Until last year, Mintwood Place on the western end of Adams-Morgan was home to community organizer and unsuccessful city council candidate Marie Nahikian. She moved into a $75-a-month apartment on the street in 1968 and had to move out--to a tenant-owned cooperative on Columbia Road--when the building was sold. "One morning I woke up, and there was a woman in a full-length fur coat walking an Afghan. I said, 'Oh, my days are numbered.'"
They were. Mintwood Place these days has become a sheltered, high-priced street --a four-story renovated rowhouse is on the market there for $250,000. The residents, who are mostly young and white, may awaken in the morning to the aroma of black beans cooking at the nearby Omega restaurant, but they come home at night carrying fresh flowers and loaves of Vie de France bread. In the summer they sit on their stoops in their Mintwood Is The Place T-shirts, sipping the Mintwood Drink, a mix of champagne, orange juice, triple sec and cranberry juice concocted by the street's official bartender, Michael Perry, the 26- year-old manager of the accessories and handbags departments at Woodies.
He and his neighbors party on the stoops on the slightest whim--the first day of spring, Millard Fillmore's Birthday (Jan. 7), and the night they all made fettucine together They love Adams- Morgan and its variety. Perry, for example, who was raised in Fredericksburg, Va., testifies, "I grew up in an exclusive all-white neighborhood, and I can tell you it's no fun."
But the discovery of Adams-Morgan concerns many of its more senior residents. They worry that its fragile character, which is rotted in its contrasts, will be destroyed by profit-minded businessmen and by the newcomers, who perhaps bring with them less diversity than the oldtimers display and demand. When a man at a recent community meeting complained of the loud Spanish music in the streets, someone else shouted him down: "Hey, man, you want quiet, go live in the suburbs. This is Adams-Morgan!"
Mary Lee Stein, a former community organizer and cab driver who now works as a day manager at Herb's Restaurant, pessimistically monitors the spirit of the neighborhood where she has lived since 1967. "Before when you told people you lived in Adams-Morgan either they said they'd never heard of it or they'd say it was a rough neighborhood. Now they say, 'That's a fantastic neighborhood.' I liked it better when it was grubbier, less pretentious."
The biggest fear of people like Stein, who bought her house in 1975 for $56,000 and says she could not possibly afford it at today's estimated $130,000 to $160,000 market value, is that moderate and low-income families will be priced out of the neighborhood. The 1970s was a decade of displacement in Adams- Morgan, as it was all over the city. Poor people, with help from community groups, are still battling developers and real estate dealers to keep their place in the neighborhood.
Such a battle is being waged now inside the crumbling, water-stained walls of The Imperial on Columbia Road, where 16 families--11 Hispanic, five black, the last tenants of the 40-unit building--rally round their leader, a grandmother and social worker from the Dominican Republic named Casilda Luna. Plans to turn The Imperial into public housing, thus allowing the tenants to remain, are still uncertain.
On a chilly late October afternoon at The Imperial, her home since 1965, Luna wistfully recalled her native Dominican Republic, where it was always warm. "We had a big house next to the beach. We had a coconut tree, a mango tree, avocados. You could go swimming all the time. The ceiling is made of tin. The rain was music to our ears. It went ta, ta, ta-- beautiful sounds. . . . I misythings all those things."
Once, she said, The Imperial also was a beautiful place. But the red brick building has long since fallen into disrepair and now seems a dark and fearsome place to the passersby. They do not know that within is a tight community, whose residents stay in close telephone contact and are protected against would-be vandals by an old man who wields a machete. "You might be afraid to come in here," Luna says. "But I'm not afraid. To me, it's home."
For 16 years it has been home, too, for 60-year-old Solomon Flagg, who denies his poverty by proclaiming his possession of a TV, a record player, a telephone, a dog, a place to stay and a few good friends.
Battles such as the one at The Imperial are part of the character of Adams-Morgan. Its history can be told in its battles: against the city officials who opposed the residents' crusade for two community-run elementary schools, against the freeway that would have snaked straight down Florida Avenue, against the convention center the Washington Hilton wanted to build ("I gave two years of my life to fight that stupid hotel," says the leader in that one, Ann Hargrove), against plans to turn the neighborhood into a Latin Quarter patterned after the French Quarter in New Orleans.
Hargrove, a consultant married to a lawyer, welcomes the variety of her neighbors, who include a plumber, a construction worker, the principal of the bilingual Oyster Elementary School, a graduate student in sociology, a retired school teacher whose 100th birthday Hargrove is now busily planning and the requisite doctors and lawyers, among them Larry Myers. Myers, a former Peace Corps volunteer who litigates for the government; he can be seen in the evening walking Kate, his English sheepdog, while sipping a glass of red wine from his own wine cellar.
"I plan to raise my family here," says Myers, the father of a year-old son. "It's a place to grow old in, to have your mother-in-law in. It's not just a collection of young singles moving in."
