An article Tuesday about a land dispute in the Cardozo-Shaw neighborhood incorrectly identified resident Paul Williams. He is a professional historian. (Published 12/10/1999)
In the Cardozo-Shaw neighborhood that surrounds historic Metropolitan Baptist Church, the blocks are full of old houses with new face lifts: shining doors, freshly landscaped yards, just-painted porches. A knock at any one could bring a white, black or Hispanic resident.
Five years ago, a knock at the same door almost certainly would have been answered by a black resident. The Northwest Washington neighborhood, like the entire city, has been changing, with the percentage of white residents increasing.
The changes accumulated gradually over the years, altering the neighborhood and the assumptions of the people who live there and worship at Metropolitan Baptist Church nearby. But this fall, the past and the present clashed on an unlikely site--an empty field that Metropolitan used for parking and some local parents wanted for a playground.
The leaders of the playground group are white, and the church and neighborhood leaders are largely black: The battle made public the sort of racial tensions that exist throughout the city but perhaps are seldom acknowledged.
For some, the struggle was simply one of neighborhood amenities, a disagreement between residents and the D.C. school system. But for others, it was far more. Rodney Foxworth, a black advisory neighborhood commissioner in Shaw, considers the playground dispute "just one example" of a broader, city-wide dynamic fueled by resentment over whom authorities listen to when making decisions.
"The larger issue is the presumption by rich or educated people that it's their way or the highway," Foxworth said. "It's the presumption of power and authority that some people have."
The D.C. school system has rented the open lot next to Garrison Elementary School to Metropolitan for 20 years. Like many other inner-city churches that once drew parishioners from the surrounding neighborhood, Metropolitan has a significant number of members who now live in the suburbs and drive in on Sunday.
But some residents who do not attend Metropolitan at 12th and R streets NW said Garrison and neighborhood children need a place to play. After much back and forth and some very tough talk on both sides, the issue has been resolved: The lot will be a playground. But the underlying tensions remain.
"In D.C. right now, the background issue is still the white recapture of the city," said Jeffrey Henig, director of the Center for Washington Area Studies at George Washington University.
"What is relevant here is that--even when what is the driving issue is a difference between ownership and renting or whether or not residents have kids--if it takes place in a racially charged environment, it is not seen that way," he said. "There are historic reasons why race is a viable issue. . . . It's not just that some people are misguided. They are looking at events around them in the context of history."
When Tom Allen, who is black, moved into the neighborhood 20 years ago, drugs were sold nearby and there was an occasional shooting. Then white professionals moved in, and the longtime residents think that the police improved. The neighborhood is safer, he said. But certain things have been lost, and he has noticed recently what he calls "an attitude change" among people he meets at civic meetings.
"A large majority of my neighbors are lawyers," said Allen, 50, who retired from the D.C. Department of Human Services. "They earn a good income and have time to spend on projects. They do their homework--I can't get mad about that. The black people here work for somebody and are held accountable for their time. They don't always have as much time and money to work on projects. But they have needs and want a better neighborhood."
Now their neighborhood is hot property. Allen noticed recently that it took a black family on his block just two weeks to sell their home.
Foxworth, who lives at Ninth and O streets NW, has seen houses that went for $80,000 three years ago now selling quickly for $150,000.
The census tract that covers the neighborhood and surrounding areas was, in 1998, about 44 percent black, 31 percent white and 20 percent Hispanic, with the remainder a mix of Native Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders.
When Paul Williams arrived in 1993, he said, "one-third of the properties were boarded up." Williams, who is white, joined the Cardozo-Shaw Neighborhood Association and has become an amateur historian of the U Street community. "There is definitely a sense of community and pride," he said.
But even in how they treasure the local history, older and newer residents reveal their different perspectives--or so it seems to some.
"This neighborhood--15th Street East--was called Shaw," Foxworth said. "Through gentrification, some people started calling it Logan Circle/Shaw. They thought Shaw meant urban renewal, urban decay."
