Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 1, 1998
Start in downtown D.C., where the riots were. Go east, away from the monuments (so historic, the city). Out East Capitol Street (so traffic-clogged, the city). Past RFK Stadium (so sagging, the city). Past block after block of subsidized housing (so pathetic, the city). Past one of the last intersections under the control of Marion Barry, or is it the financial control board, or is it anyone, where, suspended 40 feet in the air, dangling by their laces from a phone wire, deposited there who-knows-how and twirling eerily in the wind, is a pair of used work boots (so weird, the city). Go out of the city and keep going, past the Beltway, past US Airways Arena, out and out, until you come to a new subdivision called Perrywood, and a new street called Woodduck Court, and the new home of Keith and Cherie Ford, and that's where you will find the story of the last 30 years.
1968: That's when Keith and Cherie were born. Keith in May. Cherie in June. Just after the riots.
1969-1997: They grew up, met, married, had three children and moved squarely into Washington's black middle class.
1998: And now they are here.
And Keith is saying, "I love D.C. I love D.C."
These are the people the city wants. Tries to keep. Can't. Cherie was born in the city. Keith had lived in the city since he was 8. Cherie works downtown at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Keith is an Army sergeant stationed at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. They pay taxes. They save money. They have the familiar dreams. Cherie wants the kids to go to good schools. Keith wants the kids to be able to ride their bikes up and down the street.
So here they are.
The first night:
"It was strange," Cherie says.
"Disbelief," Keith says.
"It was like somebody else's house, like we were borrowing it," Cherie says.
"But when I woke up the next morning, it was like, 'I'm in my house,'‚" says Keith.
Their old house, in Northeast, was semi-detached and had three bedrooms on the second floor and an attic where Keith and Cherie slept and happened to be the house Keith grew up in. He bought it from his father for $60,000 and sold it for a little over $100,000, and on the day the moving truck came, a lot of the neighbors, most of them elderly, most of them having been neighbors long enough to watch Keith move in and grow up and join the Army and get married and have children, stopped by to say how sorry they were to see him and his wonderful family go. Their new house: It cost just under $200,000. It has a brick front. It has a gas fireplace that runs off a wall switch. It has a bedroom for each child and the optional "luxury owner's suite" master bedroom for Keith and Cherie, and in that vastness the family woke up after that first strange night and went outside to see what their new neighbors were like. It's not like they had moved in blindly. They had selected the lot. They had selected the model. They had watched the house go up. But as the first day dissolved into the second, and the second into the third, none of that prepared them for what they were now realizing: that everyone around them, everyone, was black.
"I thought it would be about 50-50," Keith says. "I had no idea it would be like this."
Not that that's bad.
"I don't have a problem with it at all," he says.
"Either way," Keith says.
"I'm fine with it," Cherie says.
It's just that they didn't realize fully that in deciding not to move to Virginia because of tax concerns, and not to move to Montgomery County because it seemed too far from Fort Belvoir, that they were moving into a county whose population, in the course of their lifetimes, has gone from 85 percent white to 62 percent black. And whose middle part, which is their part, is under transformation into one of the most affluent expanses of segregation in the country. Kettering, 3,900 homes, once all white, is now primarily black. Lake Arbor, 2,500 homes, is primarily black. And so on and so on, subdivision after subdivision, block after block, including Perrywood, 400 or so homes at the moment, 1,200 when it's built out. The houses in Perrywood start at $179,000 and go beyond $400,000, and in the summertime the kids on the bicycles are black, and at Christmastime the plastic Santas decorating front yards are black, and to drive through Perrywood is to think, as Keith and Cherie think, that everyone must be black.
But that turns out not to be true. Because to go back out Woodduck Court, and then out Water Fowl Way, and then out Rosey Bill Drive, is to glimpse, off in the woods, the home of William Chesley, who is another version of the story that takes place in the span of Keith and Cherie Ford's lives.
