Until about 10 years ago, Ken Gar's relationship to the rest of Montgomery County was pretty well summed up by its dead-end streets.
Only a block from Connecticut Avenue, residents in the 20-acre neighborhood between Kensington and Garrett Park went without running water or bathrooms until well into the 1950s. Some had outhouses through the '60s. There were no sewers until the mid-'70s, no storm drains or trash removal. Under absentee landlords, whole blocks of low-rent shacks fell into disrepair.
But in 1974, a sweeping urban renewal program, funded by Montgomery County, rebuilt or replaced fully two-thirds of the homes. New pastel-sided bungalows now square off behind new hedges and sidewalks. The spooled newel posts of the older frame houses are smooth with paint.
In the voices of residents like Leonard (Henry) Jackson and John Woods, Ken Gar's renewal is a triumph of the spirit.
"It's a heaven, to what it was," said Woods, who moved to Ken Gar in 1940, and now owns five houses there. "I hope to live here until I die."
"We've made a real home here," said Jackson, the man usually referred to as Ken Gar's "unofficial mayor." He said, "We've fought to make this community a place to be proud of."
Yet there is trouble in paradise. It is a new, and yet, to neighborhood leaders, familiar unease.
"There is a . . . division," Jackson said reluctantly, "between the ones that were here and the ones who came" after renewal. "It's disturbing to me. I can't see two communities."
"It would have been nice in some ways to keep the black community intact," said Gertrude MacDonald, a 27-year resident. "But all people got to have a place. We just have to grow together. . . . You can't stop progress."
The hard paradox is that the very success of Ken Gar may ultimately prove its undoing.
In its struggle to better the old low-income community while protecting its black identity, Ken Gar inadvertently opened itself to the "new" minorities of Montgomery County, and to a subtle separatism of age and self-interest.
At the same time, maintaining Ken Gar as a low- and moderate-income neighborhood has prompted some more ambitious residents to move away, threatening to extinguish the clan that the community was struggling to sustain. Some who might have remained in the area were simply shut out by the limited housing.
And among those who stayed, several residents confirm, a growing drug traffic is threatening to disrupt the feeling of security formerly enjoyed by its residents.
Only a few months ago, longtime residents were boasting that they slept with the windows open in hot weather; but in the past month, a series of break-ins, apparently by an insider, has soured the refrain.
When a relative went into the hospital recently, according to community godmother Delores Keith, teen-agers and young men "starting hanging around on the porch" of the vacant house, drinking, "cuttin' up" and throwing litter.
"But people around here don't want to get involved," Keith continued. "When I called the police to watch the relative's house, some of the neighbors called me and complained! What do they want to happen before they get involved?"
Jackson echoed his old friend: "The '70s were the good times for Ken Gar."
It has been a long struggle for Ken Gar. Laid out in 1892 along the original Garrett Park Road, now Plyers Mill Road, Ken Gar was isolated on the "wrong" side of the railroad tracks in the 1920s, when Knowles Avenue, across the gulch, became the paved passage to Wisconsin Avenue.
By the time of the Great Depression, blacks had gradually bought up most of the lots, but were then forced to default or sell their homes to white speculators, and staying on as renters.
On the slope to Rock Creek, Ken Gar was constantly subjected to flooding and freezing, as well as erosion and silting. Surrounded by white residential neighborhoods, it also was the target of habitual racial harassment, which reached a crisis in 1972 when a Ken Gar man shot and killed a white Wheaton teen-ager who was terrorizing his 4-year-old daughter.
Ken Gar's greatest weapon in such conflicts was its community spirit, a blend of pride, righteousness and political savvy.
Led by Jackson, who founded the civic association in 1959 after an NBC documentary described Ken Gar as a "slum," residents fought a political holding action throughout the 1960s, blocking repeated attempts to rezone for commercial development and using county health department inspectors to force landlords to upgrade rental housing.
In 1964, in apparent retaliation, Jackson's landlord attempted to evict him. "He did me the biggest favor of my life," Jackson said, savoring the irony. "He made a homeowner out of me."
By 1972, when the renewal project was approved by the council, it had Jackson's strategy for survival built in. All absentee-owned and vacant lots were to be purchased by the county; about two dozen houses were to be rehabilitated, and an equal number razed. To guard the residents, Jackson said, "We wrote in that whoever was displaced would have the first option on buying the new houses."
