Where We Live: The Stronghold neighborhood of Northeast Washington

By Amanda Abrams
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 26, 2010

It's one of those tiny D.C. neighborhoods with an identity known only to its residents. Real estate agents call it part of Brookland, maps indicate it's in Edgewood and Wikipedia has the location wrong.

Stronghold residents don't seem to care a whit. Sure, their Northeast neighborhood is unknown and isolated. But over the years, that isolation has worked in their favor, turning the seven-square-block area into one of those places where everyone knows everyone else and neighbors genuinely take care of one another.

At first glance, the location -- just east of North Capitol Street and south of Michigan Avenue -- doesn't seem particularly remote. But the neighborhood backs up to the rolling lawns of Glenwood and Prospect Hill cemeteries, and five out of the six streets that make up Stronghold -- Bryant through Girard -- are dead ends. Directly across North Capitol is the vast McMillan Sand Filtration Plant, with acres of green space fenced off from public use, and Washington Hospital Center and Trinity Washington University lie to the north. As a result, there's very little through traffic and virtually no immediate neighbors.

Think of it as an island of calm off North Capitol's busy axis. The streets are lined with Federal-style rowhouses built around 1920, with ample yards and porches that get a good workout in the warm months. Crisscrossing the neighborhood are alleys allowing folks to connect with one another without having to venture onto city streets.

On a recent Friday evening, Girard Street was swarming with kids on bikes and roller skates who had taken over part of one sidewalk. Further up the street, two teenage boys in white suits were taking photos and showing off their outfits to admiring neighbors before heading out to the prom.

One block over on Franklin Street, Sam Belton, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1960, was helping a friend load machinery into his truck. "Everyone looks out for one another here," he explained. "Everybody has a trade here. I did telephone work for 30 years; if someone has a telephone problem, I'll help. Other people do things like carpentry or plumbing, and they'll help out. It's like family."

Up on his porch, Alfred Barnes, a retired Marine, agreed. "It's a nice neighborhood -- we all know each other," he bellowed in a deep, sure voice.

Barnes mused on the neighborhood's history. The origins of its name are murky. Residents say it came from a baseball team organized for local boys in the 1950s or '60s dubbed "The Strong Hold."

The area was peaceful for many years, but in the late 1980s, drugs and crime began seeping into its quiet streets. In response, residents grouped together into "white hat" patrols to keep a lid on crime and discourage outsiders from loitering in the neighborhood. In 1991, the group formally titled itself Stronghold, after the baseball team, and the name stuck. Stronghold is officially registered as one of Ward 5's communities.

The Stronghold Civic Association is vibrant, meeting monthly to organize neighborhood cleanup days and an annual reunion for area residents. Meanwhile, the spike in crime has subsided -- though not disappeared -- and residents say the neighborhood is again a good place to raise a family.

But despite an almost storybook neighborliness, Stronghold isn't ideal. The Safeway at Fourth Street and Rhode Island Avenue closed a few months ago, which means residents have to walk a little farther -- usually to the Giant Food store on Brentwood Road -- for groceries. The neighborhood is about equidistant from the Rhode Island Avenue and Brookland stations on Metro's Red Line, but either way it's a 15-minute walk. And the closest play facilities for kids are at the Edgewood Recreation Center, on the other side of the cemetery.

Even within Stronghold's calm confines, the demographics are shifting. "It's just begun to change in the last two years," Barnes said. Others echoed his conclusion, pointing out the various houses that changed hands recently. As an older generation of longtime residents, mostly African American, ages and dies, new people are moving in, including more who are white.

Brendan and Kathryn Kiel are still viewed as relative newcomers, though they've been in Stronghold for five years. But Brendan Kiel, 32, an anesthesiologist at Georgetown Hospital, said the transition was effortless. "It's been such a surprise -- we love it," he said. "People really do know each other. I've left my keys in the door and people have brought them to me. And my wife's car got hit while parked and two people came with the license plate number [of the other car]."

According to Suzanne Des Marais, a broker with Urban Pace Fine Homes, Stronghold probably won't be seeing too many prospective residents in the very near future, though. "The real estate community has not done much to promote awareness of this neighborhood so far," she said, adding that no properties in Stronghold are actively on the market right now.

New residents aren't the only potential change on the horizon. The McMillan plant, across North Capitol Street, is slated for major development; the main questions are when and how. The city has been working with a developer, but residents charge that the plans they've seen are too dense for the area and don't include any public amenities.

One of Stronghold's own has thrown his hat in the political ring. Kenyan McDuffie, 34, a former Justice Department lawyer who grew up in Stronghold and is now raising his children in the family home, announced his candidacy for the Ward 5 D.C. Council seat in February.

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