"It got to the point," John Black recalled the other day, "where we realized nobody was going to help us. Back then our building was a wreck, inside and out, and prostitutes were operating out of the first floor."
Black, a District cab driver, was remembering the shoddy condition of the apartment building at 1915 16th St. NW where he lived 27 years ago - the same, much improved building Black lives in today.
In 1950, when 1915 16th St. NW was still a rental building, Black said its plumbing fixtures were decaying, its electrical wiring was hazardous and the kitchens were hopelessly outdated.
"So we, the tenants, had a meeting," he continued, "to discuss out problems. We decided to take over maintenance of the building ourselves."
he meeting proved to be an important milestone in the lives of Black and his 31 fellow tenants. In March 1950 the day after they met, the tenants organized and incorporated themselves and their building into Nineteen-Fifteen Sixteenth Street, NW Cooperative. Their purpose was to acquire maintenance operations and eventual ownership of the building they lived in.
Twenty-three years later, in August, 1973, all indebtedness of the cooperative, amounting to approximately $240,000, was paid in full.
Today the apartment building is inhabited almost totally by retired, elderly blacks, each of whom owns a 1/32 share in the building. The cooperative itself stands as a major success story in a city where housing discrimination toward blacks and the elderly has not been uncommon.
This week, Black related with satisfaction the successes the cooperative has had over the years in modernizing the building. Through cooperative maintenance funds and the tenants' own labors the building has been outfitted with modern plumbing, has been completely rewired, and even has a new boiler.
The cooperative also modernized and fireproofed the stairwells and doors, and installed a $2,500 intercom security system.
Black smiled broadly as he enumerated the achievements of the cooperative, but remembered also the difficulties he and the other tenants surmounted over the years.
"It wasn't easy setting this group up," he said, slowly shaking his head. "Our manager in those early days didn't give a hoot about the cooperative - all he wanted was his money."
"So we got us a board of directors together, whose duty was to ensure maintenance of the building." The board of directors then fired the manager.
"We couldn't afford to pay the janitors and elevator operator, so we took over those duties ourselves and eventually, many years later, we were able to afford and install an automatic elevator," Black said.
"But in the beginning, the women organized themselves to clean the hallways and stairs and the men mowed the lawn, put coal in the burner downstairs, and repaired what we could."
Black remarked that the tenants were highly creative in finding ways to secure the monthly $1,400 payment on the building's mortgage.
"It was hard scratching around for the money," he admitted, "but it was fun, too. We had bake sales, cookouts, bingo games - all kinds of things - to get the money together.
"But we made it," he said grinning. "We all own a share in the building now and no one can take it from us."
Black is one of just three surviving tenants who were original members of the cooperative.
At a cooperative meeting last Wednesday night, Marie Leatherman, chairperson of the cooperative association, talked about members of the association and what she believes they have achieved.
"There are other housing cooperatives in the District," she said, "but this one is kind of unique. It is totally paid for, self-operating, and composed almost totally of retired person.
"Many of the tenants are on fixed incomes and are much more secure here, financially, than they would be if they had to stay in places where unsteady rent charges are due every month. There's a certain security one feels in knowing he owns the place he lives in."
The cooperative today, according to Leatherman, has two-bedroom units that have sold for as much as $18,000. A private appraiser recently told one of the residents that the building may now be worth almost $2 million - far more than the $240,000 the cooperative paid.
Like other rental buildings in the city, 1915 16th St. NW would probably now be a candidate for renovation and resale as a fancy condominium had its residents not bought it years ago.
"It's safe, secure, and clean," Black said, echoing the views of other residents. "And it's ours."