After a long struggle to remain in the apartment building some had called home for 10 and 20 years, the last tenants of The Imperial moved out yesterday, and the boards went up at the once grand address in the heart of Adams-Morgan.
City plans to buy the five-story 37-unit red brick building and convert it to public housing, thus allowing many tenants to remain, dissolved when the Department of Housing and Urban Development missed the deadline for approving a loan for the purchase.
By the terms of an earlier agreement, the tenants would collect $10,000 each from owner George Dravillas and move out by Dec. 1 if the city did not buy the building.
So yesterday friends and relatives carried boxes and furniture down the treacherously chipped stairway and along the dark, littered hallway where a hand-printed bilingual sign taped to one wall advertised "Mudanza -- Mooving, Cheap--Barato, 318-1519--Mr. Guallo."
While some tenants said they were glad to collect the money and leave, others, like Conchita Uddin, mourned the end of their time on bustling Columbia Road.
"For 20 years I lived here," the 72-year-old native of Puerto Rico said. "You have buses, drugstores, restaurants, the fire department on Lanier, you have the bank. Everything is here. . . . This is the avenue, and when you live on the avenue you have everything."
Despite the payments from Dravillas, Uddin and several other tenants, all accustomed to paying about $160 a month for their dilapidated two- and three-bedroom apartments at The Imperial, seemed overwhelmed by the task of finding a new home, fearful that $10,000 would dissolve almost overnight in rent and living expenses.
"I don't have a place to live nowhere," Uddin said. "I'm so nervous I'm getting sick . . . They want $400 a month for an efficiency, anywhere you go!" She plans to stay with a friend until she finds an apartment.
The Imperial, located at 1763 Columbia Rd. NW, between the Carlos Gardel bar and a boutique called Outlook ("Jeans, $9.95"), was home in the last two years to 16 families -- 11 Hispanic, five black -- who formed a close community and were led in their struggle to remain in the building by a social worker from the Dominican Republic named Casilda Luna.
Their battle against displacement is a story that has been repeated again and again in the last decade in the District, but one of their lawyers, Robert Pozin of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, said yesterday, "The tenants at The Imperial probably fought harder than anyone else."
Pozin said Dravillas has withheld portions of the $10,000 payments from some tenants who he says owe back rent, and that the tenants are trying to resolve that dispute in court.
Dravillas could not be reached for comment yesterday. Neither could city officials, who had earlier said they would try to buy the building despite the missed loan deadline.
"I'll be glad to get out of here," 60-year-old Solomon Flagg said as he stood in the lobby, where the chipped black and white marble hinted of earlier, better days. The only sadness he felt, Flagg said, was in separating from his dog, Sundaye. His new apartment, at 14th and Newton Streets, doesn't allow pets. "We've been together 10 years."
Moving day marked a new beginning for Gustavo Nunez, who came to Washington from his native Nicaragua 12 years ago and settled with his wife, two daughters, son and mother-in-law in a three-bedroom apartment at The Imperial. Nunez, 48, who was a printer in Nicaragua and works now in the housekeeping department at the Washington Hilton, announced with some pride that he plans to buy his first house in America -- in Takoma Park.
"Here I paid $171 a month," he said. "Now I'm going to pay $600 a month. My wife works, I work, also my son. We have to start somewhere. When I came here, I didn't speak any English. Now you understand me. Twelve years ago I was making $1.60 an hour in a restaurant. Now I'm making $5 plus an hour . . . I'm not afraid of my future."