He is white. He is 54. He grew up in Prince George's County when the county was more than 90 percent white and the middle swath was all farms. That was in the 1950s. In 1968, when the Fords were born and Perrywood was still a 540-acre patch of corn and tobacco and cattle, he was just starting in real estate, and by 1980 he had made enough money to buy the 540 acres and start laying plans for a subdivision. That was when the county's mix had become 58 percent white and 37 percent black and five of the white people were him, his wife and three children. He didn't just buy the property, he moved his family there, to a 6,500-square-foot mansion, built in 1790, paneled in wood brought over in sections from England, enlarged over the years by a series of owners to include two additional wings and a tennis court and a swimming pool and a bomb shelter, and graced with hundreds of trees and three ponds. The ponds are in the back, teeming with Canada geese and mallards and mandarins and red-crested pochards and two pairs of trumpeter swans that have been pinioned to prevent them from flying away, and in the front, visible from the circular drive, between the porch columns and above the front door, is an inscription. "It's Latin, of course," Bill Chesley says. "It says, 'This corner of the land smiles most for me.'‚"
Maybe Bill Chesley will stay in the house, maybe he won't. He is alone now. His marriage is over. His children are grown and gone. "Good Lord I'm rattling around in here," he says. "I don't know when was the last time I used the formal dining room." Instead, he comes in through the garage, goes through the kitchen, climbs the stairs, sleeps, awakens, descends, leaves. He is gone a lot. He has become one of the important people of Prince George's County, close to County Executive Wayne Curry, close to others who matter, someone who matters himself, developer of shopping centers and office buildings and now, just beyond a 30-acre buffer, Perrywood. The development is named for his mansion. The streets are named for the residents of his ponds. The first house went up in 1993, when the county had officially become more than 50 percent black, and as that percentage has kept increasing Perrywood's expansion has continued: along Rosey Bill, along Ruddy Duck, along Black Swan, along Woodduck. Four hundred homes so far, 800 more to go, nice homes, wonderful homes, and maybe, Bill Chesley has begun thinking, the nicest home of all might make a wonderful bed-and-breakfast. Or a restaurant. Or, "It could be a clubhouse, if you will, where you can come and have dinner and drinks and meetings." Or an executive retreat. But something. "I am interested in selling the home," he says. "I'm a single guy. I'm not going to be here forever," and that's where one Prince George's family is in 1998, ending its stay in Perrywood, while past the front porch and beyond the trees and down a slight hill, just out of sight, another is beginning.
"I think we fit in that scenario, of middle class: Our salaries. Three kids. Two cars. We've accomplished a lot. I mean, we started out in an apartment," Cherie is saying. "I mean, we started off a with a bed."
"A bed and a crib," Keith says.
"A bed and a crib, and then we got a table," Cherie says. "And dishes. And towels. And then we had another baby . . ."
And now they have three children, and five TVs, and a new Toyota 4Runner, and a Honda Accord that replaced an older Accord, which replaced the Nissan Sentra, which replaced the Ford that Keith's father sold to them for $1, and a new house.
Thirty years ago, they have been told, before they were born, there were some riots.
"My mom told me a little about it," Cherie says. "She told me that in 1968 blacks owned a lot of businesses-shoe stores, clothing stores, all kinds-and that when Martin Luther King Jr. passed they destroyed their own businesses. They actually destroyed their own businesses. It wasn't anybody else. They just lost it for a minute."
"All this is so negative. I don't like to think about it," Keith says. "But you got to know about it," Cherie says to him.
But of more significance to them is what happened not 30 years ago but late last year, when they were waiting for their home in Perrywood to be finished and they were staying with Cherie's mother in Northeast.
"Three guys got killed," Keith says.
"Right behind my mother's house," Cherie says.
"All within 20 feet of each other," Keith says.
"Three different times," Cherie says.
"I knew one. You knew two," Keith says.
So here they are.
They have their questions about this place.
"My kids, growing up here, are they going to know everybody on this street?
The next street? The next street?" Cherie wonders.
They also have their attachments to the other place.
"If I could find a nice quiet neighborhood like this in the city, I'd be there," Keith says.
But now, as day six nears a close, they aren't there, they're here, and the kids are restless, and Cherie goes up the still-unfamiliar stairs to settle them down. "Too much toothpaste," she can be heard saying, her voice drifting down. "Go get a washcloth . . . wipe the other side of your mouth . . . open your closet door, there's a basket in there, that's where you throw your clothes . . ." and now come the sounds of footsteps, and running water, and the knock of a toothbrush against the side of a new sink, and more footsteps, and children climbing into bed, and this is it. This is where they now live.
David Finkel is a Magazine staff writer.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company