A few months ago, the Newton Theater at 12th and Newton Streets, NW, was the Brookland community's most prominent eyesore. Today, renovated with community manpower and funds, the classic art deco building stands as a symbol of community pride and determination to re-vitalize Brookland's waning business district.
Ten years ago, the area of 12th Street from Michigan to Rhode Island Avenue, and Rhode Island Avenue from 18th to 24th Streets bustled with viable, community owned businesses. Now many of the buildings are boarded up.
Brookland residents want to redevelop these business strips.Leading the efforts are the Upper Northeast Coordinating Council (UNECC) and The Brookland Corporation.
John Kelly, a Brookland resident for 27 years, is staff and program director of UNECC, an umbrella orgnization of 40 civic groups and institutions. Kelly said his function is to serve as mediator "or broker" between community businesses and residents. Last fall he brought together Catholic University, a UNECC member, and businessman Douglas A. Daiss, in negotiations for leasing of the Newton Theater.
Out of these talks came The Brookland Community Corp., a group of 25 local families who have invested nearly $50,000 in renovating the theater as a family and cultural entertainment center. It is their intent, said Daiss, to revitalize the 12th Street hopping area as The Brookland Center, by November to coincide with the opening of the Brookland-Catholic University Metro Station and the Metrorail line from Brookland to Silver Spring.
As president of the corporation, Daiss will be chiefly responsible for locating the projects that will foster redevelopment.
"We want development from within the community rather than without," said Floyd Agostinelli, a UNECC member. "Outside development can change the residental tenor of an area. When you have a lovely residential area and an artificial business area what happens to the community?" he asked.
Brooklander's have been asking The National Capitol Planning Commision that question, said Kelly, in regard to their "1985 Plan" for the commercial development of the New York Avenue industrial corridor that parallels Rhode Island Avenue.
"The Municipal City Government Planning Office would come out and talk about the development of Metro stations, or traffic, or high density developments in segments," said Kelly. "We asked them if they could give us the total impact of this development and they told us they didn't have the capital."
Undaunted, the council undertook the task. Within six months, Kelly said, they had put together an area impact map using the same government statistics and information the planning commission said they couldn't afford to tabulate. The project, said Kelly, cost under $1,000 and a lot of volunteer work.
While not completely opposed to outside development, Kelly said UNECC is striving to keep Brookland as much of a community controlled area as possible.
"We don't want people coming to work during the day and going back to their homes at night leaving behind huge, empty shells," said Kelly. "The area has the largest percentage of homeowners in the city (45 per cent). We want family type of businesses for people to feel a part of."
Renovation of The Newton Theater was the first step in that direction, he said.
From 1967 to 1971 Catholic University used the theater - supposedly one of the most acoustically perfect theaters in the District - for music school concerts. By 1971 a wing had been added to the campus music building and the theater was no longer needed. The theater was closed and over the years it fell into disrepair.
When the university decided to sell it last fall, Daiss, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member and businessman with investments in hotels and laundry centers, sought to reopen it as a family and cultural entertainment center. He and Kelly developed the idea, had American University and Data Unlimited conduct a marketing survey among area businesses and consumers, and approached the university with their findings.
"Our survey showed a large area interest in the revitalization of area theaters. The only one we had was X-rated and we had to fight to keep a second one out," said Kelly.
Daiss began leasing the building from the university in September. By February he was ready to seek investors to tackle the restoration.
"The lobby ceiling was on the floor. All of the plumbing in three of the four restrooms had been vandalized, and the auditorium ceiling had a multitude of holes," recalled Daiss. "What few seats there were, were in a state of disrepair, and there was no projection equipment."
Aiding Daiss in his search for investors was Margaret Johnson, a 10-year Brookland resident, who lives two doors away from the theater.
"I never liked the idea of having to go out to Wheaton or Landover to see a good movie," said Johnson."I also have children of all ages. It's nice to have the kids walk down the block to a movie and know they're safe."
Daiss said Johnson held meetings in her home and visited area homes to present the prospectus. Six weeks later they had nearly $50,000 and 25 families in the Brookland Community Corp., with more people clamoring to get in.
"It reached a point where we had to put people off from investing," laughed Daiss. "We didn't go to banks or in debt. It's financed by ourselves out of our pockets."
"We're not talking about rich families," added Kelly. "We're talking about families with five or six kids. Just average families."
By July, The Newton Theater was agin shining, inside and out, in muted hues of beige, brown and blue. Family movies like "Sounder" and "Silver Streak" played weekly, and cartoon matinees dominated the huge, semicircular screen on Saturdays.
Admission prices were set at $1 for children and $1.50 for adults.
Senior citizens rates were also established. And Wednesdays were set aside for community meetings and concerts.
"We hoped someone would come along to do something decent with the theater," said Vincent Lowe, Catholic University director of administrative services. "I couldn't think of a better situation than getting the neighborhood involved."
"They gave us some good deals," said Daiss of the university. "We see this as a demonstration of an attempt, on both sides, to get together and work together."
Kelly said the corporation isn't yet breaking even on the theater project. But the theater is not without some dividends.
"The Theater alone has created 10 new jobs," said Daiss. And that doesn't include the neighborhood contractors who were hired for the renovation.
"There's no way we can compete with the suburban shopping centers unless we have something similar to offer," said Daiss. For this reason, he said the corporation is trying to attract flower shops, specialty shops, drug stores, supermarkets and five and dime stores into the area.
In addition, he said, the corporation will also try to open many of the abandoned buildings that run along 12th Street.
The corporation will also try to buy out businesses to keep them from closing "if they're an asset to the community," said Daiss.
Earl's Repair Shop is an example of the type of shop Brooklanders say they are happy to have in their community. Even more important, Earl's is thriving on its own.
"I find the community to be nice," said owner Earl Washington. "I have a good relationship with the customers and my goal is to find out how we can better serve them," he said. "On occasion people will want something repaired that's not too involved and we won't charge for it. Or we'll work overtime, or on holidays, for a customer." Washington said he came to the area three years ago after closing out his shop on Benning Road.
Throughout the day pedestrians stop in front of the theater to peer at the signs previewing that week's feature. Their faces register disbelief.
"I didn't know it was open again," said Robert DeNeal, a Brookland resident for 26 years. "We moved to the area in 1951 and I came to the theater then.
"It was nice," he smiled. "I'll probably be coming back now."