They were young, upwardly mobile and fresh from the South. Leaving the old life behind like a worn pair of shoes, they headed north to Washington for a fresh start and a future brighter than the past.
For many, the journey paid off. They found jobs, mostly in the federal government. And they found decent homes and good neighbors in Kingman Park.
Many of the early pioneers of Northeast Washington's Kingman Park community, most of whom came to the city during the northern migration of Southern blacks in the 1940s and '50s, still live in the houses they purchased years ago. But in many cases, their homes have become empty nests: their children have grown up and moved away.
In Kingman Park, as in other stable, middle-income neighborhoods throughout the city such as Petworth, Woodridge, Michigan Park and Brightwood, the empty-nest phenomenon is increasing, according to officials in the District's Office of Planning and Development (OPD), as residents grow old in the same communities they moved into several decades ago, while younger families, unable to afford the high cost of housing there, move to the suburbs.
City officials say the trend will affect future local government planning and determine the kinds of public services that a changing population needs.
The trend is reflected by 1980 census figures, which show that the District has fewer children and more senior citizens than it did a decade ago.
The increase in black residents over age 65 is more dramatic. Their numbers zoomed from 29,900 in 1970 to 42,800 in 1980, a 43 percent increase. And the trend is expected to continue significantly up to the year 2000.
Alvin MacNeal, OPD's chief of long-range planning, said the increase is not due to any influx of older people. "It's a matter of aging, an aging population," MacNeal explained.
OPD is scheduled to release a comprehensive plan next month that will address changes that may be needed in city services in order to meet the changing population's needs. It may mean fewer schools, smaller living units, and more activity centers rather than playgrounds.
Bounded roughly by Benning Road and C Street from 15th Street to Oklahoma Avenue NE, the Kingman Park community in the city's Ward 6 once bustled with activity and brimmed with young people.
Two decades ago, school-age children kept scout masters busy; Sunday schools were crowded and playgrounds full. At one point children from Kingman Park poured into eight neighborhood schools.
Today, however, residents say the neighborhood has grown more quiet and serene.
On a warm day, an elderly woman sweeps dirt and litter from her walkway. An old man spreads a coat of paint on back porch steps. On almost every block, red brick row houses line the street like soldiers in parade formation. Awnings shade porches with cushioned lounges and flowers stand tall in pots or creep along neatly clipped lawns and chain link fences.
"Everything that goes on now is centered around the older people," said Maggie Daniels, president of the Golden Age Club that meets at St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church at the edge of Kingman Park. With 80 senior citizens on its roster, the group claims to be one of the most active in the community--in addition to block clubs, churches, Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and a civic association that counts seniors as their most active members.
"We don't have too many young, active citizens," said Frances Queen, president of the Kingman Park Civic Association. She said the organization is trying to encourage youth involvement by giving citizenship awards to young people. But for now, community issues seem to involve the problems of age more than youth.
Today, as retirees with comfortable pensions and mortgages paid in full, most of the residents say they have no plans to follow the real estate speculation-and-sell-out trend occurring on nearby Capitol Hill. They don't want to leave this tree-lined community nestled between the Stadium-Armory complex and Benning Road.
"I've been offered $85,000," said 75-year-old Robert Towles, a retired Government Printing Office bindery supervisor. But even "if I could get $150,000 I wouldn't sell my home," he said. "Where would I live?"
For Towles and many others, Kingman Park has become more than just a place to live; it's a way of life where neighborliness is highly valued. Maggie Daniels, 68, moved to her home on C Street the same year Robert Towles moved in a few blocks away. Robert Bates, 76, who bought a home on 23rd Place, has been in Kingman Park since 1934. Frances Queen, 68, moved to Washington as a young girl and bought her home on 24th Street when the first subdivision of new houses "for colored" were built in Kingman Park in the late 1930s. Kenneth Moore, 51, came to Kingman Park as a young Air Force veteran in 1955 and moved into a block whose complexion was changing rapidly as whites, threatened by integration, moved out and young black families moved in.
They all know each other, by name or face, their lives woven together by experiences and memories shared through proximity and commonality.
They remember when two pounds of pork chops sold for a quarter along the burgeoning H Street NE corridor in the early days when blacks were just settling into Kingman Park. The Mills Brothers were billed at the Howard Theater and mortgage payments ranged from $45 to $90 a month on homes that sold for $6,000 to $14,000. Neighbors looking south could see a cinder dump and a swampy ditch that years later would become the Robert F. Kennedy Stadium and National Guard Armory.
Residents who once were deeply concerned about schools and other programs for youth are now worried about living costs that take a greater share of their fixed incomes and the need for more accessible public transportation.
Alyce Quander, a member of the Golden Age Club, said many older homeowners are upset by escalating property assessments that increase their taxes. "It's really unfair," Quander said. "Assessments go up even if you haven't put a brick on" your house.
Residents say their community needs a mini-bus service that would connect the neighborhood with major bus lines, the Stadium-Armory Metro station and the new Hechinger Mall. Many senior citizens without transportation or strong legs can't get to some of the stores or bus stops that younger people take advantage of, Daniels said.
Silver afro and stylish eyeglass frames testify that Daniels, like many other active Kingman Park elders, has kept up with the times.
Still, some of the changes in Kingman Park are cause for nostalgia.
"The biggest change is the children," sighed Daniels, the mother of two grown children who both live in Prince George's County, Md.
Most of the children seen skipping ropes or rocks in Kingman Park these days are the residents' grandchildren, weekday babysitting charges or youngsters who live in small apartment buildings for low- and moderate-income families that dot the area and its borders.
Kenneth Moore, who has a son and daughter in college, looked across the street from his corner house at E and 19th streets NE at a small knot of children on the playground of Gibbs Elementary School, which has an enrollment less than half its capacity. "The kids just evaporated," Moore said.
Five blocks away, Queen points down her street with a more somber observation. "They call this widow's row," she says matter-of-factly. Queen never married but she said the spouses of many of her neighbors have died.
There are a few young couples, like Raymond and Deborah Stewart, raising their families in the area. After his parents' death, Raymond Stewart Jr., 30, paid off the mortgage on the house he grew up in on 20th Street and moved his family in.
But OPD's MacNeal said the future of communities like Kingman Park is unclear because it is uncertain how many other young people will want to raise their families in their parents' homes, or rent or sell the property instead.
"It's a very fragile place," MacNeal said.
But Deborah Stewart, 31, doesn't seem to think so. In words reminiscent of the generation before her, she declared her own attachment to Kingman Park. "I'm not moving," she said. "I'm satisfied."