"It was the stigma of the rebuilding of Southwest Washington . Everybody remembered when urban renewal was Negro removal," he said.
At that time, county figures showed that 75 percent of Ken Gar residents rented their homes. Forty percent, many on welfare, had incomes of less than $6,000 a year.
And there the program faltered. Even with the low-interest mortgages offered by the county, few residents of the former shacks could afford to buy the new homes. Most moved into a town house project built at the north end of the community; a handful of families were forced to move away.
Then the houses were offered to qualifying low-income families throughout the county, many of them Asian or Hispanic. In one sense, the new eclecticism is proof of Ken Gar's progress.
"It's not just integrated now, it's international," said Sodocia Snowden, who moved to Ken Gar in 1930, when she was a young mother. "One family over on Shaftsbury is Guatemalan. . . . There's Mexican, Vietnamese. . . . "
Bolivian-born Vincent Bernal, who bought one of the homes on Plyers Mill five years ago, counts off the families around him: "Greek, Chinese, Chinese. . . . The family behind here is Indian."
But, as Jackson says, Ken Gar was "built on kinfolk." With the influx of new residents, who have few ties to the old Ken Gar, a gap has begun to widen that suggests some racial tension, although it has cultural and socio-economic causes, too.
Over the past few years, only a handful of the new, non-black residents have attended neighborhood meetings. And despite the civic association's long working relationship with local governments, the new families have begun to lobby as a separate community.
A couple of years ago, for example, residents in the new houses along Plyers Mill sent a petition to the county housing authority requesting that the ancient one-lane bridge across the railroad tracks be repaired so it would not squeak under the weight of traffic. When Jackson, who over the years had successfully lobbied Rep. Michael Barnes' staff to get the bridge replated and rebolted, learned of the petition, he was both wryly amused and somewhat chagrined.
There are several reasons for the apparent gap. Greek-born Penny Hatzi and Bernal, for example, both work at night. Several of the Asian-Americans apologize for their poor English. Others have small children and outside interests.
But Delores Keith suspects that some of the immigrant families have been hurt or made uneasy by the unwelcoming attitude of older residents.
"There are some folks who have said to me, 'What do they want to come here for?' " Keith said, making a face. "And I know some of them said it to the new folks, too. Maybe they don't think they'd be welcome at the meetings." "To me, it doesn't have anything to do with race," Keith said. "Some of the people that left moved out because they wanted to. . . . Maybe because of who moved here. And frankly, some of them, I'm glad they left."
Although there has been no overt rift, a couple of parents among the new families said they were "too busy" to take their children down the block to the community center. Another father on Plyers Mill said he sends his two small children to another play center now because "they squabble, get into fights" with the neighborhood children.
Meanwhile, a more serious violence is brewing in the parking lots. There are reports of drug deals under cover of dusk and a fear that Ken Gar's cul-de-sac may have become a suburban shooting gallery. Three years ago, a white drug dealer in a Lincoln Continental was robbed of both cash and cocaine and shot in the head with a dart gun. More recently, several residents said they believed a small but regular drug distribution ring had been operating in the area.
"We're trying to get more people aware of the drug problem," Jackson said. "We've got to reach the younger generation. We've got to keep struggling. . . . We've got to get the new families involved."
There are many kinds of assimilation, and Ken Gar has successfully averted most of them. Urban renewal has uprooted only a few of its people; refurbishing the older homes has not made it trendy.
The era of absentee landlords has ended and the attempts to rezone for commercial use defeated. Moreover, the neighborhood has withstood every annexing effort by neighboring Kensington.
Jackson says independence is "a matter of economics;" joining the city would mean more taxes for Ken Gar residents.
What threatens Ken Gar now is time. In time, older residents will die.
In time, the scattered kinfolk -- like Jackson's 10 siblings and Gertrude MacDonald's five grown children and three of Earl Budd's four sons -- will build stronger ties to other communities.
In time, the houses will be resold to middle-class families.
In time, if the campaign to revive the community spirit fails, the people of Ken Gar may forget that there was something to remember; and then the long battle will finally be lost.