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River Terrace:
Residents Defeat 'Goliaths'

By Patrice Gaines
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 05, 1994

The love and stability of the neighborhood shows up in the way each look-alike row house has been individualized by personal touches: an added brick wall or porch, awnings or a line of neatly trimmed bushes.

The people of River Terrace in Northeast Washington have weathered the challenges that befall many neighborhoods—projects by large corporations that could have altered the face of the community, some new homeowners who don't have pride in the place and the increase in crime felt throughout most of the city.

But the people of River Terrace have not fled. In fact, they've dug in their heels deeper—and fought back. Many of the residents were among the first blacks to move into the community in the early 1950s. They've maintained the small-town feel of the neighborhood, with summer block parties, an annual River Terrace festival and their own community telephone book.

"Living here has been a tremendous positive experience," said F.J. Payton, who moved to River Terrace in 1953. "Basically, we recognize there are problems in River Terrace, just like there are everywhere. But putting things in perspective, our problems are comparatively minimum. The thing about River Terrace is, it's an active community."

The boundaries for the community are well defined: Benning Road, Route 292, East Capitol Street and the Anacostia River. There are 18 square blocks of two-story brick row houses, some facing the river, with a playground, basketball court an gazebo along the shore.

Entering on Anacostia Avenue, with the river to the right and a school on the left, River Terrace looks like the perfect picture of serenity.

That's what Doris Foster-Thompson saw when she moved there in 1968 as a widow with two small boys.

"It looked like a storybook," she said. "It was small, quiet and clean with a store, a school, a playground, a cleaners, a neighborhood doctor and dentist and a waterfront view. I saw two little girls chasing a dog on one corner and a squirrel and rabbit on the other."

She put $150 down on her house that cost $14,500 then.

"This is a cul-de-sac community, with only a few through streets," said Morgan Steele Brown Jr., 75, who recalls seeing rabbits, canaries, fish and turtles along the Anacostia River when he moved into his house more than 40 years ago.

Crime on occasion has been a problem, Brown said, who used to watch out his window as people dumped cars into the river across the street.

"Now the Park Police and D.C. Police come around quite often and things are better." In fact, Brown calls River Terrace "a senior citizen's paradise. Most of us know something about each other. If I leave home, my neighbors watch my house."

The community began in 1937, built on land that was then a country setting. The East Capitol Street Bridge, southwest of River Terrace, had not yet been built. When it was completed, River Terrace comprised 800 compact brick row houses and 10 small apartment buildings. The homes, most with two bedrooms, sold for about $5,000.

Today, those houses sell in the low-to-mid-$80,000s. Most have an enclosed front or rear porch and have basements. Charles Moran, a real estate broker with Century 21 Hometown Properties, said that many owners pass along their houses to their children, or they use the buddy system to find a buyer, with neighbors asking each other about friends or relatives who may be looking for a house.

This way, residents hope to maintain the community spirit that has allowed them to battle Goliaths like the District government, Metro and Potomac Electric Power Co. When Metro announced that Benning Road, near River Terrace, was being considered as a possible site for a subway station, residents fought the proposal, afraid that commuters' cars would overrun the neighborhood. The final site was Minnesota Avenue.

Four years ago, residents joined to battle Pepco over the addition of two 105-megawatt combustion turbines to their Benning Road plant, across the street from the community. Neighbors were concerned the oil-driven generators would add to existing air pollution. Pepco built the turbines elsewhere.

Payton, who writes a weekly column called "On The Terrace" for the Capital Spotlight newspaper, has written recently about a program at the neighborhood school and the death of John Lee Battle, a pioneer of integration in the community. Payton reminded "the next generation" that the neighborhood's first black residents endured name-calling and vandalism of their property so their children could grow up in River Terrace.

He invited young people to become active in the community organization, noting, "The fact that River Terrace isn't like it was when I was coming up is an indictment that falls squarely on the shoulders of that next generation still living within the community."

"We look out for each other," Foster-Thompson said. "We have a telephone tree, where people call each other to check on how everyone is. When I deliver my 'Spotlight' I look to see if anything looks unusual."

Even when one of her sons was shot to death four blocks from home, Foster-Thompson didn't flee her neighborhood. "I thought about moving," she said. "But this community has been my support. They cared about my son just like they cared about everyone. I figured it was someone from outside the community [who killed her son]. I couldn't throw away everything. I couldn't run away from people who were like family to me."

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