The new urban panacea is neighborhood. Everyone from the president to city-planning commissioners talks about it.
Surprisingly, neighbors talk about it, too.
The talk does, at times, bring tangible results. A heartening example is the "Crispus Attucks Park of the Arts" in the back alleys of the Bloomingdale neighborhood in Northwest Washington. It was dedicated Sunday with gospel singers, poetry readings, band music and all.
Like the chirping of that first robin, the ceremony promises a new blooming of Bloomingdale.
Bloomingdale is not a bad neighborhood, as inner-city neighborhoods go. About 40 percent of the turn-of-the-century rowhouses are owned by the families who live in them. The streets are lined with trees and reasonably clean. People sit on the stoops and talk across the front yard fence. Bloomingdale is, in a way, an urban village.
One of the most serious problems, as Richard L. Sowell Jr. knows, is the youngsters - no jobs, no creative outlets for their surging energies.
Rick Sowell, who is 32 years old, a fast-talking dude and a musician, knows about the kids because he used to manage a rock band before he devoted himself full time and more to neighborhood organizing. The kids would always hang around when his band was rehearsing.
In the alley behind Rick Sowell's house on V Street was an eyesore - a warehouse for Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. equipment and a big parking lot for trucks, built in 1910 and abandoned in 1974. The area was wrapped in barbed wire and overgrown with weeds, collecting litter and breeding rats.
It would make a great place for the kids to learn music, dance and theater, "all the cultural arts," and maybe practical things like fixing cars and painting houses, too, Sowell told the telephone people one day in July 1976.
The telephone people liked the idea, but thought they'd rather give the building to the city to use as a neighborhood center than directly to Rick Sowell and his neighbors.
The city took two months to say no, thanks. In a brief letter, Sam Starobin, director of the department of general services, explained that there were no funds to repair, equip and operate the building.
Sowell and the neighborhood people - young people like Marvin Rich, who is 19, elderly people like Willis Jones, who is in his 70s, community leaders like the Rev. Horace Abney, businessmen like Mickey Perry - did not bothered to get discouraged. They organized. With a capital investment of $12, they duly incorporated an organization named "NUV-1."
NUV-1 is not a secret code, but marks the location of the emerging neighborhood center in the middle of the block bounded by North Capitol and First, between U and V Streets. It is accessible only by an alley from V Street (which is why the property is undesirable for commercial use).
NUV-1 next drew up an ambitious program for art and vocational instruction, neighborhood art activities and the conversion of the parking lot into tennis and volleyball courts and a picnic area. The group named the building after Crispus Attucks, the first black soldier to be killed in the Revolutionary War.
Sowell called the telephone company again and assistant vice president Delano Lewis said, yes, he would let the neighborhood group have the 46,000-square-foot property if it found the money to get the center started. A news story about all this appeared in The Washington Post.
Charles A. Merica, a vice president of the George Hyman Construction Co., happened to read the article, called Sowell and told him Hyman would help, provided the neighbors would pitch in. "We'll put 20 men on the job, if you'll put 20 men on the job," Merica said.
So Sowell recruited a young architect, Ward Bucher, to volunteer architectural plans and drawings. His design ingeniously extends the warehouse loading ramp to form an amphitheater, makes a forbidding facade look friendly and provides a corner stage and a lot of flexible but attractive space inside.
Christopher Warth, Hyman's project manager, estimates that his company and its subcontractors put about $100,000 worth of labor and materials into the center. It looks like a million dollars. NUV-1 kept its word about pitching in. On Saturdays, in particular, each city block sent five residents to work on the job. A good deal of labor was supplied by "Project Built," a federal program to train inner-city youngsters in construction work.
"It was a real experience for everyone," boasts Sowell. "The Hyman men were real proud of their job. The kids learned a lot, they were real excited." And the excitement spread. NUV-1 made waves.
For instances: The city's cooperative extension service, together with the Department of Agriculture, plans to offer classes and workshops in gardening, cooking, sewing, child care and house repair in the center of this summer.
For another instance: A team of University of Maryland architecture students, working with professor Anatole Senkewitch, will make a detailed architectural survey to stimulate rehabilitation in keeping with the neighborhood's ambiance and historic character. There is much new interest in rehabilitation, and property values are rapidly increasing NUV-1 is searching for means to help now-income neighbors stay put.
The Crispus Attucks Park of Arts is still far from being a park. It still will take a lot of money, organization, sweat, meetings, grant applications, persuasion, patience and enthusiasm to realize the dream fully.
But you can go down that V Street alley and see for yourself that Bloomingdale has, as Sowell put it, "a headstart on the Tricentennial" and that it has certainly reawakened the neighborhood spirit that may indeed lift the city out of its doldrums.