First of an occasional series
In some stretches of the District's northern neighborhoods, almost nothing seems to be changing -- the grand, sweeping homes of Colonial Village and North Portal Estates, for example, or the quiet rows of bungalows and rowhouses that define Manor Park and Lamond Riggs.
On many blocks in between, however, change -- or the potential for it -- pops up everywhere.
From Petworth in the south to Takoma in the north, new people and cultures are moving in. Developers and new owners are renovating sagging homes, and longtime residents watch warily as rents and property values rise. Some long-vacant lots and boarded-up buildings have new futures taking shape on drawing boards or beyond, and developers and retailers, who for decades ignored this part of town, are taking a second look.
City officials say neighborhood meetings in Petworth and Brightwood Park that once drew almost exclusively African American, longtime residents, are now sprinkled with newcomers, black and white who are more likely to be upper-income professionals.
"I went to one meeting, and I thought, 'Okay, where are you guys living?' " said Rosalynn Frazier, a longtime resident and city planner for Ward 4, which includes most of the neighborhoods between Rock Creek Park and Eastern Avenue. "It's just so different than it was two years ago."
The changes appear in the rainbow of people hurrying into Georgia Avenue-Petworth Metro station at Georgia Avenue and Spring Road or in schools such as Brightwood Elementary, just a few years ago overwhelmingly African American and now mostly Latino.
They are visible in the growing number of eateries in the area: Tropicana, a squeaky-clean Jamaican place on Georgia Avenue, not far from Nile Market and Kitchen and the recently expanded El Tamarindo.
The retro Colorado Kitchen enlivens the avenue of the same name in Brightwood Park, and the import-filled Silk Road Cafe sells food and gifts on Third Street in Manor Park. The eclectic Mocha Hut coffeehouse on 14th Street NW, in the neighborhood known as 16th Street Heights, sits a few doors from a new deli and a vacant storefront that a local entrepreneur has just bought and plans to turn into a home-style restaurant.
"By me getting this property, and hopefully some others down this strip," said Taalib-Din Uqdah, whose home and hair-braiding salon are just up the street from the restaurant-to-be, "I can leave my stamp on what happens in this neighborhood."
Some of the changes are spelled out in census data tabulated by the city government as part of its recently released "strategic neighborhood action plans" -- glossy booklets that, despite their name, are more profiles of neighborhoods than discrete plans for improving them.
In neighborhoods of Brightwood, Manor Park and Takoma, which make up Cluster 17, the percentage of Hispanic residents nearly tripled from 1990 to 2000, to 13 percent, and the African American population declined by 10 percentage points. Similar changes are evident next door in Cluster 18 -- Brightwood Park, Crestwood, Petworth and 16th Street Heights -- 16 percent Hispanic, compared with 6 percent in 1990, and 77 percent African American, down from 89 percent in 1990.
In both clusters, the percentage of white residents rose slightly, to 9 percent, and median household income increased about 30 percent.
To the north, affluent Cluster 16 -- North Portal Estates, Colonial Village and Shepherd Park -- changed much less over the past decade. Nearly three-fourths of the cluster's residents were African American in the 1990 and 2000 censuses, and most of the rest were white.
Farther east, Cluster 19, which includes working-class communities of Fort Totten, Lamond Riggs, Pleasant Hill and Queens Chapel, also changed little from 1990 to 2000.
But city officials say change is coming there, too.
Vacant land around the Fort Totten Metro station, served by the Red and Green lines, has drawn the interest of private developers. Land around the station, also the site of CSX Railroad tracks -- is zoned for industrial purposes, but city planners would like to see it rezoned to accommodate a new neighborhood of as many as 1,200 apartments or townhouses.
Frazier said her office will convene public meetings this year or next to explain the possibilities to current residents and gauge their support or opposition for potential projects.
Development at other nearby Metro sites is well beyond the idea stage.
Environmentally minded Takoma residents applaud construction on a long-blighted lot near the Takoma station of a "green" apartment building with energy-efficient heating and cooling and ecologically sensitive drainage systems.
