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Washington Highlands:
Working to Revitalize Area

By Marianne Kyriakos
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 13, 1993

From his bedroom at 12th Street SE, 7-year-old Deon Williams hears many things.

He listens to the clamor of children and yapping dogs on the street below. He is lulled to sleep by winds that sweep across Southeast's rolling bluffs, where Nacotchtank Indians roamed for 3,000 years before 1608, when Capt. John Smith dropped by.

And sometimes, Deon says, he is awakened by blasts of gunfire from the apartments next door. "They sound like they're right here," the Draper Elementary School student said.

This is Washington Highlands, home to 15,000 people in Southeast Washington.

The neighborhood also is home to Nathan A. Saunders, born and raised in this part of Southeast. Saunders left, but returned a few years ago after graduate school at Johns Hopkins University. He and his wife, Theresa, live in a Spanish-style stucco town house on Bellevue Street. They are expecting their first child next month.

As executive director of the four-year-old East of the River Community Development Corp., Saunders's goals are to attract business and middle-income families to Washington Highlands, a community that joins Anacostia and Congress Heights in the District's Ward 8.

"We need government workers who have disposable income, who are going to shop, who are going to eat," he said. "When you have a community that has only low-income people, you don't have an opportunity to feed your businesses ... to stimulate human capital, to stimulate people to invest in themselves."

Saunders waves his hand toward fields of dusty weeds along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. "In essence, a community has killed itself," he said. "Southeast has the largest proportion of vacant land of any community in the District of Columbia."

Washington Highlands is bounded by Greater Southeast hospital on the north, Southern Avenue on the east, Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue on the west and Fourth Street SE on the south.

Life in the community can be difficult, according to statistics from the D.C. government. On some of the neighborhood's streets, there is an annual violent crime rate of 55 incidents for every 1,000 residents. And depending on the block, 34 percent to 62 percent of the residents live below the poverty level, which is $12,674 in annual household income for a family of four. Many of the area's childbirths are to single mothers.

Only 12.9 percent of homes are owner-occupied. Most of the housing stock is made up of rental units—multifamily housing, with some semi-detached and single-family homes. Among them are historic Victorians on tree-lined streets. The median home price is $73,070, Census data show.

"We call this 'God's Country' to make ourselves feel better," Saunders said. George Washington, at least, might have concurred. The first president spoke in glowing terms of the natural setting of this hilly, wooded landscape where the Anacostia and Potomac rivers meet. Oxon Run creek trickles from the Anacostia River through Washington Highlands.

"You want to know one of the best-kept secrets in Washington?" Saunders asked, showing off the blustery, panoramic view from 'The Point,' a soaring hillside on the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital.

Where else in the city can one look toward Alexandria, Crystal City, Rosslyn, the Washington Monument, the Capitol, the Mall, the Mormon Temple, Catholic University and Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium without leaving the ground?

"I try to send my students there, where they can see the city from a different perspective," said Paul Groves, a professor of geography at the University of Maryland. "I'm not sure many people venture over there, which is a real pity." Linda Moody, the Ward 8 representative on the District school board and its vice president, said: "I feel good about my neighborhood. There is a belief in this city that nobody in Ward 8 is capable of doing anything, that everybody in Ward 8 is trying to kill everybody else. Actually, we led the whole city in the greatest decrease in crime of any region in Washington in 1992. And 23 of 24 schools in our district last year had an increase in attendance." Moody said she makes a special plea to parents to keep their students in the community's schools. "Last September," she said, "about 200 students who had registered to go across town to school came back to Ballou High on the first day of school."

For Deon Williams and his 2-year-old sister Kendra, life would be more fun if they had a place to romp, said their mother Sharon Williams, 25. The family shares a Southern Hills apartment with Williams's sister, Crystal Williams, 20, her son Kevin, 3, and their mother, Gloria. "Basically, my kids play here," Sharon Williams said, pointing out a patch of grass beside a row of gas meters.

Sharon Williams said residents of the rundown brick garden-style building are trying to raise some cash for a special project. "You know how some of the D.C. public schools are getting those nice, colorful little playgrounds? We want to get a mini one," she said.

The sisters said their building at 4300 12th St. has a tenant committee. "We've had car washes, bake sales, fish fries, but we didn't raise enough yet," said Sharon Williams, a cosmetology student. "But we're gonna keep at it." Crystal Williams, who hopes to study geriatric nursing next fall, said the tenants get the neighborhood children involved. "We let them plant little shrubs and put their name in front," she said. "Drugs and shootings, they're everywhere," she said. "Our street is fairly quiet."

"The quote-unquote 'bad things' always happen in Southeast," Saunders said. "As a child, it was a tremendous burden. I've always had to live with that." As for raising a child in the Highlands, Saunders is confident. "We Americans sometimes believe that, if we move out, we leave the problems behind, and that's not true," he said. "You choose either to stop right here and take a stand and deal with them—or deal with them someplace else." The Southeast resident wishes only that he had an advertising campaign. "It would say: 'Seeking soldiers to be about the business of growth and development. Fainthearted need not apply.'"

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