"IF ONLY WE had known it was going to turn out like this," they said. Two old women, sisters, sit in a little white cubyhole in Anacostia, still bewildered over what happened to the life they'd known. Susie Solf, the director of Everyday Theater, interviewed these woman in the process of creating Everyday Theater's on-going production, "Ghost Story."
"They were very much in control of their lives in the old Southwest," said Solf. "They knew the streets; they had a network of friends. They were on the go. Now they don't even talk to their neighbors. They're afraid to go out."
Most people think of housing displacement in Washington as something new. In fact, it's been going on for a long time. As a theater company concerned with issues that affect our lives, we decided to look at a section of the city that was almost totally displaced.
With a grant from the D.C. Community Humanities Council, we began conducting oral histories with a variety of people involved in the area, especially old-time residents. The eight company members each interviewed three people and conducted group interviews as well. What we heard, over and over, from the residents, relocated by the thousands, was a tremendous sense of grief about the loss of their community. No one who knew the old Southwest is at peace with the present.
Phyllis Martin is one of the few old Southwest Washington residents who moved back, and she now lives with her husband in Greenleaf Gardens Public Housing. We went to her house one evening and listened to her story.
She was sick in bed the day the bulldozers came. "My husband was going out to get my medicine," she recalled. "When he went out the door he fell, they had already knocked off our stoop." Phyllis Martin's mother was displaced several times. "Getting moved around goes back in my family generations," she told us, and "I'm sure I won't be the last." As we left her house that night, she called out to us, "Make sure you put that porch in your play." It became the first scene of "Ghost Story."
At Martin's suggestion we went to the Southwest Public Library to see Joseph Curtis Owens' photographs and learn what the old Southwest was really like. Owens, a retired mathematician and amateur photographer, didn't set out to document the city-within-a-city that would soon disappear, but that's how it turned out.
The captioned photos lovingly depict the neighborhood life of Southwest: "Nathaniel 'Jack' Stewart at the barbecue pit, Willow Tree Picnic"; "Johnny Marshall's Print Shop -- asked his advice on everything"; "Ottenburg's Bakery"; "The Dixie Sweet Shop on Water Street"; "Playing Guitar on the Stoop"; "The Willow Tree Football Team practicing near the coalyard"; and "Miss Lola La Brandt, 'playground teacher.' "
In a newspaper article in which Owens was asked about his pictures, he explained, "I am proud of my photographic record because the pictures bring back memories of Southwest as we remembered it only a decade ago, a buried community filled with excitement and dreams of yesterday." When Genni Sasnett interviewed Owens for the project, he told her of a more recent dream: "I had the strangest dream last night. I was back in the old Southwest. Everything was the way it used to be -- the trees, the streets, the houses. Everything except the people. I didn't recognize anyone. It was eerie."
Owens' dreams are in the play. The latter one becomes that of Goldie, the shopkeeper who refused to move and took her case all the way to the Supreme Court, and lost.
And then there's the mall. Gottlieb Simon, local Advisory Neighborhood Commission leader, spoke of the mysterious failure of Waterside Mall. "People have been trying to figure out why it won't work," he said. "The mall was a big selling point for the folks moving in. Committees met, planners have been in and out, businesses are wooed, but still, people don't like Waterside Mall."
It was designed as a fashionable, convenient shopping facility along the lines of White Flint or Tysons Corner. Instead, there are only a few stores, a Safeway, a drugstore, escalators that lead to nowhere and a lot of fast-food restaurants that service the employes of the Environmental Protection Agency, which is also housed in the Mall.
The barely occupied mall is ghostly. What specter haunts the "ideal community" of Southwest Washington? Come see our enactment of this tale and try to figure it out for yourself. Everyday Theater will present "Ghost Story" at George Washington University March 1. For information call 387-1653.