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Residents Try to Keep
Homes in Family

By Julia Angwin
Special to The Washington Post
March 27, 1993

Every few hours, Jane Armstead leads her five small dogs onto the front porch of her home in Deanwood. Sitting there, she can survey the frame houses that line Hayes Street NE.

"As long as I want to be here, I have a responsibility to see that it stays on an even keel," Armstead said.

And she expects her neighbors to do the same for her. "If someone's coming on the street, someone will call me and say, 'Jane, there is some guy on the street looking at your house,'" she said.

That kind of neighborly activism is common in Deanwood, located in the northeastern corner of the District, bounded by Eastern, Division, Nannie Helen Burroughs and Kenilworth avenues.

Residents have ties to the community and one another that go back almost a century.

"In Deanwood you don't see the gangs hanging around like I do here on Georgia Avenue," said Armstead's mother, Bernice Brooks, who moved from Deanwood to a neighborhood near Howard University in 1965.

Brooks still returns to Deanwood to attend the Deanwood First Baptist Church on Sherriff Road, which is home to at least a dozen churches, and to visit her daughter and son, who share the home in which she grew up.

For her and others, Deanwood, a middle-class enclave, is home even when they live somewhere else.

"My practice, my life, my family house is still here," said Wilbur F. Jackson, who moved out of Deanwood in 1953, but still works as a physician in the neighborhood.

"You may not have known everybody here, but you knew their faces," Armstead said. "If they came into your range of vision, you could say, 'I don't know your name but I know you're Deanwood.'"

That feeling has remained, even though times have changed for Deanwood, as with many areas of the city.

Many of the estimated 8,500 Deanwood residents fear the advance of crime and illegal drug use. "We still love it, but there are days we remember that it was a truer love," said Armstead, 56.

Her truer love is for the days when her grandfather sold produce, ice and coal door-to-door on his horse and buggy. And for the times when she walked to school along the railroad tracks, picking blackberries along the way.

"The only danger was getting caught doing something wrong and Mary's mother down the street was going to 'whop' you, and then she was going to tell your mother and you were going to get it again," Armstead said.

Residents admit that Deanwood's problems run deeper these days. "It just has more of a negative connotation today," said Bill Diggs, an agent at Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate.

Homes in Deanwood cost about $75,000 on average, Diggs said. But many homes like Armstead's stay in the family and are never resold.

Keeping houses in the family reflects Deanwood's sense of community.

"I've lived in this house since I was 2 years old," said Herbert Turner, 71. "My grandfather lived here before my mother and father. It came down to me to keep it up."

Turner's street, like many others in Deanwood, is marked by well-kept houses with tidy lawns alongside houses that are boarded-up and covered with graffiti.

"On my street there are about three houses that should either be repaired, renovated or torn down," Turner said.

As a member and past president of the Deanwood Civic Association, Turner has worked to improve the neighborhood. "We do believe that the area is below standard," he said. "We'd like to see proper paving of the streets and sidewalks and some of the old homes renovated or torn down."

But residents sometimes despair of making the District government notice anything "east of the river," where remnants of the country still exist. "I guess it's been in the last 20 years that they finally did away with all the outhouses and pumps," Armstead said.

"We used to call this the sticks," said Ellsworth Davis, 66, a retired Washington Post photographer, whose family moved to Deanwood when he was 4 years old. "If you lived out in the sticks, it was because of your economic situation, and because your parents were trying to own a home.

"You weren't tainted because you lived out here. If you lived here you were most likely buying, not renting. You took pride in it."

Longtime residents said lack of pride is what afflicts newer residents.

"You know when you see a house going down, you know it's gone out of the family," Armstead said.

But it's not over yet.

"We don't give up easily," Armstead said. "That's why it's retained its flavor."

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