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Benning Heights' Twists and Turns

By Linda Wheeler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 25, 1997; Page E01

Benning Heights in Southeast Washington is full of surprises. In this one neighborhood of rolling hills lined with substantial brick homes are three federal parks and a historic cemetery, adding acres of open fields and woodland to the community.

Characteristic of neighborhoods built on the east side of the Anacostia River, the streets of Benning Heights twist and turn and abruptly end, not seeming to follow any logical pattern. Combined with such descriptive names as Hilltop Terrace and Hillside Road, the neighborhood feels and looks more like a suburban community than a part of the District.

That is what attracted insurance agent Barbara Strickland and her husband, D.C. government employee Alex D. Humphry, to Benning Heights more than 16 years ago. They live in the 4700 block of C Street SE, one of the newer parts of the neighborhood on a street of brick, ranch-style homes.

"This is a central location in the city without being downtown," said Strickland, 55. "I can walk to the Metro station in eight minutes and be to work downtown in 17 minutes."

Strickland said the neighbors are friendly and are likely to advise her to take an umbrella or to dress warmly when they see her heading for the Metro station. "We all talk and wave," she said.

The neighborhood, she said, is full of children who often stop by to visit the couple's three dogs -- Smoke, Pepper and Duke.

Across the street, many of her neighbors have built large decks on top of their carports, creating a warm weather, outdoor living room with a view of their hilly block. Strickland said she and her husband built a deck on the rear of their house and like it so much they are getting ready to extend it to each side as well. Up and down the block, she said, neighbors are talking about additions, such as family rooms or workshops.

Benning Heights also has been home to generations of families, such as Advisory Neighborhood Commission Chairman Angela Thompson-Murphy, who bought a house on the 4300 block of Texas Avenue SE, only a few blocks away from her family home where her mother, Constance Thompson, still lives. Community activism seems to run in the family. Angela Thompson-Murphy's late father, Joseph O. Thompson Sr., was elected as the neighborhood's first commissioner in the 1970s. Later on, her mother also represented the community on the same commission, once known as 7F but now called 7A.

"There is so much right here," said Thompson-Murphy, 40, a D.C. school teacher. "The Benning Road pool is a community hub. We have a rec center. We have math programs for children. We have small pools where children can learn to swim at no cost. My daughter went there."

She said she likes the open spaces of the federal parks and Woodlawn Cemetery as well as the close proximity of Prince George's County, where she does her shopping.

Another family member, her sister Tina Thompson, also bought a house in the neighborhood, she said.

Benning Heights, a community of detached homes, semidetached houses and apartment buildings, is generally considered to be bounded by East Capitol Street, Benning Road, Southern Avenue, Bowen Road and Ridge Road. Within that area are the federal parks named for the former Civil War forts of Fort Circle and Fort Chaplin. Fort Dupont Park, also a former Civil War fortification, creates the long south-western border of the neighborhood along Ridge Road.

The neighborhood takes it name from early landowner William Benning who built a toll bridge in 1830 that became known as the Benning Road bridge. That bridge replaced several earlier ones, including a wooden bridge burned in 1814 in a failed attempt to keep the British out of Washington during the War of 1812.

The bridge that Benning built was repaired after a major flood in 1840 and survived the Civil War. The federal government, listening to appeals from residents on the far side of the river, eventually bought the bridge, making it public and toll-free.

The present concrete-cased bridge was constructed in 1934.

Near the Benning Road boundary is historic Woodlawn Cemetery, a much-neglected, hilly burial ground for black and white Washington residents dating from 1895. Among prominent people buried there is Mississippi senator Branche K. Bruce, an African-American who made his home in the Shaw neighborhood.

Volunteers recently cleared the thick brush in the cemetery, revealing a lot of toppled headstones. The one for Bruce, however, was still standing.

Carlyta M. Smith, a real estate agent with Century 21-Asby & Associates, said few properties come on the market in Benning Heights because most residents stay in the neighborhood and build additions rather than leave.

She said two houses sold this year, one a semidetached colonial for $92,000 and the other a detached rambler for $129,500.

On the market now are seven semidetached homes, six of them new. The older home is priced at just under $80,000. The six, located in the 4600 block of H Street SE, are priced at $124,500, she said.

When Strickland and Thompson-Murphy tell anyone outside their neighborhood where they live, they each say they have to defend their community because all of Southeast Washington is often unfairly thought of crime-ridden. Southeast Washington is a huge area covering neighborhoods on both sides of the Anacostia River and although there are troubled areas, both women insist Benning Heights is a good place to live.

"It tears me up to hear nasty things about Southeast," Strickland said. "I don't like to be classified as living in a bad neighborhood just because there are some areas in Southeast that have drugs and shootings. Everything you hear about Southeast is negative."

Thompson-Murphy said her neighborhood is a safe place.

"I am not fearful," she said. "When you drive through in the evening, you see people hanging out. It's the same in Northwest, Southwest and Northeast Washington. . . . That is just part of living in the big city."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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