Where We Live

Pleasant Plains, D.C.'s Overlooked 'Bull's-Eye'

Pleasant Plains resident Sylvia Robinson fulfilled a dream of creating a thriving community center.
Pleasant Plains resident Sylvia Robinson fulfilled a dream of creating a thriving community center. (By Ann Cameron Siegal For The Washington Post)
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By Ann Cameron Siegal
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, October 17, 2009

District residents and community groups are working to get one Northwest neighborhood some recognition -- because few people even know it exists.

E. Gail Anderson Holness said her community of Pleasant Plains is "the bull's-eye of D.C." Holness, who serves on the Advisory Neighborhood Commission for Ward 1, moved to Pleasant Plains more than two decades ago because of its proximity to Howard University. She graduated from Howard's law school in 1981. "Some neighbors have been here over 40 years," she said. "Their children grew up with each other."

Defining Pleasant Plains is not an easy task. Its boundaries shift depending on who is describing them. Real estate agents use narrower parameters than the community's civic association does, probably for marketing purposes. Nearby communities, such as Columbia Heights, have names that are better known.

Located north of Florida Avenue and east of Sherman Avenue, Pleasant Plains has brick, dormered Wardman-style rowhouses and Federal-style houses, including many with front porches set 20 steps or more above street level.

The bustle of Georgia Avenue seems to melt away on the residential side streets. Residents gather at small local hangouts, such as Sankofa Video and Books, Soul Vegetarian, and the Howard Deli -- a fixture in the community since the 1930s.

In the 1700s, Pleasant Plains was the name of a large colonial estate stretching from present-day 16th Street NW to Howard University and owned by the Holmead family. Over time, chunks were parceled out, eventually becoming the neighborhoods of Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights and Park View. Today's Pleasant Plains is what was left over, said Sylvia Robinson, a resident and co-founder of the Pleasant Plains Neighborhood Network.

Jo Strowder and Margaret Weusi bought their home more than a decade ago. "It's brick with hardwood floors, a sunroom, a finished basement and parking in the back," Strowder said. Because of shallow bedrock, not all Pleasant Plains houses have basements.

Strowder said she appreciates the camaraderie on her street -- an atmosphere that reminds her of her childhood in the 1950s and '60s. "Residents are concerned about keeping their properties up," she said. "We holler across the street and water each other's yards."

A year ago, Ian and Sarah Pienik moved next door to Strowder and began transforming their steep hillside into a garden. Ian Pienik rattles off the name of each neighbor who donated plants for the project. Strowder, whose own yard has a plethora of thriving plants, said of the Pieniks, "These two are setting the pace as far as yards go."

The Pieniks bought a fixer-upper because they wanted to put their own thumbprint on the house, Ian Pienik said. "There's a Mount Pleasant feel to it," he said.

Efforts to revive what Holness referred to as "a community's community" are multifaceted. Residents are relying on individual initiatives to define their neighborhood. For example, since the Pieniks landscaped the tree boxes in front of their early-1900s house, others on the block followed suit.

Robinson, a former computer analyst, grew up a few blocks away in Petworth. She is now working to create ties that bind Pleasant Plains residents together -- keeping them abreast of civic issues and encouraging them to become active members of the community.

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