Said Allen: "People born and raised here want it to remain Shaw--but their numbers are dwindling."
'I Love the Diversity'
Most of the parents at Garrison are black and Latino. Susan Ousley, the chief spokeswoman for the playground group, is white, but she is also the mother of three adopted black children, two of whom attend Garrison. She moved to Shaw, she said, "so my children could have and see the role models they deserve.
"I love it here," she said of the neighborhood, where she has lived for 20 years. "I love the diversity, and I intend to help keep it."
In mid-September, Ousley, two other Garrison parents and a group called Friends of Garrison Elementary School filed a lawsuit against the school system, asking it to end the agreement with Metropolitan so the lot could become a play area for children.
Glen Melcher, a white lawyer and advisory neighborhood commissioner, represented the parents in their lawsuit, which pitted him against Metropolitan's world-renowned pastor, H. Beecher Hicks Jr.
Hicks argued that in addition to the rent, the church gave $5,000 annually to the school for supplies and activities, ran a mentoring and tutoring program for students and provided services including buses for field trips.
Some people involved in the negotiations thought that Melcher was demanding and refused to compromise.
To Maudine Cooper, it all felt familiar. Cooper, chairman of the D.C. Emergency Transitional Educational Board and executive director of the Greater Washington Urban League, talked daily with School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman about the Garrison matter.
"To those of us who have been black a long time, it does look like race," said Cooper, referring to the manner in which Melcher handled negotiations. "When you have people come in who will not move or negotiate and they say, 'I told you what to do and that's what I want,' well, some of us say, 'Here we go again.' "
Then, in the midst of negotiations and court rulings, Hicks announced from the pulpit that his parishioners would park elsewhere. He went on to say: "I refuse to let racism make me a racist. I refuse to let those who hate me cause me to hate them."
Hicks continued: "While the influx of well-off, mostly white urban pioneers and carpetbaggers into inner-city communities might improve their socioeconomic status and raise property values, there is danger in the notion that these new residents share the values, interests and concerns of their older, mostly African American neighbors."
Melcher bristles at the mention of race having anything to do with the lawsuit. "We feel this was never about anything but getting play space for our children," Melcher said. He lives across from the school but his only child is not enrolled there.
Beneath it all is a long-term sense that some people in the city are heard while others are not.
"There are two people with money in my neighborhood, and they think when they speak they should be listened too," said Foxworth, the ANC commissioner. "They are the people the political process pays attention to. If you are low-income or represent people who are not active--say, because they are elderly--your voice is not heard."
Melcher agrees. He said he has been able to accomplish some things in the community, and he sees the resentment on the faces of some of his neighbors.
"There is an older black gentleman who lives across from me," he said. "He is very frustrated that for years he called the city about the drug dealers and the trash. He screamed and ranted and no one listened. I called, and they solved the problems. He's very bitter about it.
"But it's not my fault. It's the fault of the people who weren't listening to him. We should all be mad about that."
Part of the controversial lot will eventually become a ballfield. The school system has announced it will pave the other half of the field so that children can use it for games such as hopscotch and kickball.
But some parents are wary, fearing the paved area will become another parking lot, and they want to meet again with city officials.
The old playground that was there has been renovated. There are, at the moment, no lawsuits. But what hasn't been so easily fixed--and may take years to repair--is the trust within a community.
CAPTION: As her daughter, Sarah, 7, rides a bike, Susan Ousley, right, talks to Doris Williams and her granddaughter Nikea.
CAPTION: Susan Ousley, rear, with her children Andre, left, Sarah and Marquan, says she loves Shaw and its diversity. She helped lead the quest to turn the lot into a playground.
CAPTION: Rodney Foxworth, an advisory neighborhood commissioner, says some longtime residents were put off by the attitudes of their new neighbors. "The larger issue is the presumption by rich or educated people that it's their way or the highway," he said.