Three years ago, if someone asked me where I lived, I would reply "Mount Vernon Square" and get a blank stare. Then I would hint " . . . near Fifth and M Streets Northwest." Inevitably they would wrinkle their forehead and repeat what I said as though it were a mantra: "Fifth and M . . . Fifth and M . . . "
Today I mention that I live a couple of blocks east of the new Convention Center and people think I'm some kind of real estate genius.
Mount Vernon Square sits on the southeastern border of the Shaw neighborhood. It is a couple of blocks north of MCI Center in Chinatown and extends roughly from Seventh Street to First Street NW and from New York Avenue north to N Street. It includes a historic district with small and large homes built mostly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many churches, garden apartments, loft condominiums, a handful of stores and restaurants, and the Mount Vernon Square Metro station, where the subway trains whisk me straight to Reagan National Airport for trips around the country.
I was born in D.C., as was my father, but I drifted out to the suburbs. When I moved back about three years ago, I found a neighborhood in the warm heart of D.C. and much more.
On a typical weekend morning during the growing seasons, the time I spend gardening in the front yard doubles, thanks to the endless parade of people who stop to chat. A resident of a nearby homeless shelter comes by occasionally to ask for a rose. Neighbors and churchgoers comment on the progress of my garden.
On one such morning, Gene Cope updated me on recent house sales east of New Jersey Avenue and the city planning developments for the Third Street tunnel intersection. Lydia Goring, our Advisory Neighborhood Commission representative, talked about organizing a committee to lobby for the type of grocery store we wanted on the Wax Museum development site across New York Avenue. Bill Poulos, whose partner, Jim Kronzer, was working all weekend, stopped by to find out when we were getting together for a movie later that day. Patrick Hylton stopped by in his car just to say hi.
Jim, a few weeks earlier, had dropped what he was doing to take me and my cat to Friendship Animal Hospital late one night. He gave me a shoulder to cry on as I went through the heart-wrenching process of putting my best friend to sleep. Jim is among the neighbors too numerous to mention who will help me out when my car won't start, when I need help carrying something upstairs or when I need to borrow a special tool.
For more than three decades after the riots of the '60s, this neighborhood was known for vacant, run-down houses, drugs and crime. Many residents fled for the suburbs. However, many stayed, such as Crusader Scott, who planted flowers in tree boxes during some of the neighborhood's worst times and is renowned for her sweet potato pie. Then there are those who moved here during the last three or four decades, including Julia Shepherd and George and Maggie Limehouse, who all raised great children here; Tim Downey, past and current president of the Mount Vernon Square Neighborhood Association, and his partner Peter Easley, who worked hard to get the new Kennedy Playground Recreation Center built; and Lydia, who, armed with her orange hat and megaphone, made it difficult for drug dealers to conduct business on the street.
We like to celebrate together, and we eat and drink well. In the last year or so, there was Lydia's Caribbean birthday bash, at the corner mansion she is renovating with her husband, Keith Byrd, and Steve Stanton and Durwood Dixon's reception for a neighborhood artist, who is a recent graduate of the Ellington School of the Arts. There have been more dinners than I can count at Jim and Bill's spacious loft, Tim and Peter's historic townhouse, Raquel and Miguel Bretos's backyard deck, or Robert Mahaffey's and Richard Kendall's elegant condo. We joke about how many neighbors are ready, willing and able to help me finish the leftovers from my dinner parties.
It is not unusual to meet neighbors and walk over to A-V's, a longtime family-style Italian restaurant on New York Avenue. After one of our flea markets, where Winnie Hylton and Rod Blair served up Jamaican jerk chicken, several of us capped off the day with a Moroccan feast at Marrakesh, which is next door to A-V's.
Now that the convention center is open, Seventh Street's cleaner sidewalks and lighting make it a safer and more pleasant experience to walk downtown for a play at the Shakespeare Theater, a movie at the E Street Cinema or for meals in the Penn Quarter restaurant district. Soon to come are the Woolly Mammoth Theater as well as more movie theaters and a bookstore near MCI Center.
The National Gallery of Art, where I work, and the Smithsonian Mall museums are only nine blocks away, but the City Museum, Bead Museum, International Spy Museum, Marian Koshland Science Museum and numerous art galleries are closer. The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum, across from MCI Center, will reopen in two years. The convention center has an impressive art collection, and across Seventh Street the Warehouse Cafe offers an intriguing mix of art, food, drink and theatrical performances, managed by the locally renowned Ruppert family.
I was asked to be president of the Mount Vernon Square Neighborhood Association only five months after I moved here, and I served for two years. It was a lot of work, but I was constantly buoyed by the intense civic activism of the citizens of Shaw and the dedication of some, if not all, D.C. government staff and elected officials.
Many of my neighbors and I would like our high taxes to be spent wisely to improve the public schools, and we would really like to see police officers on foot, though there are many who work tirelessly, such as the drug and prostitution patrols and Lt. Michael Smith, who lives in our neighborhood.
The fire department on N Street is quick to respond. Our trash and recycling get picked up like clockwork, with rare exceptions. Vacant properties are getting renovated at a faster pace. Most of us want to preserve a diverse community with a mix of housing that accommodates various income levels.
None of us moved here to live in an ivory tower; we like the urban mix of people, sights, and sounds. We like being downtown.
As I write this, I am sitting in my backyard garden, amused by one of my cats stalking squirrels in the dogwood tree. The brilliant sounds of the band rehearsing in front of the House of Prayer blend with the fainter strains of a mosque's melodious call to prayer. Children are playfully screaming over on Ridge Street, and the aromas of dinner wafting from neighbors' kitchens whet my appetite.
Deborah Ziska travels around the world when she is not enjoying life in the Mount Vernon Square area.