Nighttime comes to Old Anacostia and the lights go up on Frederick Douglass' last home.
The glow from the abolitionist's mansion is like a hilltop beacon to the neighborhood below, just across the 11th Street Bridge in Southwest Washington. The restoration of the Douglas home in 1972 focused attention on the historic blocks around it. And now the neighborhood reflects a new-found pride as longtime homeowners and newcomers restore century-old-frame homes first built for white Navy Yard workers.
Old Anacostia is a unique Washington neighborhood, a place where a buyer can find a rambling, country-style home with a large yard, just 10 minutes by car from the Capitol -- and at an affordable price.
John Kinard, director of the Anacostia Museum, moved to his home on 13th Street SE in 1964. He recently bought a 17-room house for $30,000 nearby, where he plans to move once he has renovated it.
"I tell my friends that if you're looking for a good house, come to Anacostia. The sun rises and sets on Anacostia for me," he said.
John Harrod, owner of the Market Five Gallery on Capitol Hill bought a nine-room home with a peaked roof and side porch two years ago for $24,000.Now he and his wife are restoring it with the help of a bank loan and a federal grant.
The decision to buy in Old Anacostia was an easy one for Harrod "I'm a Southwest Washingtonian. I've lived here all my life. I don't want to live on the other side of the river.
With the rekindled interest in Old Anacostia goes a heightened sensitivity to the neighborhood's name. Anacostians are quick to point out that all of Far Southwest Washington -- with its bad reputation for crime -- is not Anacostia, anymore than all of Northwest could be called Logan Circle.
Old Anacostia covers about 21 square blocks, bounded by Good Hope Road, Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, Maple View Place and a zigzagging line that connects High and Fendall streets SE.
"The name Anacostia is used in a negative sense to represent everything had in Southwest," said Louise Daniel Hutchinson, author of a history of Anacostia. "We [residents] talk of Anacostia as a place where people live and go to school. Making use of our name to refer to all of Far Southwest destroys the fabric of Anacostia."
Old Anacostia is a mix now. The commercial strip along Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Avenue has declined, leaving only storefront chruches, beauty shops, shoe repair and liquor stores, a Safeway and empty buildings. The intersection of Martin Luther King and Talbert Street is crowded with winos and junkies.
But pleasant neighborhoods stretch out from the rough corners. Old Anacostia is a unique mixture of rolling hills, large frame houses, generous yards, country porches and brick sidewalks. And, except where traffic is rerouted for the 11th Street Bridge, traffic is so light that children can play ball on most streets.
While Far Southeast has one of the highest violent crime rates in the city, the histroic district is relatively safe. Capt. Alton Perry of the 7th District police attributes the low crime rate to "our seasoned troopers" and the cooperation of neighborhood people.
The neighborhood's revival was triggered by its designation in 1978 as a historic district and by the arrival of the Neighborhood Housing Service (NHS), a private, nonprofit, nationwide housing corporation that encourages renters to become property owners by providing advice and financial help.
Jim Lowell, director of the NHS here, said homeownership in the neighborhood had doubled since 1970. Now six out of 10 people in our target area own their own homes," he said.
The listing of Old Anacostia in the National Register of Histroic Places qualifies property owners for federal grants for restoration projects -- up to 50 percent of a project's cost with no repayment required. But changes in buildings that are substantial enough to require a building permit must be reviewed by a special agent of the mayor.
Unlike other Washington neighborhood with the historic designation, however, housing prices haven't syk-rocketed in Old Anacostia. Where a nine-room town house in the Dupont Circle area may go for $200,000, a renovated nine-room detached house in Old Anacostia aveages about $50,000.
Brenda Robinson, a housing counselor for NHS, knows how harmful housing speculation can be to a neighborhood and uses gentle pressure to try to keep housing prices in line.
When she sees a "for sale" sign go up, she contacts the real estate agent.
"I call him up and check the price. If it is real high, I ask him why. He usually says the owner sets the price. We talk and then sometimes they recognize our expertise in this neighborhood and they ask us how much to charge. We tell them a fair price, which is usually a lot less than they were asking for," she said.
Fred Johnson, sales manager for Jack Spicer Real Estate, which has long been active in Anacostia, said prices have remained low in that area because it is not the "in" place to buy. "Right now people want to buy brick row houses and in Anacostia you have detached, frame houses. They also want to buy in a fully restored area."
"Anacostia doesn't need a real estate boom," he said. I'd like to see it stay the way it is. It is important to have areas where people can buy a house for $50,000. There are fewer and fewer of those areas left.
But Kinard thinks the area will be the site of the next real estate boom in Washington. Noting recently announced plans for redeveloping the area next to the Navy Yard across the river, he said, "That Southeast project over there will kick off Anacostia."
Kinard's next-door neighbor, Edward Brazerol, 87, has lived all his life in Anacostia and 50 years in his current home. He has watched the neighborhood change, from the days -- up to the 1940s -- when restrictive convenants in sale agreements prohibited blacks from living there, to the days when many whites left the area following the Supreme Court's 1954 decision desegregating Washington schools.
"This used to be an all-white neighborhood," he said. "But in the '50s and the '60s, the black people came and took it all over. But you know it didn't change things much. They make good neighbors." Brazerol is fearful of crime on the streets."I don't go at night now more. My younger brother Frank got mugged and killed over by the Safeway last year. But this is still a good place to live. The Kindars next door have been real nice to me," he said.
Elaine Hall and her husband moved into the neighborhood in 1974. Now widowed, she maintains an active life as president of the NHS here and as president of Anacostians Concerned for Senior Citizens.
Hall's neighborhood is a special place for her. "I feel a sense of freedom of the spirt here," she said. "People smile and say hello. It is a friendly neighborhood."
"We won't be a Georgetown," Kinard said of the neighborhood's future. "We have our own character. We will be a nice Anacostia. CAPTION: Picture 1, John Harrod, with son Amon, and Ginny Harrod, with daughter Aisha, at home they bought 2 years ago, by Linda Wheeler - The Washington Post; Picture 2, the Frederick Douglass mansion. By Linda Wheeler -- The Washington Post; Map no caption, By Dave Cook -- The Washington Post; Picture 3, John Kinard on porch of 17-room Anacostia house he bought recently for $30,000. By Linda Wheeler -- The Washington Post