The sign on the front of the Metrobus read "Ivy City," but the words obviously meant little to the woman waiting on the curb. When the bus driver opened the door, the woman shouted up the steps, "But where do you actually go?"
"To Ivy City, lady," the bus driver replied.
"Where is that? In the suburbs?"
"No, lady," the driver said. "It's a neighborhood. The name of a neighborhood in Northeast."
"Well," said the woman, "it doesn't mean anthing to me."
The name Ivy City wouldn't mean much to most Washingtonians, even though about 5,000 people live in the small community near New York and West Virginia avenues NE, just north of Mt. Olivet Cemetery. Nor would the names Eckington, Capitol View or Brookland mean much, although they also appear on the fronts of Metrobuses.
In a year reporting on city life for The District Weekly series, "In The Neighborhoods," this reporter has come to know not only the obscure neighborhoods, such as these, but also the city's most famous sections. And in both kinds of areas, the conclusion was the same:
Famous or not, Metrobus destination or not, neighbor-to-neighbor spirit is still alive and well in Washington.
In Woodridge, for example, when an 80-year-old woman had no way to get to the grocery this summer, four neighbors who had not even known her name organized a car pool for her.
In Cleveland Park, a 10-year-old girl was slightly injured when hit by a car as she was crossing heavily traveled Reno Road NW. One neighbor and witness called police; another wrote down the license number of the offending car and a third went downtown to inform the girl's father of the mishap in person -- all without being asked.
In Woodley Park, meanwhile, a woman saw three burglars cleaning out her next-door neighbor's house in broad daylight. She called the police, who arrested the three, and was thanked by more than a dozen neighbors, who then organized a crime-watch committee for the neighborhood.
Politically, however, Washington's neighborhoods have a long way to go.
Part of the reason is that many of the most populous and central neighborhoods -- Capitol Hill, Mount Pleasant, Adams-Morgan -- are in flux racially and economically. "You aren't going to see ward bosses here because who knows what the wards are going to look like in 10 years," said City Councilman William Spaulding.
Real estate agents, however, think they do know.
Three dozen agents interviewed during the last year -- all speaking on a "don't quote me" basis -- said they had pressured elderly D.C. homeowners, usually blacks in mostly black neighborhoods, into selling. All of the agents said they had "steered" white, two-income couples into once-dilapidated neighborhoods, hoping for what one called a "snowball effect" -- the creation of blocks where more affluent residents would upgrade the houses and thus help attract additional affluent buyers.
There will not be "any such thing as a fringe neighborhood or a changing neighborhood in Washington in 10 years," said a Capitol Hill specialist for one prominent local real estate firm."I'm not saying neighborhoods will be all white, but the houses will sure be owned by people who can afford them."
The political impact of increased home ownership in some neighborhoods might be more active -- if not always effective Advisory Neighborhood Commissions.
When the ANC system began five years ago, it was highly touted as a way for City Council representatives to hear from neighborhood residents who were "in touch." While the commissions have been popular in some areas -- Shaw, Georgetown and Southwest, among others -- they have been virtually ignored in other parts of the District.
Even where ANCs are well established, their strength has proven questionable.
For example, the Barry administration last spring opened a free overnight shelter for homeless men in an abandoned school building at 14th and G streets NE. The local ANC says it was never informed, even though the ANC charter requires notification whenever a city government action will bring substantial change to a neighborhood.
Nor have ANCs been notified cosistently of private-sector developments affecting their neighborhoods. Last June, for example, ground had already been broken for a new Burger King near Connecticut Avenue and Albemarle Street NW before the local ANC -- which vigorously opposed the project -- learned of it. Commissioner Ron Shiflett investigated and found that the city's licensing office had simply forgotten to notify him.
Veteran City Councilwoman Nadine Winter says such incidents reflect a city that is not used to dealing with neighborhood problems on a neighborhood level.
"What people in D.C. do," said Winter, "is pick up the phone and call the city government -- usually the police. And if that doesn't work, they give up."
There are other views of what makes the city tick. Mary Healy, a Foggy Bottom civic activist during much of her life, believes Washington civic questions tend to be divided along the lines of age and time lived in an area more than by wealth or race.
Nor are Washington neighborhoods always good at seeing the forest for the trees.
For example, in the Burger King dispute, Shiflett and fellow ANC Commissioner Frank Higgins mobilized community support for their side by warning of pollution from windblown hamburger wrappers. Their area already had far more serious pollution, however -- from Connecticut Avenue auto exhaust -- and neither the commissioners nor other city officials had proposed to do anything about it.
Still, as Beth Monroe, a Mt. Pleasant community activist, put it: "I used to live in the suburbs where everything and everybody seemed the same. Here, people are really trying to solve neighborhood problems, even if they know they might not succeed. In that sense, I'd say neighborhood life in Washington has never been better."