Shortly after dawn the other day, a young carpenter knocked on Vera Pryor's front door and asked if he could use the electricity to operate his electric drill.
"Anybody else, and I would have called him a lot of bad words or called the police," said Pryor, a 69-year-old retired government secretary. "That would be some nerve, usually."
But this man wasn't usual. He was working on the vacant house next door. And Pryor cheerily jumped at the chance to help him, even though he woke her up.
"Its simple," she explained. "He's giving us our neighborhood back."
The neighborhood is Brookland, a mostly black, mostly lower-middle-class community of about 45,000 people in Northeast Washington.
Brookland is the home of Catholic University, one of the city's largest colleges; Turkey Thicket, one of the largest public playgrounds; and a thriving light industrial and warehouse area.
Since Metrorail arrived two years ago, the area's frame bungalows and brick townhouses have surged in value and popularity, according to Bill Hennessy, a Shannon and Luchs real estate salesman who specializes in Brookland transactions.
It all could have been otherwise. Brookland was very nearly the "home" of an eight-lane leg of Interstate 95.
The highway would have gone right through Pryor's living room at 906 Hamlin St. NE -- and through the living rooms of 70 of her neighbors -- if she and a group called the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis had not blocked the project through protests and legal actions during the mid-1960s.
The on-again, off-again freeway plan left Brookland pock-marked by 71 vacant, boarded-up houses, widely scattered through a 30-square-block area.
This month, after 13 years, the last 30 of Brookland's "North Central Freeway houses" are being renovated and sold to middle-income Washingtonians. fThe city rehabilitation program is being fueled by federal funds.
The result will be to turn Brookland into a fully occupied community again -- and to undo a 13-year-old irony.
"We thought we had won when we kept the freeway out," said Pryor, who has lived on Hamlin Street since 1948. "But I sometimes think the neighborhood's actually been worse off all these years because of all the vacant homes."
Although a federal judge ordered the highway project stopped in 1968, the District government did not formally abandon plans for the road -- called the North Central Freeway -- until 1975. In the intervening years, the city held onto the 71 Brookland houses it had bought in 1967 and 1968 and had planned to demolish.
"We couldn't do anything with them until the freeway was formally dead and buried on the master federal freeway plan," explained a city transportation official.
Because the District government was in the middle of its purchase program when the court order halted the road project, Brookland's "freeway houses" were widely scattered. The 900 block of Evarts Street NE had eight of them, for example, but the 900 block of Irving had four and the 900 block of Hamlin just one.
In addition, in many cases, the vacant houses were between houses that were still occupied. The result was a series of blocks between 9th and 12th, and between Rhode Island Avenue and Monroe Street, "that looked like an old man's teeth," said Martha Bugg, of 915 Hamiln St. NE. "You know, a good one, then a bad one, then a good one."
The scattershot appearance of the streets in the freeway's path came about because "not everyone had accepted our purchase offers at the time the judge ruled the project couldn't continue," explained Donald Croll, chief of the real estate division of the D.C. Department of General Services.
Bugg recalls some of the problems the remaining residents inherited.She says, for example, that vandals continually ripped away the boards on the abandoned houses so they could "have wild parties and store some stuff they stole. It scared us on the street to death."
Squatters were common, and so was arson. Fleming Gregory, 67 a retired government security guard who lives next door to Bugg, said he often saw youths setting fires in storage sheds behind the vacant houses.
"Seems like they thought there was no one left up here to care," Gregory said.
On some blocks, there wasn't.
Carl Wanamaker sold his home on Jackson Street and moved to Hyattsville early in 1968. He was one of six homeowners -- out of six -- on his side of the block to do so.
"There wasn't no sense in fighting highways," he said. "It looked pretty sure that they were going to build it. I wanted my money while I could still get it." He got $17,000, nine-tenths of it from federal funds, one-tenth from the District government -- about average for "freeway houses," according to Croll.
Those who stayed in Brookland despite the freeway threat tended to be elderly couples who had lived in their houses for decades and did not want to start over somewhere else.
"Where is a man my age supposed to go?" asked Edward Cleary Sr., 79, a retired roofer who has lived at 903 Hamlin Street for 55 years. "You get pretty well planted after 50-some years in one place."
"I always thought this is where I'd live, and this is where I'd die," said Pryor, whose late husband Bernard was such a vigorous freeway opponent that the community dedicated a plaque to him.
"This was our dream house.We struggled for this house. I was willing to lay down in front of the bulldozer and give my life for my home. Now I can hardly wait to see the neighborhood bounce back."
One of Brookland's new homesteaders, Mary Burley, is a likely source of some of that bounce.
Burley, who is assistant manager of a downtown Washington printing company, won the right to purchase a "freeway house" in a 1979 city-run lottery.She moved into newly rehabilitated 901 Kearny St. NE on Aug. 13 with her two children -- and with high hopes.
"If this hasn't happened, I probably never would have owned a house," said Burley, a 30-year-old divorcee who had been living in a two-bedroom apartment in Coral Hills, Md.
"It feels wonderful. It gave me a whole new view of the bureaucracy, too. I think it's a good way to put our tax dollars to work."
Burley met all four of the District government's requirements for the program, which is called urban homesteading and is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She is at least 18 years old, she heads a household of at least two persons, she owns no other housing and her yearly income falls between $15,500 and $18,000.
Burley paid $35,000 for her house -- exactly what it cost the city to have it restored, and almost exactly half the going rate for identical houses on her street.
She had to pay only $500 down. The first $16,000 of her mortgage is financed by a savings and loan association at 11 7/8 percent. The remaining $18,500 was loaned to her by the District government at 3 percent. All in all, Burley pays $285 a month -- only $10 a month more than her apartment rent in Maryland.
According to Sam Penny, the construction foreman overseeing the rehabilitation work, Brookland's 71 "freeway houses" are being saved just in time.
"When a house has sat this long without any care or upkeep," Penny said, "it's an invitation to the termites. These houses would have rotted away and had to be torn down if we hadn't gotten in here."
According to the real estate agent Hennessy, the rehabilitation work in Brookland is already doing wonders for sales of other property in the neighborhood.
For instance, Hennessy said he had tried for six months to sell a house at 902 Hamlin Street. He had no success "because of 904 -- it was all boarded up."
But as soon as Penny's crews began slashing away with crowbars at 904's rotten walls and replacing stairways and gutters, 902 sold immediately.
However, Pryor and others who didn't flee Brookland during the late 1960s still wonder why it took so long to rehabilitate the 71 "free-way homes."
According to Croll, the reason was that, despite the judge's 1968 order, "it was still possible that a modified freeway might have been built there." Thus, "we had to keep our options open," he said.
As it turned out, much of the land that might have gone for a modified freeway was finally used to build Metro's Red Line just west of 9th Street.
According to Barbara Carter, a rehabilitation project coordinator for the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development who supervises the urban homesteading program, the Brookland project went slowly because the task was large.
"We got 500 applicants for these houses. We had to do job verifications and credit reports. We had to run a lottery and work out the rehab contract. And we didn't even formally get the houses in this office until 1977. I don't know that we could have done these any sooner than we did," Carter said.
To Pryor and her neighbors, how quickly the task might have been finished is far less important now than the fact that it is being finished at last.
"You can only look forward with something like this," said Pryor. "I'm not interested in criticizing the city. I'm interested in what kind of a neighborhood this is going to be now."
But Pryor has not changed her view of the freeway itself.
"I still call it an 'eight-lane monster' after all this time," she said. "And I always said we'd never be able to call our work a success until these homes were rehabilitated. Now this neighborhood will be like it was when we were young."