The flowers of Eastland Gardens blossom year around: daffodils in spring, impatiens and kissme-nots through summer and chrysanthemums before winter's killing frost. In this half-century-old Northeast Washington neighborhood, where the cycle of life revolves around gardens, people and plants age gracefully together.
"We love the beauty of living and breathing wild flowers and lilies from all over the world," says Rhuedine Davis, founder of the Eastland Gardens Flower Club. "I like spring flowers and fall flowers -- tulips, jonquils, daffodils, crocuses, marigolds, chrysanthemums, weeping figs, nightbloomers...," she sighs. "No need calling off all the names, but those are some that I have around."
The flower club's "Best Yard" award this year went to William and Ethel White, residents for 26 years. He is a Safeway truck driver, she a government worker. Both made headlines in 1969 when Ethel White used the family Oldsmobile to block a truck convoy hauling raw sewage to what was a landfill near the neighborhood. Her husband is better known as a coach of the Eastland Gardens Tigers Football Team, three-time winner of the Metropolitan Police Boys Club Football Championship and, of course, the green thumb behind the best yard award.
"Life is about homes and gardens," says William White, displaying a handcarved wooden plaque that reads "FIRST PLACE."
His wife adds, "What's so special is that a neighbor made it. Everybody else looks for a gold cup or something, but what we have out here is unique."
Eastland Gardens was started in 1929 by Howard S. Gott, a real estate dealer with a reputation for benevolence who bought a tract of land known as "Beall's Adventure" from the old Benning Race Track, subdivided it into lots and sold them to "coloreds" for $500 each. Once a rural, isolated cluster of small frame houses set against a backdrop of fruit trees, Eastland Gardens today is flanked by smokestacks from a nearby PEPCO power plant, the Kenilworth Courts public housing project, Interstate 295 and the Anacostia River. That residents have maintained this island of beauty is cause for pride and celebration.
As day breaks in Eastland Gardens, neighbors take to their yards, planting bulbs that will bloom next spring. Some jog, but most of them just stroll, savoring the last crisp autumn air before winter's chilling frost.
"It's a good way to meet your neighbor and keep an eye on things," says Owen Davis, a former deputy chief of the Metropolitan Police who worked his way up from the street beat and now, at age 67, has returned to it.
"Around here people look out for each other's property," he says. "This is a stable community where people care about one another. If I had delusions of grandeur, I might consider moving to the Gold Coast [a section in Northwest Washington], but at this point in my life I would not use my resources for a glamor neighborhood.
"What I'm most afraid of," he adds, "is that this will become a neighborhood of old people, like some of those places in the suburbs. The young people keep moving away. You know there is a trend in urban areas to get old, then get taken advantage of."
His wife, the flower club founder, also works as a part-time real estate agent. She tries to encourage him with news of recent arrivals.
"There's a young family that just moved in down the street," Mrs. Davis says. "They have two children -- ages two and four."
"That's not many," says the chief. "Besides, the only reason they moved in is because a 60-year-old man decided he wanted to return home to the South. Now how many people at that age are going to do that?"
Sunset brings early retirement in a neighborhood of early risers. An exception is Wilbur Goodwin, the indefatigable keeper of the Eastland Gardens Park, perhaps the city's only park that is maintained by a neighborhood.
"I just like to see it beautiful," says Goodwin, 67, who has amazed his neighbors for over a decade by singlehandedly mowing the park lawn. Since the neighborhood had fought for a park and won it during Lady Bird Johnson's era of beautification, Goodwin just figured somebody ought to take care of it.
"It's sort of a matter of self-pride," says Goodwin, a retired post office employe. "Of course, I also have an investment in the community: my house. Now like any good businessman I want to protect my investment."
One recent night, Goodwin was standing beneath a light bulb hung by a cord from the ceiling in his basement, a solitary figure in a locomotive engineer's cap, stroking his chin as he stared at a bicycle, upended to reveal two flat tires.
"This little boy's father died," Goodwin says. "He doesn't have a grandfather. The lady over at his house didn't have anybody to fix it for him. It don't take long to fix a little bicycle; it don't take long to help a little boy get rolling again. Besides, its nice to be needed."
Sometimes, when youth from the surrounding area finish swimming or playing at the recreation center, they roam through Eastland Gardens in search of fruit trees. Some residents try to explain this as something most children do.
"A lot of these kids are just hungry," says Jake Glover. But he adds that the youth are not content to take the fruit and leave, but break the branches on the trees and stone family pets that try to stop them. One resident was threatened with police action after shooting at one of the youth; others have simply decided to cut down their trees.
Says Goodwin, keeper of the Gardens park, "When you talk about these kids, I don't know how I get involved but each year I seem to attract a new group of them. I don't find the kids from the projects any different from other kids, except they seem to really need a man to talk to and look up to."