Optimism is alive in Southeast D.C. neighborhood of Fairlawn

In Fairlawn (some would say RandleHeights), many rowhouses are clustered in groups of two or three.
In Fairlawn (some would say RandleHeights), many rowhouses are clustered in groups of two or three. (Photo by Amanda Abrams for The Washington Post)
By Amanda Abrams
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 22, 2010; 8:32 PM

The first thing that becomes apparent upon meeting residents is that Fairlawn isn't necessarily Fairlawn. Sure, the Fairlawn Citizens' Association has clearly outlined the neighborhood's boundaries on its Web site, but talk to people who live there and you'll hear a number of other names for the area. To some, it has always been called Fairlawn; to others, there's no doubt that the area is Anacostia. A few call it Twining.

In part, that might be the result of the disparate smaller communities that make up the neighborhood, which straddles wards 7 and 8 in Southeast Washington. Bordered by the Anacostia River (which many insist is rightfully named the Eastern Branch), Pennsylvania Avenue, 25th Street, Naylor Road and Good Hope Road, Fairlawn is a mix of traditional D.C. rowhouses, detached single-family homes and apartment buildings. Near the river, the rowhouses line up in long, tight chains, but uphill and eastward - in an area that some (but not all) call Randle Heights - homes in groups of twos and threes graciously rise above groomed lawns and gardens.

The second observation that comes with spending time in the neighborhood is that no matter where they live or what they call it, residents seem to share a sense that their community has been profoundly affected over the decades by forces beyond their control - and that the future is as likely to bring more upheaval as it is to bring positive changes.

Today, Fairlawn is an almost wholly black neighborhood, but it wasn't always. In the early part of the last century, the majority of residents were white, but nearly all of them moved out of the neighborhood in the 1950s and '60s.

Walter and Katherine Graham and their four boys were one of the few white families that stuck around. They moved into an apartment in Fairlawn in 1950 and, 10 years later bought a home around the corner. They're still there, the longest-standing residents on a block populated largely by senior citizens.

"We were convenient to everything and were buying our house, so why pick up and move?" said Katherine Graham, 81. "We're all children of God, and we should be able to live together regardless of race."

Graham slips easily into reminiscing about the neighborhood: the fun her boys had playing in Anacostia Park (which she and neighbors still call Fairlawn Park), the shops - hardware, a five and dime, furniture - that lined Good Hope Road and the neighborhood's other commercial streets. Working- and middle-class black people had bought the homes vacated by the departing white population, and the area was bustling.

"When I was in high school," began Walter Graham III, the couple's eldest son, who now lives in Danville, Va., "The Post did an article on Anacostia and called this area a slum, and I remember my mother and father getting really upset, because they didn't feel it was a slum. We thought we were middle-class people in a middle-class neighborhood."

Bruce Holmes, 51, grew up just outside of Fairlawn and now takes care of relatives in the neighborhood. His memory of the area's vital commercial and community life in the 1960s and '70s echoes the Grahams'. Back then, he said, there was a movie theater near Pennsylvania Avenue SE "and you could stay all day. That was critical for young folks, getting them out of the house. There's no movies in this area now."

Crack cocaine arrived in the neighborhood in 1987, "and it's alive and kicking now," Holmes said. With drugs came crime, and the neighborhood deteriorated. The old community code of watching out for everyone's kids began to fray, the dropout rate rose, and those busy streets gradually turned empty. A methadone clinic moved onto Good Hope Road where small businesses once stood.

But even during the bad years, Fairlawn managed to maintain a certain exclusive reputation, at least among nearby communities, and its citizens association has remained active since the 1960s. Perhaps as a result, the neighborhood began turning around about a decade ago. It's not free of violent incidents - a young man was killed on Fairlawn Avenue in August - but the number of shootings has decreased.

It's possible that Fairlawn is now on the cusp of growth, including a renovated shopping center and a long-awaited development at Poplar Point, but those are currently on hold. A few developments are already happening: Anacostia High School is being modernized; the renovated Anacostia Public Library, a gleaming glass-and-steel structure, opened in March; and a new Yes organic-food market on Pennsylvania Avenue opened its doors to much fanfare in August.

Darrin Davis, owner of Anacostia River Realty and a Fairlawn resident, says he thinks the neighborhood is on its way to becoming the District's next "it" neighborhood. "We get calls about it every day," he said, adding that several retail and office spaces are slated to be redeveloped soon. "It's one of the fastest-growing areas east of the river."

But if a flood of young professionals is hitting the neighborhood, it's not yet obvious. Like others, the president of the Fairlawn Citizens' Association, Graylin Presbury, is more concerned about other things: that renters may eventually replace the community's elderly homeowners, for example. That Anacostia's future streetcars could cause problems for Fairlawn residents. And that the relocation of the Department of Homeland Security to the former campus of the St. Elizabeths psychiatric hospital will seriously alter the neighborhood's flavor.

Maybe Bruce Holmes best summed up the sentiments of residents - regardless of what they call the neighborhood. "It's changing," he said. "I'm all for change, but as long as you can still recognize the area."

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