Neighbors Inc. was born in the late l950s to halt panicky white flight from the attractive nearly all-white communities east of 16th Street NW when blacks started buying homes there.
Now, 25 years later, the group still thrives, nurturing neighborhood integration but at the same time turning its energies to finding jobs for its teen-agers, protesting against sexually oriented bars along upper Georgia Avenue NW and fighting for communities to receive their fair share of city services.
As Neighbors Inc. celebrates its 25th anniversary this month, past and present officials look with satisfaction on the four communities where the group successfully fought white flight and eased integration for both sides. The neighborhoods generally lie between 16th and North Capitol streets, the District line and Missouri Avenue.
In the two southernmost neighborhoods, Manor Park and Brightwood, communities dominated by neatly kept row houses, the population is about 70 percent black and the remainder white, according to Neighbors Inc. officials. In Shepherd Park and Takoma, the racial balance is nearly 60 percent black and 40 percent white. White upper-middle class professionals have simply been replaced by their black counterparts in owning the large, detached and sometimes lavish brick homes that characterize these quiet, tree-lined blocks.
Neighbors Inc. began when a small group of black and white homeowners decided to fight "blockbusting, scare tatics, and fear engendered by unethical real estate speculators," according to Marvin Caplan, the organization's first president and a longtime Shepherd Park resident.
"Every night the speculators would call our house or ring the bell asking us to sell," he added.
Joseph Hairston, one of the first blacks to move into the area and former Neighbors Inc. president, recalled that back in those days, "A speculator would sell a house to a black family, then go up and down the street telling white families that the neighborhood was going downhill and they had better sell while they still could.
"Those people around me were scared as hell that blacks were moving into their neighborhood."
Caplan said one of the organization's major aims has been to bury the myth that black homeownership leads to lower property values. His own home in the area is a case in point. Caplan said the value increased fivefold in the years before he sold it to move into a larger home in the same neighborhood.
In the early 1960s, the group worked successfully to get the city's daily newspapers to drop racial designations in real estate advertisements. "In those days real estate listings were designated by race. White listings were grouped together and black listings were separate. We were part of the fight that finally got the papers to change that practice in 1963," Caplan said.
The group still fosters neighborhood integration and understanding with its own version of the welcome wagon--the open house.
Today moving into the Neighbors Inc. area almost automatically gets people invited to a get-acquainted open house. "We work with realtors and the people in the neighborhoods to try and know when someone new moves in, then get in touch with them," said Everett Marshall Jr., the organization's current president.
Caplan added, "We get to talk with them and incidentally sell Neighbors Inc. We are an interesting group of people, and there is bound to be someone there who almost anyone can talk to and find something in common with."
The organization has continued to flourish by keeping up with neighborhood concerns. "We try and stay current by addressing ourselves to the problems that worry our friends and neighbors," Marshall said.
A major local concern is teen-age joblessness, and the group has responded with a teen-age employment service. "At our office we have a list of teen-agers who are looking for summer work. If someone in the community has a job that needs doing, they can call and we will try and match them with a youngster who is willing and able to do the job," Everett said.
"Then we will follow up on it, both with the person who called and the teen-ager. We want to see if the job was done well and what the young person doing the work thought of the way it was carried out," he said.
Neighbors Inc. has joined other citizens groups protesting against the presence of nude dancers in some bars along upper Georgia Avenue NW. The group has contributed money and legal advice to the neighborhood's challenges of the liquor licenses of some of these bars.
While other neighborhood concerns take a lot of time these days, the organization has not lost sight of its founding principles.
Last week, Hairston and Marshall went to Chicago for a meeting of National Neighbors Inc., a national group formed in 1969 and based on the Washington model.
"Making integration work is what we have tried to do from the beginning," Marshall said, "and that is where Neighbors Inc. will continue to function as long as we are able."