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Where Friendship
Has Aged Well

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 23, 1996

Some of the people on the block are now advanced in age. But that's part of the beauty of having lived in this part of Petworth. Old age means stability, means endurance, means you watched their children grow up and they have watched yours. Means the connections with your neighbors are as strong as the roots of that thick tree you planted back 40 years ago.

Some people don't count friends unless they have been around more than 20 years. Most of these neighbors have been here twice that long. And that's what many of the residents in Petworth like about this old Northwest Washington neighborhood.

Joan Thomas moved in 43 years ago, raised her children, planted her peach tree and called the place home.

"It's a stable community," Thomas said. "If something happens in the community, everybody pulls together. If someone is sick or dies, you do what you can to help."

When Thomas decided on Petworth, she was looking for convenience to shopping and major thoroughfares for transportation.

Petworth, which sits near Georgia Avenue, provided that.

"I had two children at the time," Thomas said. "I was looking for a place that was convenient to everything. The school and the stores were nearby. In those days, Ida's department store was right at Georgia Avenue and Longfellow. It was a department store you could go in and get anything you need, from stockings to thread, or you could pick up a wedding gift. Anything you needed you could get it up there at Ida's."

There also was a drugstore that delivered, a gasoline station on the corner and schools nearby.

"You could go from elementary school to high school in the same neighborhood and never leave the community," Thomas said.

Ahwaneda Brown, 67, moved to the neighborhood 42 years ago. "It was a perfect place to raise a family," she said. "We were close, at that time, to the streetcar line."

Brown bought a red brick, semidetached house on Eighth Street. She said that some of the young people in the neighborhood remember that her son played in a band and still call her Mama B. "A lot of kids know me. They say, `Hey, Mama B.' Or, `Hey Miss Brown.' And I don't even know who they are."

The neighborhood is bounded roughly by Spring Road and Rock Creek Church Road to the south and east, 16th Street and Colorado Avenue to the west and northwest and Ingraham Street to the north.

There are lovely Victorian houses with pointed steeples that line some streets in Petworth. Others are lined with spacious brick row houses and a few apartment buildings. The houses range in value from $80,000 to as much as $180,000.

Petworth began as a suburb of Washington, and was linked to downtown by a streetcar line. It is one of the larger residential neighborhoods in Washington, and includes old forts such as Fort Stevens and Fort Totten.

Sandra Butler-Truesdale, a school board member who represents Ward 4, has lived in Petworth since she was 13. "It's a wonderful neighborhood to live in," she said. "When I was growing up, mostly middle-class blacks moved here. It was an integrated neighborhood."

But some of the schools in Petworth were segregated. A number of the children walked past Roosevelt Senior High School, because it was all white, on their way to Cardozo Senior High School.

"I had already started going to Cardozo when they integrated in 1955," Butler-Truesdale said.

Now, Butler-Truesdale watches children in the neighborhood walk to their neighborhood schools. Many mornings, she stands in front of her house at Eighth and Varnum streets greeting the schoolchildren.

"I say good morning and tell them to have a good day and make sure they study hard," Butler-Truesdale said. "Some young people who are troubled, I encourage them to continue to go to school. I talk to them one on one about their situations."

Those who straggle along long after school has started for the day are admonished and sometimes Butler-Truesdale offers them a ride. "I ask them why are they late," she said. "I offer to take them to school."

Butler-Truesdale, who lives in the Victorian house where she was raised, loves the neighborhood for the closeness.

"The neighbors, they know each other," she said. "They are friendly. In a time of need or trouble, they come forward to help you out, but they don't meddle."

But Butler-Truesdale sees the neighborhood changing as its activists grow older and have less energy to fight urban problems that are affecting so many other neighborhoods in the District.

"One thing that is so sad to see is the neighborhood deteriorate," Butler-Truesdale said. "Our civic warriors are mostly senior citizens in their sixties, seventies and eighties. They are now all too old to fight to keep the neighborhood the way it ought to be."

An aging membership disbanded the Eighth and Varnum block association.

Brown says the neighborhood is not kept up as well as it once was. "There are times it looks cruddy. Then there are times it is totally clean. We picked up at one time, but all of us are getting older and you have to pay somebody to do it now."

© 1996 The Washington Post Co.

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