An article in the Feb. 13 edition of the Extra about the neighborhoods in the District's southern tip misstated the name of Aubrey Thagard, the city's Ward 8 planner. (Published 2/20/03)
The vistas from the District's southern tip are stunning -- and so are the statistics.
Dramatic views of downtown, beyond the Anacostia and Potomac rivers. Steadily rising incomes alongside deep poverty and high school dropout rates that are among the worst in the city. Rolling parkland and forested hillsides. Persistent crime amid hundreds of new homes and apartments.
Such are the contrasts in the hilly neighborhoods of Bellevue, Washington Highlands, Congress Heights, Douglass and Shipley. Together, these five neighborhoods fill the bottom of the D.C. diamond, just east of Bolling Air Force Base.
Although the median family income in the area remains far below the city average, a growing number of mixed-income enclaves are scattered among run-down apartment complexes. A few have been there for generations. Others are made up of homes selling for up to $200,000, townhouses that go for as much as $165,000 and renovated apartments -- all built and occupied in the last five years. A new arts center is almost completed, a new supermarket is on the drawing board and planning for other major projects is underway.
The projects are stirring excitement among many residents, old and new.
They are people like Eugene DeWitt Kinlow, a consultant and neighborhood leader who ran unsuccessfully for an at-large D.C. Council seat last year. Kinlow grew up in Bellevue, on a street full of teachers and school principals. Now he and his wife are raising their two children two blocks away.
And they are people like Jacque Patterson, a Seattle native and father of two who took a job in the District's Environmental Health Administration five years ago after leaving the military. Patterson and his wife bought a new townhouse for $129,000 in Shipley Terrace, even as most of their Army buddies were house-hunting in neighboring Prince George's County.
"It's just a nice place to be," Patterson, 38, said. He is on the waiting list for one of 80 single-family houses planned for Camp Simms, a former National Guard installation nearby. "For a long time, it's been so stagnant. But people are starting to look at the community and say it just has so much potential."
The momentum is also fueling suspicion among some residents. They are frustrated by repeated delays in projects, including Camp Simms. They resent that the improvements are spurred in part by a reduction in housing for the very poor. They are aware that median household income in these neighborhoods rose about 30 percent from 1990 to 2000, and they wonder if neighborhood improvements will ultimately make the area unaffordable for them.
"There are pockets . . . who have this real distrust," said Stanley Jackson, director of the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, which is funding many of the new projects, and a Bellevue resident for 11 years. "An honest fear that they might not be participating in this revitalization."
The concern was palpable two weeks ago, when Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) visited the chapel at St. Elizabeths Hospital, a 300-acre campus that once treated more than 7,000 mental patients. St. Elizabeths, a national landmark with scores of vacant buildings, is slated for redevelopment . A new psychiatric hospital and a command center for city 911 services are already planned. City officials also envision new residences, community parks and corporate or research facilities that could employ neighborhood residents.
At the event, billed as the formal launch of a community planning process, Williams called the campus "a very, very special site . . . [with] enormous potential impact for the community." Planning Director Andrew Altman promised results. And a heckler from the crowd shouted, "Rhetoric! Pure rhetoric!"
Calvin Lockridge, a former School Board member and longtime community leader, rushed the speaker's platform, drawing the attention of Williams's security guards. Williams waved them back, and Lockridge leaned in close.
"All I want is to make sure that your department of planning isn't going to make the same mistakes that have been made before," Lockridge said.
The fear stems from the history of this part of the District, which, although it is all east of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers, is bisected by South Capitol Street and therefore includes both Southeast and Southwest Washington.
It was sparsely populated until the middle of last century, when doctors, engineers and other professionals arrived to new neighborhoods of brick houses and bungalows. Many worked at nearby Bolling Air Force Base, just across Interstate 295, or at St. Elizabeths. Some of the public housing projects now being demolished were constructed as temporary government housing during World War II. In the 1970s, thousands of poor African American families were relocated to these neighborhoods and the rest of Ward 8 to clear the way for "urban renewal" on the Southwest waterfront. Many were the children or grandchildren of an earlier generation of families moved to Southwest from Georgetown, Foggy Bottom and Dupont Circle, to clear those neighborhoods for affluent whites.
Nearly all white families left the southern tip, and in the 1980s and 1990s, as city services faltered , most middle-class black families followed suit. Jobs dried up, as shops and restaurants closed and St. Elizabeths transferred most patients to group homes or outpatient treatment throughout the city.
