The Highland Dwellings housing project rises from a hill in Southeast Washington, a score of two-story brick buildings groaning with window fans and second-hand air conditioners.
For the tenants, among the poorest in the city, life was hard enough without worrying about hot weather. Now, with temperatures starting an unrelenting climb towards the dog days of August, the forecast here calls for utter misery.
At Charles McPherson's apartment, which he shares with his mother on the Yuma Street side of the Highlands, there is only a window fan, an antiquated contraption that blows hot air around their darkened cubicle.
"It's unbearable hot," said McPherson, 44, an unemployed former housekeeper with the University Club in downtown Washington. He was sitting on his front porch watching television on a recent night, refusing to go indoors until he could "snatch some breeze," as he put it.
"Nighttime is the worst because you can't sleep. You wake up wet," he said, sounding tired. "During the day you can at least go and get under a tree."
Everywhere around him were signs of people burning in the heat of the night. The irritable cries of children echoed off the building walls. Even past midnight, as the moon hung in the sky like a white hot coal, children glistening with sweat were running around in the dark until the heat was beaten by their sheer fatigue. Older men, their T-shirts wet with sweat, nodded off in lawn chairs that were strategically located near the edge of the buildings in case a breeze should turn the corner.
Out here in this forgotten land, where there is not even a corner store for buying a thirst-quenching soda or beer, surviving the summer is often a question of mind over matter. To stay cool requires resignation to circumstance, acceptance of life as it is and a belief that there is nothing that can be done about it. Anything else makes the blood boil.
"It's a damn shame that people must suffer without the meagerest of conveniences--I mean, I would love a soda right now," said Earl Holland, a retired food service manager, who was idling away the night on a porch next to McPherson's. "But you know, these are God's elements, so we just have to go along with it. No point trying to fight what you can't change. If people could change their situation they would. But that requires the one thing that people out here don't have: finances."
The Highland Dwellings is just one of the city's 55 public housing projects, which house a total of 52,000 residents. Life here, as in the others, is characterized by a frustrating inability of residents to control their environment. Doors must be kept open to let air in, but that is liable to be taken as an invitation to enter. There are few certainties. One of them, says Druzella White, is that "You burn up in the summer and you freeze in the winter."
The Dwellings is not the worst of the projects. Situated on a hill at Fourth and Atlantic streets SE, it is well stocked with shrubs and trees. Some residents have small gardens. On weekends during the summer, bands perform on an outdoor stage at the Washington Highlands Community School nearby. Around 3 p.m. on weekdays, the street is closed off and a fire hydrant is turned on.
However, a housing project is still a project, and it is literally hotter out here than say, a home overlooking Rock Creek Park. The massive concrete construction retains heat throughout the night. The mass of humanity jammed inside the tiny units generates a heat all its own.
Anna Ford, barefooted and wearing a pair of seersucker cutoffs, just couldn't take it anymore.
With three of her children quarelling in the heat upstairs and an infant wallowing in baby powder and sweat on a couch downstairs, she had simply walked out to sit on her porch
"I'd love to lay down, but it's just too hot," Ford said wearily, a glass of ice water sweating between her legs. She had recently finished cooking and her apartment was a veritable furnace. She seemed drained, on the verge of wilting. Being hot had slowed her down, made her irritable. She could have beaten those children for acting up, but she just walked out.
"Damn--excuse me," she said, a grin of resignation breaking out on her face as she examined an unkempt kitchen. "I just don't feel like doing nothing today."
Four men were huddled around a card table on Joe Saunders' front porch, eating pork chops and corn bread, gulping lemonade. Shining with grease and sweat, they did not seem perturbed by the heat. Saunders, an auto mechanic, had left his front door open so they could watch television, which cast a deceptively cool blue haze on his darkened living room.
"It's hot as hell in there," Saunders said, pulling out a deck of cards after the meal. When the card game began, it became apparent that the heat had taken its toll. Saunders' deal was lethargic. Instead of slamming the winning cards onto the table, the men sort of flicked them out, then raked in the take with a sweaty sweep of the table. The game was quiet; the men were polite to each other. This is not how Bid Whist is normally played in the projects.
Tenants of the Dwellings are hard-pressed to find any benefit in hot weather. But Olivia Martin, president of the Highland Dwellings Tenants Association, says there may be one. For years, the streets around the Dwellings --particularly Condon Terrace--have been havens for on-the-street drug dealing, youths employing Dale Carnegie-style enterprise to hustle marijuana to passersby.
"It gets so hot that the drug people are staying off the street," Martin said. "I don't hear them shooting each other anymore. The heat is on. It's got 'em. Everybody is just looking for a place to keep cool."
Late one recent night, which was relatively cool in most parts of the city, Delores Butler clung to a railing on some steps, fanning herself with a record album cover. Hazy-eyed, weary and wilting, she slowly sank to the steps, sitting alone in the humid darkness waiting for her sister who worked the night shift at the Greater Southeast Community Hospital.
"I hope she doesn't forget to bring a fan," she said.