rhode Island Avenue and North Capitol makes it relatively easy to get in and out of town by car, residents said. proximity to the Rhode Island Avenue and New York Avenue Metro stations, as well as regular bus service, also helps.

That the neighborhood is not included in either station's name peeves some residents. "The lack of a neighborhood name on our station has always bothered me as a wasted opportunity for an effective 'branding' campaign," Jay Cooper writes on his Eckington blog.

Two of residents' worries are common to cities: crime and schools. Great improvements in safety have been made, residents said, but there are still issues. Overall, we're talking "classic inner-city problems," said Lyttleton, who praised community policing in the neighborhood as "very effective."

Resident Vicki Gass points to drug trafficking north of T Street as a particular concern.

For those with children, the ongoing problems in the D.C. public schools can be an issue. "It's a challenge," said Lyttleton, who has two young children, Gryphon, 4, and Fletcher, 20 months. Their solution so far: Instead of the neighborhood school, the older child attends a nearby Chinese immersion charter school, which he said he and his wife have been pleased with.

Activity in the nearby industrial area of the city can also create a nuisance, Gass said, "especially the big gravel trucks that zip through the neighborhood rather than take the main arteries."

Development is also among residents' top concerns, said Denise Wright, a member of the advisory neighborhood commission whose district included Eckington. "People want restaurants, and they want stores," she said, but major developers are reluctant to be the first to move into the neighborhood. And the developments cropping up nearby don't count, said Wright, who has lived in Eckington for four years and was on the ANC for about one year. "Why are you telling me to walk across New York Avenue to buy a bag of groceries?"

That lack of retail development means the neighborhood can be surprisingly quiet in evenings and weekends, though. "We love the weekend strolls when it's so quiet and peaceful you'd never think you were in the crosshairs of North Capitol Street and Florida Avenue," said Steve Rynecki, who has lived in Eckington for seven years and who served as the economic development co-chair for the Eckington Civic Association for nearly five years.

Mitchell and Gass also praised Eckington's walkability. The two women have been walking their dogs together for two years, a habit that Gass said has helped her make many connections. "It's amazing how getting a dog forces you to get to know people."

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