Last year William Wheeler bulldozed half of his 77 foundering walk-up apartments off a high Anacostia hillside. This year he replaced them with 19 neat, new town houses and there are more to come.
Across the street, the owner of another empty apartment complex with 62 units has received permission to convert the buildings to condominiums.
A mile away, 118 black middle-class families are living comfortable in attractive new town houses where less than three years ago decaying apartment buildings housed squatters and drug addicts.
In downtown Anacostia, at Martin Luther King Avenue and Good Hope Road SE, 75 percent of the space in the community's first modern office building has been rented to black doctors and lawyers.
"Anacostia isn't going down any more-it's coming up," said Conrd Cafritz, who owns Parklands, the largest privately owned apartment project in the city, at 3300 Stanton Rd. SE.
New town houses, office buildings and condominium plans are a head-turning phenomenon in Anacostia because for years the area, isolated from the rest of the city by the river of the same name, has been regarded as the city's basement.
City officials pout there everything they did not want to see-the sewer treatment plant, the bulk of the public housing, the city-run home for the aged and poor.
Anacostia, originally a small community at the foot of the 11th Street bridge and now the name generally applied to the area east of the river and south of Pennsylvania Avenue (SE), was the code word for neglect, crime poor housing and transportation, no social services and antiquated schools.
But now, "we are finally getting some developers interested in taking on some of the real estate out there and it is changing the face of Anacostia," said City Council member Wilhelmina Rolark, who represents most of the area.
"It's not to the point of where we've made it but it certainly is an improvement over where it was five to six years ago," said James G. Banks, executive director of the Washington Metropolitan Board of Realtors. It's in the throes of change."
Banks, an Anacostia native, used his former position as director of the city's old office of housing programs to launch much of today's development.
A few years ago, when several Maryland and Virginia suburds imposed moratoriums on new sewer connections, thereby curtailing housing development, Banks started contacting idle developers by telephone and in person.
His message: come to the District of Columbia, specifically Anacostia.The city could promise sewer capacity, cheap, vacant land, a ready sales market and the expeditions granting of required licenses and permits.
They listened. And some came. The city had not issued a single building permit in either 1972 or 1973 for new construction in the area south of Morris Road. In 1974, 89 were issued, and last year, 131.
Anacostia's abundance of open space, the coming Metro station and the discovery, by a growing number of outsiders that the area offers some of the most spectacular views of the rest of the city are spurring development, Banks and others believe.
This renaissance occurs beside what Banks calls "the immutable presence" of the area's old social problems-problems that result from too many poor people being shunted into a community with minimal services.
Ward 8, whose boundaries roughly coincide with those of a broadly defined Anacostia, has the highest proportion of residents on public assistanc of all the city's election wards-more than one out of every five of its 39,000 people. It also has the city's smallest porportion of homeowners, 10 percent, and the second highest unemployment rate, an estimated 9.9 percent as of October.
The turn-around is further complicated by a recent dip in the rate of town house sales. High mortgage rates and high prices are putting Anacostia homes out of the reach of some of their best potential customers-black families earning between $15,000 and $20,000 who now live in the several nice apartment complexes in the area.
In the mid-1960s, garden apartments proliferated across Anacostia, with their seeing promise of a surburban lifestyle at a bargain rent. But now Anacostia residents andcity officials agree that garden apartments, poorly constructed and in some cases quick to deteriorate, have become breeding grounds for many of the area's ills.
"The area was built up rapidly with (hundreds of) apartment buildings not well-designed for large families, recalled White, formerly the city's assistant planning director. "And there was no reaction, poor schools and terrible transportation."
Large families, many with "desperate social and economic problems," replaced black middle-class tenants in the late 1960s, said Banks. Tenant neglect, coupled with management neglect, meant trash accumulating in hallways, doors hanging by one hinge instead of two or three, and children vandalizing vacant apartments.
By the early 1970s, Anacostia had had enough. Banks convinced the city's zoning commission to effectively prohibit further garden apartment construction because, as White put it, "we've got to stabilize the area."
Under an ambitious public improvement program, which accelerated after the 1960 opening of Ballou, the city's first senior high school east of the river, new schools replaced old, overcrowded ones. The city built sidewalks to control severe soil erosoin around many of the garden apartment complexes, and recreation centers were established for Anacostia children.
Starting in 1974, city and U.S. housing officials waged a joint campaign to break up some of the area's largest concentrations of poor people. They began with the hillside on Wheeler Road between Valley and Southern avenues, a hillside covered with shabby post-World II garden apartment buildings.
The city itself owned some of these buidlings, which had been erected as public housing, while the federal government owned others through federal mortgage foreclosures.
Both landlords began to evict tenants that year, and then to demolish the empty buildings. A portion of Valley Green, one of the city's most crime-ridden public housing projects, was razed. But the evictions and demolitions were halted by court action in January 1975.
John Simons and Julian Seidel, two suburban building contractors who had never built in the city, started constructing 164 town houses on the newly-cleared hillside in late 1975. It scale single-family housing development in 25 years.
When Simons first put the homes on the market, the could hardly build them fast enough to meet the demand, he said.
Now the housing market is sluggish, a fact that Simons attributes partly to the jump in housing prices in the past three years, while other builders point to competition from the growing number of new town houses both in Anacostia and Far Northeast.
Simons said his lowest priced home had climbed from $37,500 to $47,5000.
"It's going slower than we'd like," said William Wheeler, who tore down his apartment buildings to construct town houses. "We felt if we had them on the market a year ago they would be sold by now."
"We're all having to be a little more careful because the mortgage market has changed," said developer William Cafritz, Conrad Cafritz's cousin, who has delayed plans for beginning construction of more than 100 new town houses on the 12-acre Wilburn tract at Alabama and Martin Luther King avenues.
The Wilburn tract was part of the federal government's visit holdings in Anacostia until it was declared surplus two years ago.
The federal government owns half of Anacostia's land, the highest proportion of federal ownership in any prat of the District of Columbia. Its largest properties are St. Elizabeths Hospital and the Bolling Air Force Base Naval Research Laboratory complex that occupies most of the river-front from the South Capitol Street bridge to Maryland.
Councilwoman Rolark, like many of her constituents, welcomes the new town houses because "they are not big and palatial but it is home and it will help stabilize the population."
"Anytime you own you have pride in it," said Rolark. "You spend money on it. You don't have to ask the landlord to fix something. People will stay 20 to 25 years when they buy so you will take more interest in the area because this is home."
She sees only one problem with all the new development-what happens to the people already there?
The booming trend toward condominium conversions elswhere in the city raises the specter of large-scale removal of low and moderate-income families from Anacostia, Rolark believes. And at the same time, she points out, town houses in the area are being priced out of these families' reach.
To prevent the displacement of poorer familiews, Neighborhood Housing Services, a private, nonprofit community based organization, opened for business two years ago in downtown Anacostia. The agency arranges loans for tenants to buy their homes, and for homeowners to remodel.
"Our philosophy is we're trying to build interest and confidene but on a gradual scale," said John Tetrault, NHS assitant director. "You want new blood but you also want to give every one an opportunity to stay who wants to stay."