Zachary Smith, deputy public affairs officer for the District's Department of Employment Services, spent his weekend helping his Northeast community of Brookland celebrate its centennial. Smith, 31, said Brookland is bounded roughly by 18th Street to the east, Catholic University to the west, Michigan Avenue to the north and Brentwood Road to the south.
The District Weekly welcomes such reminiscences.
Weekdays in class at John Burroughs Elementary School and weekends watching movies at the Newton Theater or playing ball at Turkey Thicket Playground. Sleigh-riding in the hills behind the Franciscan Monastery during winter and exploring the wooded areas of undeveloped land on Catholic University's western fringes during spring and summer evenings. These are my memories of growing up in one of the District's unique and most habitable communities, Brookland.
Founded in 1887 by descendants of Col. Jehiel Brooks, Brookland is in the upper Northeast section of Washington.
Brookland of my youth during the 1960s was a collection of quiet, tree-lined neighborhoods where black and white families enjoyed relatively good relations in a small-town atmosphere.
The racially motivated mass migration of white families that occurred in most District neighborhoods after World War II, when blacks began relocating from Georgetown, Southwest and other segregated communities, did not take place here.
Although the Brookland community was the home of a few black families during the mid-1890s, it became a bona fide interracial neighborhood during the 1940s when Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph J. Bunche, Howard University professor and poet Sterling Brown and many other prominent black professionals made it their home.
Moreover, the presence of a black majority in Brookland may be as old as the community itself, according to the recent findings of a team of Catholic University urban archeologists. Historical research has uncovered the existence of a sizable black slave population during the 17th century and a black majority slave population before the Civil War, said Catholic University research associate Bob Verrey.
But when my family migrated to the Brookland area from Capitol Hill in 1959, few, if any, racial barriers remained.
Although my elementary school classes at John Burroughs were all black, my next-door neighbors were white, and I had many white friends and playmates at St. Anthony's Catholic Church, where I attended mass. I also played baseball, football and basketball through the Catholic Youth Organization. It was at St. Anthony's that I came into contact with Mr. John Thompson, a man who, as basketball coach, was a positive influence on a whole generation of Brookland's youth.
Indeed, black and white children played together freely in the Brookland of my youth. Irish American and Italian American youths and African American youngsters frolicked about Turkey Thicket Playground and spent their allowances at the Newton Theater and other businesses on 12th Street, oblivious to the separatist attitudes held by some of their parents. But while Brookland's youngsters were enjoying the magic of an integrated upbringing, political and economic forces were at work that would change the small-town nature of this community forever.
Washington's regional planners were preparing to build a freeway through the community, and many families were involved in the opposition efforts of the Brookland Civic Association and the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis.
Although I was much too young to understand what was going on, I do remember that because of the highway plan many of my friends who resided in West Brookland, near Noyes Elementary School on 10th and Franklin streets, were forced to move out of our area. Some moved to nearby Michigan Park, but most moved to suburban Maryland. Many merchants on the 12th Street commercial strip sold their businesses as well.
After nearly a decade of community protest, the controversial North Central Freeway idea was dropped by the city in the early 1970s. By then I was graduating from St. Anthony's High School. Although the magical Brookland of my youth was still intact, the telltale signs of decline already were visible. Gone were the Newton Theater and the Safeway on 12th and Franklin streets. And although the St. Anthony parish was still integrated, fewer white parishioners were sending their children to the church's schools.
Despite living in California for 10 years after high school, I could never forget my childhood in Brookland.
I can honestly say that there was no place in that entire state where I would rather have spent my youth. Neighborhoods in Altadena, Berkeley and Venice Beach, all beautiful and liberal cities, came closest to matching Brookland, but none of these communities was as diverse or as urbane.
Upon my return to Washington in 1983, I was delighted to discover that the city had grown in many ways and remained the same in others. The downtown business district was flourishing, yet the city had retained much of its small-town charm.
No place is this more evident today than in Brookland. Perhaps it's the open spaces, or the racial mixture, or the majestic presence of the Catholic church, or the sound of trains traveling along the B&O Railroad late at night. But just as there was something magical about growing up here during the 1960s, as Brookland celebrates its centennial anniversary, that magic something is still very much alive today.