When the residents of French Street NW, in the heart of Shaw, kick off the holiday season with their annual holiday tree-lighting ceremony, they are focused on more than just Christmas.
"We are so diverse, so it's a tree lighting to promote a sense of brotherhood," said Bernard Logan, president of the French Street Neighborhood Association.
Logan, who has lived on French Street since 1986, said the tree-lighting ceremony was conceived by Bernard Demczuk, a French Street resident since 1989, as an activity for the neighborhood Kids Korp.
The attitude at first, Logan said, was "we're doing this for the kids." Gradually, it grew into an opportunity for residents of many faiths--Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists--to affirm their beliefs. In conjunction with the holiday tree, residents traditionally place candles in their windows as symbols of enlightenment, knowledge and peace.
Demczuk explained that during the Middle Ages, people put candles in their windows in the belief that they encouraged the sun to come back. By lighting candles, he said, residents hope to show that the light is coming back to their community--a rebirth, in a sense.
During the first half of this century, French Street was a popular "after hours" area for such famous African American artists as Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington, who hung out there after performing at clubs on nearby U Street NW. After the 1960s, the neighborhood fell into disrepair. The French Street Neighborhood Association has "had its peaks and valleys," Logan said. "But, this is definitely a peak year." Monthly meetings are held, either at residents' homes or the nearby nondenominational temple, and civic leaders usually attend.
Demczuk said that every season, the neighborhood association makes sure it has an event that is visible to the public. In spring, the community has a flower planting. In summer, it holds a neighborhood block party. A pumpkin-carving contest occurs in fall and, finally, the tree-lighting ceremony takes place in early December. "The more visible these events are, the more the neighborhood is protected," said Demczuk, an adviser to former mayor Marion Barry.
Not only do these public events strengthen the tightly knit community on French, they make the street stand out against the rest of the Shaw neighborhood. Upon leaving the Shaw-Howard University Metro station, one notices that most of the surrounding buildings are stark, gray apartment complexes with vacant houses scattered about. But around the corner from Ninth Street, on French, are beautifully renovated row houses in shades of red and blue. By the time tree-lighting day arrived, neighbors had placed lights in their windows and wreaths on their doors.
Residents are not the only people who attend the annual tree lighting. Council members Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) joined the holiday cheer at this year's lighting Dec. 4. Block parties, Schwartz said, "are a very traditional city thing. It exemplifies the community spirit and shows the beauty of Washington."
Added Mendelson, "It's a good time to reflect on events, good and bad, throughout the year."
After several short speeches, awards were given to residents for neighborhood beautification efforts and community service. Finally, Evans, surrounded by neighborhood children, plugged in the lights of the tree.
Neighborhood association Co-President Terri Walker, also known as the "Dumpster Lady," organizes two major trash pickups a year, in the spring and fall. Although she has lived on French Street for only four years, she sees a fantastic turnaround. No bars have been added to her windows since she moved in. "The only ones I have are preexisting," she said.
Neighbor Elizabeth Jefferson, who has lived on French for more than 70 years, agrees that the neighborhood "is definitely not what it used to be."
Granddaughter Jacqueline Robinson, a 38-year resident, said that since the mid-1980s there has been an increase in racial diversity and a decrease in drug activity that is attributable to more brightly lighted streets, well-kept houses and the dedication of residents active in the neighborhood association.
Resident Bernard Smith said that in the past 30 years, most of the French Street houses have changed from government-owned sites to privately owned homes. "Now the people are more friendly. You feel like you know your neighbor," Smith said.
Safety, unity, community and diversity were not on the minds of the children playing touch football on French Street the night of the tree party. Asked what their favorite part of the event was, Mariah Person, 8, spoke for her playmates. "It was the tree lighting and the food."
Felicia Brown affirmed her friend's answer. "Yeah, the best part was the tree. And the Rice Krispies treats."
By the end of the evening, neighborhood renewal was not exactly on Logan's mind, either. Surrounded by his neighbors, he leaned back against the food table, relaxed and laughed. "Now we'll just sit around, drink some wine and talk some trash," he said. "We'll close the street down tonight."
CAPTION: French Street NW, between Ninth and 10th streets, in its holiday finery.