Suburban Gardens. In the 1950s when I was growing up it probably sounded like the name of an upper-middle-class development somewhere outside the city.
But in reality it was an unpretentious housing development in Far Northeast that was conceived as an affordable enclave for Washington's aspiring black professional class. And since my parents fit that description, Suburban Gardens was home to me for nine years.
Suburban Gardens got its name from its location on the edge of the city. Its three sections, with a total of 148 apartments -- stretching from 49th to 50th Streets, along Sheriff Road and Just and Jay Streets -- are all built on a hill and offer a panoramic view of the city. Suburban Gardens combines reddish brick town houses (although we didn't call them that then) and duplex apartments with small front and back stoops, and its well-kept grounds were a testament to management's pride in its choice of tenants.
My earliest memories of Suburban Gardens are the big hills out front and in back of our town house. They seemed smaller during my recent tour of the neighborhood. But as a child I always thought of those gigantic hills as proof that the best things in life really are free.
In the fall, my brother and I and the other neighborhood children eagerly waited for the leaves to part company with the trees. Once there was a sufficient quantity on the ground to gather into piles, we would roll sideways down the hill out back, catapulting ourselves into the gigantic heaps of multicolored foliage we had strategically positioned at the bottom.
As the days grew shorter and we could smell snow in the air, we started making plans to convert the hill into a gigantic snow-covered slide, using big pieces of cardboard salvaged from the trashcans in the alley.
In the spring and summer the entire area became a combination dodge ball arena/baseball diamond.
Except for the hills, Suburban Gardens looked exactly like the Fairfax Village complex at Pennsylvania and Branch avenues SE. When I was older I realized that while the two developments were identical architecturally, I saw only whites come out of the Fairfax Village town houses whenever we drove by.
Suburban Gardens, on the other hand, was a nearly homogeneous black neighborhood made up of well-groomed teachers, postal employes and other government workers and their children. Virtually all of the families saw Suburban Gardens as an opportunity to live in the equivalent of a starter home while actually saving for the real thing.
While Fairfax Village boasted an adjacent shopping center of the same name, Suburban Gardens residents patronized a homespun shopping area a couple of miles away that began at the corner of Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE. Like Topsy, it just grew.
Although the portion of the city across the Benning Road Bridge is often thought of as economically deprived, that intersection at the foot of the bridge bustled on weekends with customers running errands to the shoe repair shop (where you could wait, barefooted, in a booth while your shoes were fixed), the HUB furniture store, the Standard Drugstore and the McBride's discount department store (where I bought the dishes and housewares for my first apartment).
Our family patronized the shopping center, too, but we had a different mission. As Jehovah's Witnesses (pronounced "Jee-ho-vuh-wit-nis" in the vernacular), we got to meet our neighbors by standing in front of the Standard Drugstore, offering them the Watchtower and Awake! magazines and inviting them to attend our meetings at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses.
Because our family usually rode to the Kingdom Hall at 44th Street and Deane Avenue (now Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue), my brother and I considered it a treat whenever we got to walk with our friends. Walking meant that we could stop at "the corner store," Kelly's Market at 42nd Street and Hunt Place NE, where Squirrel Nut and Mary Jane candies were two for a penny, and barrels, fruit-flavored hard candies in a shape that gave them their name, were a penny each. The trick was to slip a piece of candy into your mouth undetected, during the meetings and under the watchful eyes of parents.
But contrary to popular wisdom among the neighborhood children, being a Jehovah's Witness didn't rule out having fun. On Saturdays my brother Larry and I would go to the Senator Theater on Minnesota Avenue for 50 cents.
Our first stop was always the Peoples drugstore, where for a quarter you could get three candy bars double the size of the ones sold today.
My other favorite activity was stopping at the Little Tavern, where you could sit on stools and eat hamburgers smothered in relish and chopped onions. The sign hanging outside the white building that was the chain's trademark encouraged you to "Buy 'em by the bag" -- not hard to do at 15 cents apiece.
The Little Tavern closed years ago. Even the building was painted yellow. And when a fast-food restaurant opened across the street, the greasy smell it emitted obliterated even the memory of the pleasing hamburger aroma that once pervaded the corner.
The Peoples drugstore building has become the headquarters for Crescent Office Machines, one of a number of Muslim-owned businesses that sprang up in the area in the late '60s. The Giant Food store farther up the block has been remodeled and Trak Auto and a Phone Center Store have moved into the strip. Plans are being made to completely redevelop the shopping area through a combination of public and private monies.
Suburban Gardens has changed, too. Some of the buildings are now boarded up and laced with broken windows. Tenants have complained of no heat or hot water. But some of the apartments are being renovated for sale as "flats" and "town houses" and the complex is again being touted as an enclave for upwardly mobile blacks.
When I visited the old neighborhood last month, I joined three other blacks in their 30s who were taking a tour of the model homes. "You know," said one, "I used to live here about 15 years ago."
"Yeah," said his brother-in-law. "It looks like the place is on its way back up."