By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 13, 2009
They visit the block along Mount Pleasant Street NW like mourners, quietly paying respects to the charred rubble and the gaping hole where their bedrooms, kitchen tables and childhood memories once were.
It was a year ago today that about 200 residents of the Deauville apartments at 3145 Mount Pleasant St. ran from the flames in their pajamas, carrying their babies, photographs and, in some cases, their precious green cards.
The five-alarm blaze was the worst in the District in about 30 years, firefighters said.
Last year, the owner said he planned to rebuild the building but said it might take up to 18 months.
A year later, no work has been done. The facade of a four-story building that had been the heart of a vibrant and diverse neighborhood looks much as it did right after the fire.
"Nothing is being built. Nobody is doing anything, and all these people are just waiting and waiting to move back home," said Mayra Vasquez, 26, who had lived in the building for 14 years before the fire and is pushing for its reconstruction.
"These people are justifiably very emotional about this," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). "This building is such a centerpiece on Mount Pleasant Street. Having it like this is blight of the worst order."
Many of the tenants have moved to different pockets of the city, a handful on Georgia Avenue and some on Park Road. A few families returned to El Salvador, their American dreams dashed after they decided the price of starting over was too high.
"All these people, the children, the families -- gone," said the clerk at the El Progreso market across the street, who knew most of the tenants who came in daily for vegetables, pan de leche, plantains or soap.
Parents tried to stay in the neighborhood to keep their children in the same schools. But for many, the two-year housing subsidy they received from the District wasn't enough to rent an apartment in the increasingly popular area. It meant having to split up their families and squeeze into tiny rooms, said Vasquez, whose family did just that so her 11-year-old sister can stay at Bancroft Elementary.
The tenants association, of which she is the head, has a formidable reputation. In 2004, it and several other groups forged a deal with the city to increase building inspections and force repairs after the Deauville had been cited for more than 7,000 housing code violations, according to city records.
Many of the problems had been fixed and the association was a week from signing a legal agreement with owner Eric Kretschman when the fire tore through the building.
The association continues to meet every two weeks at a youth center, where former neighbors catch up on their lives and plan for a reunion in their old building, Vasquez said.
In some ways, their duties didn't change: They deal with leaky pipes, rent disputes, rats and peeling paint, but they do it across the city in dozens of buildings, said Majella van der Werf, 34, a former tenant who is helping her old neighbors.
"We've become very services-oriented," van der Werf said. "We didn't need a physical structure to keep our bond as a community."
Graham and former tenants met with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) yesterday to ask for help. He said they have several options, including the possibility of a city takeover under eminent domain, or a tax sale if the owner doesn't pay a 10 percent tax on the vacant property.
Kretschman, who lives in Pennsylvania and owns other properties in the District, did not return calls seeking comment.
The residents gathered for a one-year anniversary vigil last night. For many, it was the first time they had returned to the charred remains of their home.
"I cannot look at the building," Vasquez said. "It feels like a cemetery to me."