Bessie Smith, 77, stepped onto the front porch of her brick row house in LeDroit Park, located at the southern edge of Howard University's campus in Northwest Washington, and looked around at the modern college buildings--the sign of progress--next to boarded up houses and muddy fields. Changes were coming to her neighborhood of 30 years.
"This house, this neighborhood, has special memories for me," said Smith, of 426 V St. NW, who has rented her two-story, two-bedroom house, now owned by Howard University, for three decades. "I had nice times here, some of the best times of my life, but now they're gone."
Last August, Smith and five others, all but one of them elderly, received notices they would have to leave their homes by Tuesday. They would be the last residents to leave the block bounded by Fourth, Fifth and V streets and Oakdale Place NW that once was part of a vibrant family neighborhood.
Her home and those of several others will soon be demolished to clear the way for university expansion projects in the LeDroit Park neighborhood, a boot-shaped area bounded by Florida Avenue, Barry Place, Georgia Avenue and Euclid and Third streets NW. Howard University, like other growing Washington area universities, bought much of the neighborhood's property to construct new buildings that will house its expanding programs. While demolishing often decrepit, turn-of-the-century buildings, it has, at the same time, spurred the change and, in some cases, the demise of distinct old Washington neighborhoods.
The university's expansion program, approved in 1981 by the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment, includes expanding Howard University Hospital and building a new multilevel parking garage. Future plans that will affect LeDroit Park include the renovation of several row houses to house Howard University Hospital staff and centers for day care, rehabilitation and gerontology.
Alan Hermesch, a Howard University spokesman, said the university would like to use the plot of land where Smith now lives for a park that would provide "aesthetic relief from the stark architecture of the garage to be built across the street from her house and the houses that will remain one block way ."
The LeDroit Park neighborhood, with its narrow streets, petite mansions and Victorian houses marked by archways, turrets, bay windows and conservatories, was born in the 1860s and for many years was a segregated neighborhood of white professionals, many of them Howard professors and instructors. Later, the neighborhood became a prestigious enclave for Washington's black professional elite. By the middle of the century, as segregation was outlawed, blacks were free to move elsewhere and many of the LeDroit houses were sold and cut up into apartment buildings for large, working-class families migrating from the South, according to Louise Hutchinson, director of research for the Smithsonian Institution's Anacostia Neighborhood Museum.
Smith remembers the days when Griffith Stadium occupied the spot where Howard University Hospital on Georgia Avenue NW now stands. The stadium was less than a block from her house, she said, and it used to draw people from all over the city "like a street lamp draws mosquitoes."
As her neighbor, Emma Goodall, an articulate and proud woman who has lived in the area for 50 years, recalled: "When I first moved in, there were nice, settled people here. They were big shots: Doctors, lawyers and nurses, congressmen, diplomats and professors. But things changed. Many of them died and their children sold the property to people who rented them out to anybody."
Goodall, a widow who lives in the 400 block of Oakdale Place NW, said the university, which already owns several boarded up houses on her street, told her last year that they were interested in hers, too. But, she said, "I would like to keep mine and fix it up."
Howard has purchased or received about three dozen LeDroit houses willed to the university from deceased alumni. When the university announced plans to tear down some of the buildings in 1974, it ran up against the opposition of many residents, like Goodall, who wanted to preserve the area's architectural history. The LeDroit Park Civic Association prevented the university from demolishing some of the property by getting much of the area designated historic in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
"We feel that this neighborhood is hallowed ground because not only the architecture but the people who lived here contributed significantly to the District of Columbia and the country," said Lewis Chapman, past president of the civic association and a member of a committee to improve relations between the community and the university.
One of the distinguished LeDroit families was that of Maj. Christian A. Fleetwood, a black Civil War hero and Medal of Honor soldier and his wife, Sara, the first black superintendent of nurses at Freedmen's Hospital.
"The neighborhoood used to be the best place a black professional could live," Chapman said. "When blacks were allowed to move in the direction of the Gold Coast in upper Northwest , they moved out in mass and more transient individuals moved in. There was a decline in the kind of persons and the upkeep of property. But that doesn't diminish the relationship between the community and the university."
That relationship was improved recently when the civic association and the university worked out a plan for the university to use grant money from a Department of Interior Historic Preservation Program to renovate homes in the historic district and then allow people whose homes were to be demolished by the university to move into them.
Smith, however, did not own her property and was unable to get help from the civic association.
Smith lives on $514 a month from Social Security. She said she was able to find an apartment at a senior citizens home at 1616 Marion St. NW, but was told she couldn't move into it until March 11.
University spokesman Hermesch said yesterday that the university would attempt to work with Smith's timetable. "The university is not going to put anybody out on the street," he said.