For the last 40-years, in good times and bad, Madeline Gantt has lived on Willard Street NW and watched it change.
During the decades past, she has seen the complexion of the street change from white to black, the houses go from rich to rundown and the mood of residents turn from friendly to fearful.
Today, Gantt is watching a new cycle of change.
Whites are moving back to Willard Street, houses are being renovated and restored, joggers are mingling with street people and civic activists are battling drug traffic and crime.
Gantt prefers to remember the good times when folks would sit outside on their porch stoops at dusk and chat. Neighbors baked cookies for each other and the entire block formed a procession each Sunday as residents paraded to nearby churches.
Gantt and her late husband Andrew moved to Willard Street in 1940. It was then, as now, one block long, tucked in between U and T streets, and bounded by 17th and 18th streets. The street had been developed in the late 1800s by Henry Kellog Willard, who is better remembered for the old downtown hotel that bears his name. The stately homes were designed for well-to-do, often prominent Washingtonians.
In the early 1940s, black professionals began to replace the well-to-do whites who lived on the block. Among the prominent people who lived on Willard was Charles Lindbergh, whose nonstop flight to Paris in 1927 made history. Lindbergh, Gantt recalled, was moving out across the street about the time she was moving in.
"This was such a nice neighborhood back then," Gantt remembered. "It had beautiful trees and the people were all colored professionals. Why, Doc Johnson lived down at the corner. He was a bone specialist and there were quite a few lawyers. It was all colored, of course."
Then came the bad days.
"It all changed in the 1960s," Gantt said. "Folks didn't want to know who was their neighbor then. They just wanted to be left alone."
Crime was the problem. The petite widow put iron bars on the windows of her pink-trimmed home and quit answering the doorbell at night.
Gantt blamed urban renewal in Southwest for some of the problems along Willard. "Those people had to have somewhere to go," she explained. Many of them, mostly poor and black, came to Willard where the once grand row houses were converted to apartments and $25-a-week rooming houses.
Crap games, drug trafficking, pimping, youth gangs and muggings all became familiar sights on Willard. One young resident was convicted of two murders.
"It was a tough street when we got here," recalled Ron Clark, head of RAP Inc., a self-help drug and alcohol abuse program that moved to Willard during the early 1970s and is credited with helping clean up the street. One of the first things RAP did was open a youth learning center.
At one time, he said, there were scores of kids on the street,"and none of them had anything to do. We taught them courses in black history and science. There were plenty of rats around to dissect."
Now, Willard Street is changing once again.
In 1973, the average price of a house on Willard was $10,500. A few months ago, a renovated Willard home sold for $235,000. Two-bedroom condominiums along the street currently are priced at $100,000 or more.
Census records also reveal how Willard has changed. In 1970, there were 200 black residents and 45 whites on Willard. In 1980, there were 170 black residents, 101 whites and 10 Orientals on a street with more apartments and condominium units.
Willard has new property owners like Robert Ault and Lananh T. Nguyen, both professionals, who recently paid more than $100,000 for a renovated condominium. "We love it," said Ault. "There have been some problems, but this is our home now."
They chose Willard because it is close to downtown and, because of its reputation, prices were lower than in other parts of Washington. They also bought for the future, Ault explained. Within a few years, they believe, homes on Willard will be worth even more than they are today.
But the new transformation of Willard Street from a street for poor black families to a street for middle- and upper-income blacks and whites is not yet complete. And sometimes the Willard Street of the past and the Willard of the future clash.
The contrast can be as sharp as the sight of a purple Mercedes Benz 200 SL parked next to an abandoned, sun-faded red Volkswagen that died long ago.
Or it can be more subtle.
On a warm summer day, a woman who has wandered the Willard Street area for 20 years pulled a near-empty bottle of gin from a dogeared pouch dangling from her neck. As she took a drink outside Lloyd's Deli, a popular neighborhood gathering spot, a jogger rounded the corner. His bright red running shorts matched his red running shoes. A thin cord linked the tiny Sony cassette recorder strapped to his waist to a set of earphones.
"Go man, whoooee!" she shrieked, raising her bottle in salute to her new Willard Street neighbor. "Whooee!"
When Willard began to improve in the mid-1970s, groups of speculators became interested in property on the street. One speculator attempted to buy a rooming house on Willard. RAP organized a campaign to stop the sale and hired an attorney. The potential buyer abandoned the project. But the victory for RAP was short-lived. It could not stop the developers.
An apartment building at the corner of 18th was one of the first to go. The Georgetown-based realty company, C. Millicent Chatel and Associates, bought it, remodeled the apartments and opened a real estate office in the basement. Soon, the pounding of carpenters' hammers and the whine of their power saws echoed up and down the block.
"We were the first (real estate firm) to actually move on the block," boasted Verne Calvert, an executive at C. Millicent Chatel and Associates, which has handled many of the recent sales on Willard. "The (white-black) boundary line has been moving forward. It's advancing like an Army and it's not slowing down. Most of these people never dreamed they would get such good prices. We paid one lady $75,000 and she was as proud as a peacock."
Despite the speculation and building, Willard has remained a tough neighborhood.
"I remember," said a young attorney, one of the first whites to move to Willard, "when this fellow and his wife moved here -- back in the pioneer days. Each day, the wife would walk down to the corner to catch a bus and every day this kid would walk behind her and make suggestive remarks.
"Her husband came to me and asked me what he should do. He had tried talking to the kid's mother, but she didn't do anything.
"I told him to beat the f--- out of that kid. That would do it. But he didn't. They moved instead. They just didn't understand."
One Sunday, the attorney, who asked not to be named, was sitting outside his flat on the front steps reading a newspaper. The telephone rang and he went inside to answer, leaving the front door open. A few seconds later, his stereo in the living room stopped playing. "This dude was stealing it," he said, "so I shot him in the leg.
"People on the block told me I should have killed him."
He still lives on Willard Street.
But others do not.
"People, they grew up here. This is their home," said Ann Blackwell, a clerk at Lloyd's Deli, where Thunderbird wine sits next to imported Heineken beer -- another sign of transition on Willard.
Blackwell wraps a fried chicken wing in aluminum foil and takes 47 cents from her young customer. "This here girl," Blackwell said, "she moved to Southeast a while back, but she still stops in here every day. This her home. Always will be."
The young woman smiles. "A lot of my friends, they're gone. Some used to come here, but only a few left now," she said. "Not really much reason to come back really, not no more."