But all change doesn't come easily there. The community is sharply divided over plans for an upscale townhouse project that would fill about half of a park now opposite the station.
In Petworth, development of 1.35 vacant acres above the Metro station is expected to spur improvement of several blighted sites nearby on Georgia Avenue. City housing and economic development agencies control some properties and are moving to take others. They would put the land up for bidding by developers willing to build a mix of affordable and market rate housing, shops or day-care centers or other neighborhood amenities.
Two years ago, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) proposed building a new Department of Motor Vehicles on the Metro site in an attempt to launch revitalization, much as construction of the Reeves Municipal Building did at 14th and U streets NW a decade ago.
But a combination of neighborhood opposition to the idea and a strengthening real estate market turned the city's attention to other possibilities. Last summer, officials invited developers to submit "expressions of interest" in the parcel and gleefully accepted five proposals. Most said they would build street-level retail shops beneath several floors of apartments.
The city planning office plans a series of community meetings early this year before drafting a more specific request for proposals that should be submitted to the D.C. Council for approval by spring.
Improvement cannot come quickly enough for young professionals who have arrived in Petworth in droves in recent years, seeking convenience and urban ambience more affordable there than in Shaw or Mount Pleasant.
"They're moving into the neighborhood with the expectation that the corridor is going to change, and rightly so," Ward 4 Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D) said of those arriving and renovating rowhouses on either side of Georgia Avenue.
The increasing Latino population in this part of the city is less vocal, Frazier said. But the Latino Economic Development Corporation is expanding into Petworth, following Central American immigrants moving in from neighboring Columbia Heights. They are fleeing gentrification that has pushed many rents beyond their means in their old neighborhoods.
In Brightwood, Fenty said, the Latin American Youth Center wants to launch a bilingual charter school and hopes to lease a closed public school building to house it.
In some neighborhoods, government programs fuel grass-roots improvement efforts. For example, Audrey Nwanze, co-owner with her husband of Mocha Hut, led a group of 14th Street business owners who won $80,000 in funding this year from the city's "Main Streets" program.
The money will help the merchants spruce up storefronts and streetscapes, and the program includes consultants who will assess retail and commercial possibilities for the business strip.
Other projects are purely municipal. On Kennedy Street, the Williams administration is putting a $4.6 million Senior Wellness Center into an old movie house and adjacent buildings. A new recreation center is being built in Takoma, and Emery Recreation Center at Georgia and Missouri avenues is being renovated.
A new Barnard Elementary School is under construction in Petworth and would be the first new school built in this part of the city in 30 years.
For all the change and the upbeat mood in some areas, other efforts have gone nowhere. Fenty and Williams tried in vain last year to lure a restaurateur to a long-closed Roy Rogers on Georgia Avenue. They found no one willing to spend the millions necessary to gain control of the site, where they had hoped that a family restaurant, a priority of many residents, would rise.
The site, which is under contract to become a CVS, still draws attention from the pastor and members of Emory United Methodist Church, a few blocks south.
The church's many elderly members remember the vibrant commercial scene that evaporated over the years along Georgia Avenue -- Posin's deli, Faces restaurant, clothing stores, ice cream parlors, movie houses, all closed years ago. They yearn for more shops, new restaurants or even a sidewalk bench here or there to rest on sunny days.
Emory is joining other churches in the Washington Interfaith Network to push Williams to spend more money to improve their community, and congregants are drawing up plans to specify what they want.
The Rev. Joseph Daniels said that he and his congregation will push for a restaurant on the Roy Rogers site and that they expect their government to push along with them.
Leaders of Emory Beacon of Light, a community development organization linked to the church, also have dreams for the rest of their stretch of what Daniels deferentially calls "The Avenue."
Those dreams include a bright, welcoming ice cream parlor, tentatively called Miss Georgia's; an office supply store; and a FedEx drop box. Regular, everyday businesses, Daniels said, would go a long way toward transforming a bleak neighborhood into a better place to be.
"We simply want to have a role in shaping the vision for the avenue," he said. "Why should kids have to take the 70 bus up to Silver Spring just to get some ice cream?"