The neighborhood slogan is Unity in Diversity, and a flag showing five interlocking circles in black, brown, red, yellow and white flies above Columbia Road. The estimated 19,000 residents, according to the 1980 Census, are 46 percent black (it was 58 percent black in 1970 and has declined, partly because of displacement of low-income renters through the conversion of apartments into condominiums and renovation of rowhouses), 40 percent white and 13 percent "other," with 12 percent of Hispanic origin.
Adams-Morgan is filled with Spanish accents. Along Columbia Road, the little stores beckon with Spanish love songs and signs that say "Aqui se habla espa?nol," the restaurants with Caf,e Bustelo, empanadas and black beans and rice. There are Spanish-speaking bank tellers, post office clerks and police officers like Arturo Antonio Sylvester, who keeps two patriotic stickers on his desk, one for the United States, the other for his native Panama. In other neighborhoods, the children might play duck, duck, goose. At the Spanish Development Center on Kalorama Road, they play pato, pato, ganso.
The residents of the different worlds of Adams-Morgan often only glance at each other in the main shopping area around 18th and Columbia Road and know little of one another's hopes and dreams. On Friday afternoons, the well-off complain of the length of the money order line at the Riggs National Bank; they do not know that the immigrants are sending their earnings home, to families left behind in Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean. Perhaps they notice goings and comings in the building next to Al's Sub- Preme on Columbia Road, but they do not know that the narrow second floor hallway is crowded with thin, frightened-looking young men whispering in Spanish. The men are Salvadoran refugees, most of them without papers, waiting to ask advice of the lawyers at the Central American Refugee Center.
The young professional women, who lesythingave each morning for jobs downtown, know nothing, for the most part, of other young women who come with their babies to The Family Place, a community center in a cheerfully painted basement off Columbia Road. These are women from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic, who live with their husbands--if they have husbands here--and three and four children in one-bedroom apartments. Back home, they had heard and believed magical stories of life in America, of dollar bills falling from the trees, of fine mansions and fancy clothes-- so much wealth and so many dresses, Julia De Leon from the Dominican Republic was told by a friend, that you never had to do the laundry, you simply went out and bought a new dress.
Ten years later, the memory of the America she had imagined still lights her eyes. "The U.S. looks like-- oh, my God--it's the queen of the world. No poor people, no hungry. Everything is beautiful--flowers everywhere, big avenues. I come here in the wintertime. It was so cold. I said, 'This is Washington?' My mother said, 'That's okay. It's winter. Wait till summer. Everything changes.'"
But as another winter nears, De Leon, married to a Salvadoran who works in an aluminum factory, finds life wearing. The family lives in an old apartment building on 16th Street, where there has long been trouble with the owner over hot water and heat. Now, De Leon and her husband, Jorge Brizuela, who are expecting their third child, chase a new American dream. They want to move to the suburbs, maybe Arlington. "I like it better there," Brizuela said. "It's more quiet."
Despite their troubles, they do not regret their journey. Like the other immigrants, they speak of the children. The children will have the opportunities. "The education is better here," De Leon says.
The children of Adams-Morgan's streets have no greater champion than Walter Pierce, who got his start as a community organizer at age 16, when his family was displaced from their home on Capitol Hill ("One day I came home, and the whole block had been condemned") and moved to the neighborhood because Pierce's uncle said it was too close to Connecticut Avenue to ever become a ghetto.
"I said to the other kids, 'What do you all do around here?'" Pierce recalled. "They said, 'Nothing.' So I started a basketball team. We lived on Ontario Road. The Lakers were the champions then. So we called ourselves The Ontario Lakers."
Today, 18 years later, the neighborhood is plastered with fliers advertising the latest fund-raising activity of Walter Pierce's Ontario Lakers, who have grown into a youth group. At the group's headquarters inside a cavernous garage on Champlain Street, Pierce schemes and dreams of new ways to "save kids." Pointing to one empty corner of the second floor, he fantasizes: "Fifty Pac Man machines!" And to the other: "A dance floor like the Washington Hilton!"
The Lakers--and the other kids in the neighborhood-- are about to get a new place to play as the city nears completion of sprawling Community Park West between Calvert Street and Adams Mill Road, an idea that Pierce says he first proposed back in 1964. The new park is a sign that Adams-Morgan, despite the fears of its residents, still thrives and grows. Even the spirits of Mary Lee Stein, who is alarmed by such signs of progress as the recent renovation of the Safeway, were lifted recently by a trip to the Save Right, formerly the Giant, on Columbia Road. "There was all this wonderful, exotic produce -- weird, third world stuff," she said. "A few Indian women were pushing past me, and behind them were some African women. I thought to myself, 'The neighborhood hasn't gone to pot completely. We still have women walking around with bags on top of their heads.'"
Adams-Morgan's vitality and diversity still attract people like Leonard Mara, who left his native Guinea eight years ago and recently opened a secondhand clothing store on 18th Street. To Mara, Adams-Msythingorgan seems a world of endless discovery, impossible to ever fully explore. But he is patient and adheres to a philosophy he learned during his years in Paris: "On peut pas boire tous les caf,es." One cannot drink all the coffees.