The mass transfers of poor people to public housing stigmatized District neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River as a dumping ground. Those who lived there often assumed they would be treated poorly , said George Brown, vice president of the Far Southwest-Southeast Community Development Corp. "The perception was, you cross the river, the doors close," he said.
As a result, perhaps, the bond among residents within these neighborhoods is visible. In recent years, proposals to build a trash transfer station or a new city jail at D.C. Village, a former juvenile facility that now houses homeless families, were defeated by neighborhood opposition.
Both homeowners and renters have expressed concern at community meetings about how the hot real estate market will affect housing options for the poor. "Over here, there's a thought that we're all in it together," Kinlow said. "There's no us versus them."
Like other financially struggling areas of the city, the neighborhoods in the southern tip suffer from a lack of retail shopping. Martin Luther King Avenue, across from the gated east campus entrance of St. Elizabeths, today offers little more than a barbershop, a convenience store, a discount general store and the Player's Lounge, a local and political watering hole. There is no dry cleaner, drugstore or hardware store, no place to sit down with a cup of coffee. The gaps remind Avery Thagard, the city planner assigned to Ward 8, of the mouth of an old man who has spent a lifetime without good dental care. "It's like missing teeth," he said. "We've got to find a way to fill these gaps with the type of neighborhood conveniences that other communities take for granted."
Ward 8 council member Sandy Allen (D) recalls growing up in the neighborhood and watching Martin Luther King Avenue overflow with pedestrian and auto traffic at 4 p.m. as hundreds of hospital workers left the grounds. "We need to make sure that we bring life back" to the hospital grounds, she said.
At first glance, improvements seem close. The city is in the final stages of negotiating an agreement with a private developer to build a Giant Food supermarket and other shops at Camp Simms, in addition to the new homes. But redevelopment of Camp Simms has been delayed so many times that some in the neighborhood believe it will never happen.
Although officials said the project would be completed by the end of 2003, work on the site has yet to start. Jackson, of the Department of Housing and Community Development, says he knows the public won't wait much longer. "We gotta turn dirt and start making things happen," he said. "By this summer, we've gotta see bulldozers out there."
Across Alabama Avenue, the bulldozers have already demolished the Frederick Douglass homes, a World War II-era housing project that the government deemed uninhabitable in 1998. It and the neighboring Stanton Dwellings complex are being razed and rebuilt as a mixed-income townhouse and apartment development called Henson Ridge.
Opponents decry the reduction in the number of public housing units for the very poor, from 650 in the two apartment complexes to somewhere between 70 and 140 in Henson Ridge. They say the new community will not benefit most former residents, the majority of whom have been relocated to other public housing.
For blocks around the future Henson Ridge, which eventually will include about 530 townhouses, the residential real estate market is booming. Apartments have been renovated, new townhouses and single-family houses have been built as developers and banks saw a new market for relatively low-priced homes inside city limits.
Their customers included District residents and newcomers from Prince George's County and other suburbs. Few had children, so the struggling schools weren't considered a major problem."It's the best value in the Washington area," said Chris B. Lopiano, a senior vice president for community development at Bank of America, which has invested in many residential projects in Ward 8.
Marilyn Davis, 42, said there is far less crime in her new neighborhood of Oxon Creek townhouses, at 19th Street and Mississippi Avenue SE, than the apartment complex where she rented for years. Most of her neighbors send their children to private or charter schools, or to public schools across town, just like she does. Like her, they also take advantage of the free shuttle bus to the Metro station and the water park in a nearby, recently renovated apartment complex.
Other projects offer increasing options for leisure activity. The Southeast Tennis and Learning Center opened two years ago on Mississippi Avenue. Construction is almost done on a center housing a nonprofit that works with at-risk youths, outposts for the Washington Ballet, Children's Hospital and the Levine School of Music, and more.
At the request of community leaders, plans to redevelop the long-vacant Congress Heights school will focus on vocational education. Plans for an empty commercial building and a boarded-up theater at South Capitol and Atlantic streets call for offices and community-based retail that could lead to jobs and business opportunities for residents.
After-school programs at the site will be run by Lydia's House, a nonprofit affiliated with the Living Word Church, which started in Bellevue and Washington Highlands nearly 10 years ago with the goal of ministering to the poorest members of those communities.
Pastor Eugene Sheppard and his wife, Patrice, said the development boom has made them all the more determined to offer social services to the families that they serve. They have moved into the community and have bought and rehabilitated several apartments and homes as transitional housing for their members.
"We take responsibility for who's here," Patrice Sheppard said, "in preparing them for what's to come."