The taproots of Mayfair Mansions, the first apartment complex built especially for the city's black middle class, reach deep into many D.C. families.
When early tenants talk of the 47-year-old apartment complex in far Northeast Washington, they don't say much about the open air drug markets so notorious by 1988 that residents called the Nation of Islam to restore order. They don't mention the units that became crack dens or the fears that forced some tenants out and others to triple-lock their doors.
That Mayfair, they sigh with relief, is gone. But so is the one they remember, the fashionable address for black professionals where tenants became as close-knit as family.
On Saturday, a first reunion of old-timers will be held at Fort Lincoln Park, a celebration of memories organized by a few of the original residents who met by chance at a wedding this summer.
"When we moved to Mayfair, I thought it was the most beautiful place I had ever seen," said Lilla Midgette, an original resident who moved to Michigan Park in the early 1970s.
Evelyn Morton, 76, has remained a tenant since the complex opened in 1944. "The newer tenants don't have the sense we had that this was ours. To them, it is a place to live, and they don't care about it."
The U-shaped development of red brick, low-rise buildings on Kenilworth Terrace NE opened in a deeply segregated city, when poor blacks lived in crowded, substandard alley tenements and even those who could afford to do better faced a severe housing shortage because of discriminatory covenants.
Built on an old racetrack, it was designed by a black architect and built with $3 million in seed money from a black radio evangelist for black teachers, doctors, lawyers and government workers. The nearly 600 units in 17 tidy, three-story buildings rented for about $80 a month, which when the median income was barely $3,000 a year was beyond the reach of many.
A grassy mall, so carefully manicured that children were forbidden to play on it, ran the length of the complex. The development also included a commercial strip, with a supermarket, tailor shop, luncheonette, barber shop and beauty parlor as well as office spaces for a physician and dentist.
"Everybody who was anybody lived at the Mayfair," said Ethel Dunlap, a retired nursing supervisor at St. Elizabeths who moved to Mayfair in 1946.
"We didn't have nothing but newspapers to sleep on at first," joked her husband, Montroe, a former post office employee. "But when you lived at the Mayfair, you were really doing something."
Albert Cassell, who designed Mayfair, envisioned it as a city within a city, said his son, Charles. Albert Cassell died in 1969. "For him, Mayfair was his own little city, which was to provide a healthy, wholesome environment for African Americans, and it was working very well," Cassell said.
Insulated from the open prejudice and hostility of the time, residents said they felt safe. "At Mayfair, we weren't subject to a lot of the problems that the majority society created for blacks in other parts of the city," Cassell said. "We hardly ever saw anyone different from us, except when they came in to provide certain kinds of services."
At its zenith, residents recall, the complex was impeccably maintained and landscaped .. Joseph McCormick II, who lived there with his parents, remembers that custodians under former manager Odell Walker, mopped the floors weekly and regularly wiped down the woodwork and walls with rags.
Albert Cassell, who also designed some of the buildings at Howard University, including Founder's Library , lived in the complex until the late 1950s and often could be spotted picking up bits of trash around the complex.
Mayfair's chief investor, radio evangelist Solomon Lightfoot Michaux, secured the support of politicians and Eleanor Roosevelt for his project. A congressman who owned a racehorse had proposed reopening the old track but Michaux persuaded him that gambling was sinful.
With Eleanor Roosevelt's support, Michaux got the backing of the Federal Housing Administration, a first for a black-owned complex. Recognizing its significance in history, the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board designated Mayfair a landmark in 1989.
As significant to remember, say former residents, was its remarkable sense of community. "In the early days, we socialized a lot, played cards together, took trips together," said Ethel Dunlap, who moved from Mayfair with her husband three years ago. "You couldn't have formed any better friendships."
Still, when other city neighborhoods such as Riggs Park, Shepherd Park and Anacostia began opening to blacks in the 1960s, many of the old families moved out of Mayfair. "My folks were no different from so many other American families who wanted to own their home," said McCormick, whose family moved to Michigan Park in 1963.
The deterioration started imperceptibly in the 1970s, then shifted into high gear by the early 1980s.
The Dunlaps stayed 40 years. "The final straw for me came early one morning, around 2 a.m.," Montroe Dunlap said. "I heard a car speeding down the alley, heard brakes screech and looked out of the window. Someone jumped out of the car and threw a body into the dumpster. And then, the whole thing went up in flames . . . . That was it."
That was 1984, by which time the Mayfair and the newer Paradise Manor complex next door had become the headquarters of rival drug dealers with ties to New York and Miami.
"The thing that hurt me, it was the tenants' fault too," Dunlap said. "The tenants council at one point got down to about 30 people and the same people would speak out over and over again."
McCormick, a Howard University political scientist is researching Mayfair's history as a story of changing opportunities for the city's blacks. "I think the people who went into Mayfair in the first decade of its existence saw themselves as upwardly mobile," he said. "People on lower steps then moved into Mayfair, and many of those people, I suspect, had been in public housing."
Under ownership since 1988 by Arthur Reynolds, a former chairman of the D.C. Retirement Board and onetime lawyer for the Michaux ministry, the complex has undergone a $13 million renovation that has been praised by residents. Still, the buildings appear slightly weather-beaten and the once-plush lawn is peppered with bare spots.
As for loyal tenants such as Morton, they say they are still agitating when things need fixing. And Morton says she scolds the children when she hears them swearing or getting into trouble.
"I don't have to live here, but I prefer it," she said. "I like the area and I know the area. And when you get older, you like the familiar."