Willette McNeill, 24, left her three small children at home with her mother the other night to attend a meeting of neighbors in the 2200 block of Ontario Road NW who are fighting conversion of their low-priced apartments to high-priced single-family homes.
The day before and one block away, Joseph Lewis Jr., 47, of 1738 Seaton Pl. sat in his cramped dining room with his lawyer. They talked about pending lawsuits in the fight Lewis and nine Seaton Place neighbors are waging to stay in their rented homes that the new owner wants to empty and renovate.
McNeill and Lewis don't know each other, but they both live in the Adams-Morgan community, and both are fighting the same threat. Both rent from new owners who want to evict them and convert thei rundown housing to expensive new homes.
Their plight is not unusual for poor people living in neighborhoods from Capitol Hill westward across the heart of the city to Dupont Circle as the market for renovated city housing continues unsatiated.
"The whole area aroudn the old part of the city huas increased mightily in value, says Ralph Werner, a lawyer for Centre Properties, new owner of the 10 Seaton Street homes, including Lewis'.
"The city ios making significant progress in regaining its image as a good safe place to live," he said. "The statistics of crime and rumors of crime are not as fearful as they used to be."
Movement of the new and predominantly white owners into these inner city homes, however, means wthat the predominantly black renters who live there now must be displaced.
Lewis' fight started with Centre Properties almost a year ago after he and 22 other tenants on the block received eviction notices giving them 30 days to leave their homes. They contend the new owner did not give them the first right to buy the homes as called for by the city's rent control law.
Thirteen families have moved out in the intervening months, and some of their homes, now completely renovated, are priced for sale from $56,000 to $70,000 - far beyond the range of the original tenants.
McNeill's fight is just beginning.Seh and her neighbors in the 28 apartments between 2201 and 2227 Ontario Rd. received eviction notices in November giving them 90 days to move. Eighteen of the apartments are occupied, according to developer Jeffrey N. Cohen, the new owner.
"They (the developers) want the blacks out so the high class blacks and whites can come in," McNeill told the meeting of about eight tenants last Thursday night. "They don't want people who have nothing."
"People are doing this all over - shoving people out," Lewis said in his Seaton Place home. "People buy your place, send you a notice and tell you you have to go, and you know nothing about it - that isn't right."
While the 10 remaining Seaton Place families hold out, the renaissance of their street goes on around them.
Workmen from the Potomac Electric Power Co. recently closed off the narrow, one-block, one-way street between 17th Street and Florida Avenue to install the heavy electric cables needed to carry the current to operate the large refrigerators, garbage disposal units, dishwashers, air-conditioners, washers and dryers being installed in the refurbished homes.
A huge ebony-colored dumpster sits on the sidewalk in the middle of the block to receive trash yanked from the houses by workmen.
A similar dumpster arrived on Ontario Road last week.
City councilmember David A. Clarke, who represents ward one, where Ontario Road and Seaton Place are located, said he believes the struggle for these two blocks is crucial to the survival of Adams-Morgan as a racially and economically diverse neighborhood.
"Seaton Plce is pivotal because it is east of 18th (Street) and Columbia (Road) and has not been touched . . . There is a struggle going on." Clarke said. "People are not being put out as easily as the purchasers of the property might have expected they would be. They are resisting the suits filed against them and have filed their own suits.
"If Seaton Place goes, the rest of it goes. But if the momentum could be held back, if the people here are not moveable, the momentum might break," he said.
Clarke and others believe that several city improvements in the area such as the ultra-modern million-dollar Morgan Elementary School and the new third district police station house have fueled this momentum for change.
"They (new residents) come in scared with this horrible notion of what inner city people are supposed to be like," said John Jones, executive director of the Adams-Morgan Organization, which has organized tenants on both blocks to fight their evictions.
"They want to be near a police station if not on toy of it, and the new Morgan School, that's the icing on the cake," Jones said.
But he and McNeill say these improvements should be enjoyed by the people who now live in the neighborhood, because some of them fought several years to get the improvements, especially the new school.
"It's not fair for the kids to be around here all these years and not get a chance to go to the new school," McNeil said.
The school, which has a swimming pool, tennis courts and community medical facilities, is scheduled to open in September.
Cohen admits that the neighborhood's attractiveness is heightened by the city improvements as well as Beekman Place, a new private development of more than 200 condominium town houses under construction nearby.
Cohen said he purchased the 28 apartment units on Ontario Road last year for $297,500 because "it's an opportunity to make money and to improve the neighborhood."
He said he recognizes that improvement also means displacement of tenants, but as the new owner he said, "The houses are in bad shape. We bought them with the intent of renovating them."