Abike-and-hike trail leading to the Capitol dome. Special "Mobile Police Vehicles" with DVD players, snacks and bean bag chairs to keep cops comfortable. Trash cans designed to work like gum-ball machines. (Watching litter go down, down, down would be so much fun, people would stop dropping things in the street.)
These are the ideas of junior high school students in the National Building Museum's CityVision program. Most Tuesdays in spring and fall, a few dozen kids from District schools dream up ideas to improve city living. They are excused from class (but not from homework) to tackle CityVision's two-part assignment: First, learn what makes a neighborhood a good place to live. Then, design something to solve a problem there.
In the latest class, 21 middle-school students from Browne, Stuart-Hobson and Paul junior high schools studied one of the saddest neighborhoods in Washington: H Street in Northeast. Once a bustling shopping street, H Street has never recovered from riots that broke out in 1968 after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. But the kids came up with such creative ideas that Mayor Anthony Williams has invited them to a public meeting Wednesday night at the Capital Children's Museum.
Taking to the Streets
City streets served as the classroom. On three freezing days before Christmas, two teams of eight to 10 kids walked assigned blocks of H Street NE. Armed with cameras and notebooks, and accompanied by two adult volunteers, they recorded vacant lots, trash, abandoned stores and run-down houses. They asked strangers to fill out questionnaires about their wants and needs. They heard about panhandlers, drug dealers and unemployment. They learned there were no health clinics, no movie theaters, too few shops and no sit-down restaurants.
The kids also poked into an alley and discovered a very rare wooden horse barn built more than 100 years ago. They learned to tell new brickwork from old. They wondered why a commercial bakery, which made the air smell so delicious, didn't sell its goodies in the neighborhood.
Building the Dream
Back at the museum, the kids gathered for hours at large round tables. They talked about possible improvements: Restore the trolley, build a gym, expand the library, bring in more shops, create new housing, plant more greenery. Finally, they narrowed their dreams down to a few models they could build by graduation night.
For a vacant lot across from the Children's Museum, one team proposed a high-rise apartment building to bring safe, affordable housing to the neighborhood. They called it "Cheetah Heights" and drew a bright yellow building with a cheetah print border. On the roof of the model, they planted a jungle of lichen trees and twisted yellow and brown pipe cleaners into a cheetah sculpture. In real life, they figured, the Cheetah Heights doorbell would growl instead of ring.
A second team focused on a block of H Street from 13th to 14th streets. The kids voted to design a reading and recreational center, complete with rent-a-stroller service and an Internet cafe.
The kids also decided that H Street's dramatic history deserved to be remembered with an arch, like Chinatown's gate. The first sketch showed two columns of scorched bricks, topped with a peaked roof on which they planned to write an inscription. The bricks would recall that the neighborhood once was a brick-making center and that riots burned down the buildings. They also wanted an image of the trolley that used to bring shoppers.
On the last Friday in January, the students wowed a panel of judges with their drawings, models and presentations. The Cheetah Heights team added a rap routine. ("Growlin', growlin'. We're tryin' to make affordable housin'.") The H Street Arch team offered an ode to "bricks burnt to a crisp."
The city government has its own ideas for improving H Street, and that's why the mayor has called a meeting. But the kids' designs were exciting. And a city planning official, Karina Ricks, who served as a judge, invited the group to come, too.
No one has said it better than Darrience Padgett, an earlier graduate of the CityVision program from Browne Junior High: "This is the capital of the United States. It should look better than anyplace else."
-- Linda Hales