By Joel Glenn Brenner
Still a Feisty Community
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 02, 1993
Since Marvin Caplan moved to the vibrant, middle-class neighborhood of Shepherd Park in Northwest Washington in the 1960s, he has witnessed more than a few changes. The family-run groceries and meat markets that once lined Georgia Avenue have been replaced by fast-food outlets and liquor stores. The trolleys running along 16th Street also have disappeared. And the neighborhood, which in the 1950s was predominantly Jewish, is mostly black now.
But the sense of pride that Shepherd Park residents have about their neighborhood has not changed. Neither has their commitment to keeping their community a nice place to live.
In 1917, when there were more jackrabbits than homeowners in Shepherd Park, residents formed a citizens association to persuade the government to build a local elementary school and to finish paving 16th Street from Alaska Avenue to the District line. Today, the citizens’ association still is fighting, only now the battle is against crime, trash, vagrants and overbuilding.
When a developer made plans to build a $35 million commercial and residential complex at Georgia and Eastern avenues NW, the residents fought hard against it, saying it would disrupt their quiet community. Today, the property is being renovated on a much smaller scale by a new developer, who has promised to provide residents with the kind of retail stores they need.
When officials of nearby Montgomery County proposed building a homeless shelter a stone’s throw from Shepherd Park, just across the District line, more than 200 residents banded together in protest and persuaded the officials to change their minds.
“Ours is a feisty community,” said Caplan, who has participated in many such civic-minded activities over the years. “We believe in this neighborhood and we want to keep it the way it’s always been—clean and safe.”
Gracie Baten, who has been president of the Shepherd Park Citizens Association for two years, said her neighbors have yet to miss an opportunity to try to improve their community, which is bounded by 16th Street,Georgia Avenue, Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the Washington-Maryland border.
“The people who live here are very active,” Baten said. “They vote, they participate in community events, they care about their surroundings and they want to preserve them. We all try to work together for the sake of the neighborhood and each other.”
Such commitment has its rewards. With the exception of a few apartments in the 7400 block of Georgia Avenue, the homes in Shepherd Park remain single-family, detached or semidetached houses. Many are large brick colonials with meticulously manicured lawns. All have held their value over the years and sell for $220,000 to $300,000.
Compared with surrounding communities, the 5,000 residents of Shepherd Park experience relatively little crime. The most common problem, Baten said, has been thefts from and vandalism of automobiles. But that’s a minor concern, she said, and is far outweighed by the advantages of living in the neighborhood, which remains racially mixed.
Parents from outside the Shepherd Park community, for example, clamor to get their children enrolled in the Alexander Shepherd Elementary School, at 14th Street and Kalmia Road. The blue-ribbon school has consistently produced students who score higher on achievement tests than those from other District schools.
The neighborhood’s can-do attitude also has kept to a minimum the number of drunks and vagrants that populate the area’s only commercial strip, which stretches along Georgia Avenue from Walter Reed Hospital to Eastern Avenue. Like many commercial corridors in the District, this one experienced a sharp decline in the quality of its businesses after the 1968 riots sparked by the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Now, the upper Georgia Avenue corridor is undergoing a slow but steady change in character.
Over the past decade, the neighborhood has succeeded in closing four bars along the strip that featured nude dancers. (Residents still are fighting to close a massage parlor that opened in the late 1970s.)
And instead of yet another fast-food joint, the residents of Shepherd Park fought for and now have the Juanita E. Thornton Library, the newest and most technologically advanced public library in the District. On any given Saturday, the library, which opened in 1990, is packed with area families who have come for story hour or simply to spend time reading and helping children with homework.
Head librarian Winnell Montague, who has been working in the area since the 1970s, said the character of Shepherd Park is reflected in these Saturday morning gatherings.
“This is one of the busiest libraries in the District. Most parents come with their children, not just the mothers, but the fathers, too. It’s a real change from what you see in other neighborhoods,” Montague said.
This may be because more than 90 percent of Shepherd Park’s adult residents are high school graduates and more than half spent at least four years in college. The median, or midpoint, household income is more than $50,000, ranking it among the wealthiest of D.C. neighborhoods. In addition, most of the residents are employed in managerial or professional jobs.
“We’ve got more lawyers per capita than any other neighborhood in the city,” joked Joe Davis, who has lived in the community for the past 18 years.
The neighborhood is filled with Washington policy makers and soon will be home to Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, who is renovating a house at 16th and Iris streets.
The affluence of residents like these, along with the library and the closing of the nightclubs, has helped attract a new wave of businesses to the Georgia Avenue corridor in recent years. Since 1991, a beauty shop, an insurance agency, a sportswear outlet and a family-oriented Salvadoran restaurant have opened.
The push to attract such businesses is being spearheaded by a coalition of area citizens’ groups known as the “Upper Georgia Renaissance.” In mid-September the group met with representatives of the D.C. Public Works Department to discuss planting new trees along the avenue, repairing curbs and improving trash removal. Baten said many of these improvements already are underway.
“We’re doing everything we can to encourage businesses to move here,” she said. “It’s been a slow process, but we’ve made a lot of progress.”
The coalition got its biggest boost in July, when developer Douglas Jemal agreed to build a small, neighborhood-oriented shopping mall in place of the derelict buildings that occupy the corner of Georgia and Eastern avenues. The site had been slated for a massive retail and residential complex known as the Gateway Development. But residents opposed that project, which was headed by developer Jeffrey N. Cohen, saying it would create too much traffic congestion on their serene streets. Cohen eventually lost the property in a foreclosure proceeding.
Jemal has assured the community that his development will not include high-rise office buildings or residential dwellings. Instead, he plans to renovate the property and lease it to retail stores that would cater to the neighborhood’s needs.
Baten said a bookstore and a family-style restaurant would be welcomed.
“This is a strong, stable, middle-class community that can support a variety of businesses,” she said. “The residents know this, we just have to convince the business owners of it. But I’m sure they’ll come around.”
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