Blue and pink balloons flutter at the entrance to the newly opened condominium and rental complex. A few blocks away, a developer shows renderings of lofts that will have bay windows, fireplaces and Jacuzzis. Community leaders envision a main commercial strip with shoppers wandering in and out of boutiques and couples sipping wine at outdoor cafes.
At a time when development is transforming neighborhoods across the region, signs of a changing landscape have become almost commonplace. But this is in the center of Suitland, less than five miles past the Maryland line in Prince George's County, where violence remains a persistent part of daily life and where liquor stores, pawnshops and dilapidated housing have long defined the vista.
It is a neighborhood where Alberto Chavez, 33, a carpenter from Arlington, and his wife, Lorena Chavez , 31, an office manager, have chosen to invest because it is one place they could afford to buy their first home. The Chavezes bought a $170,000 apartment at Windsor Crossing, a new complex of condominium and subsidized rental units built where one of Suitland's most blighted housing complexes stood until its demolition several years ago.
"They said I was crazy," Chavez said, chuckling as he recalled friends' warnings of drug dealers and shootings.
For more than 20 years, Suitland has been separated by a forbidding fence that dominates the community's major intersection, at Suitland and Silver Hill roads. Inside the fence is the sprawling Suitland Federal Center, where thousands of employees work at the Census Bureau and other agencies. Outside is a forlorn commercial strip, where "Stop Foreclosure" signs, advertising help fending off creditors, are tacked to utility poles and merchants operate behind tinted windows and locked doors. In September, a florist and her assistant were shot to death during a morning robbery in the florist's shop on Suitland Road, across the street from the Federal Center.
But Prince George's leaders say Suitland is inching toward transformation. The most recent evidence, they say, is the completion of Windsor Crossing, the first new multifamily apartment complex in the town's center in recent memory. Its 95 condominium units sold out within three months of going on sale, even before construction was completed. New headquarters are planned for the Census Bureau and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the county is building an elementary school on Homer Avenue.
Prince George's officials also have begun demolishing Suitland Manor, a 33-acre complex of barracks-style apartments, and they hope to enlist a developer to build an $80 million mix of single-family houses, condominium apartments and rentals. "We want downtown urban chic. We want a 14th and U feel. We want Old Town, Alexandria," said Sylvia Quinton, executive director of the Suitland Family and Life Development Corp., a nonprofit organization.
Yet talk of a new Suitland meets with skepticism among merchants and residents, who say county leaders have promised change for years. Crime remains a problem: On two mornings in March, Census Bureau employees arrived at work to find bullet fragments lodged in a filing cabinet and a wall, apparently from gunfire on the other side of the fence. Last week, a woman sitting at her kitchen table in Suitland Manor in the early evening was struck by a stray bullet.
And this past weekend, an 18-year-old high school senior died after he was beaten by a group of young men and left on Silver Hill Road, where two cars ran him over.
"We have suffered so long, the pain is so great, we're almost numb," Elsie Jacobs, leader of the Suitland Civic Association, among the most tenacious proponents for reviving the area, told a community group recently.
The prospect of change also has caused concern among the residents remaining at Suitland Manor, where a few two-story buildings are now piles of rubble and barren streets are sometimes littered with mattresses, television sets and sofas left behind by families already relocated by the county.
Florence Rye, 84, has lived at Suitland Manor since 1971. She moved in when it was a complex of mostly working-class families. Her friends have died or moved away, and she waits alone to learn her future. "I'm too old to pack and haul everything away," she said, an unlit Winston between her fingers as she sat in her kitchen after returning from her job as a hostess at a McDonald's.
There's little nostalgia for Suitland Manor among community leaders, who describe it as a nest of criminal activity and blight. Quinton recently led a tour of mostly white urban planning students, some of whom asked where the complex's displaced residents would go. "I said, 'Hopefully they'll go to your neighborhood,' " Quinton said, laughing at the memory.
The opening of Suitland's Metro station in 2001, Quinton said, made the area an option for young professionals who cannot afford a home in the District. She told the planning students that she hopes they will move to Suitland.
The change percolating in Suitland is an example of what is occurring in inner suburbs across the country, such as Silver Spring and Pasadena, Calif., said Michael Beyard, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, a District-based not-for-profit research group. As development ripples outward from cities, people seeking modestly priced housing without a lengthy commute are gravitating to older, close-in suburbs. "The interest in urban revitalization has spread to suburban renewal," Beyard said.
But Suitland faces unusual hurdles, Beyard said. Inner suburbs that are revitalized tend to be spokes on a geographic hub of upscale development. Silver Spring, for example, is close to Bethesda, a center of commercial and residential growth, he said, and redevelopment has still taken a long time. Reversing years of decline, he said, is an arduous process.
Once a farming community, Suitland was named for Col. Samuel Taylor Suit, an entrepreneur who bought 800 acres after the Civil War and built a mansion where he entertained luminaries such as President Ulysses S. Grant. The Census Bureau moved from the District to new headquarters on the property in 1942, a migration that brought federal workers to Suitland's garden-style apartments and modest brick houses. Through the 1970s, census workers packed restaurants along Suitland Road such as Dino's, the China Sea and the Cedar Hill Inn.
"It was a middle-class neighborhood," said Darlene Gray, former president of the Suitland Business Association, whose family owned the inn for decades until selling it in 2000. "People who worked on the complex lived in the area. Business thrived. It worked."
Suitland, an integrated community, began to change in the 1970s as Prince George's underwent a demographic shift, with whites leaving for outlying counties and blacks moving in from the District. Census employees left their apartments for first homes in other areas and were replaced by other families, often poorer and headed by a single parent.
A turning point for many merchants came in 1983, when a chain-link fence topped by razor wire was erected around the federal complex to thwart car thieves. Over time, workers stopped leaving the complex, in part because it was inconvenient to walk around the fence and in part because they grew wary of a commercial strip where panhandlers and drug dealers loitered. "When you have a cyclone of barbed wire, you have a prison, a concentration camp. It's a place you don't want to be," Gray said.
A plan to revive Suitland was conceived in the mid-1990s by then-County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) as part of a broader program to boost older communities inside the Capital Beltway. In 1997, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development turned over Manchester Square, a notorious housing complex, to the county. It is now the site of Windsor Crossing, a $45 million project built by a private developer, Stavrou Associates, in partnership with Prince George's.
Community leaders won a second, albeit cosmetic, victory when the chain-link fence surrounding the federal center was replaced in 1999 with a wrought-iron version.
Now the administration of County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) is focused on acquiring the remaining units at Suitland Manor. Tommy Thompson, executive director of the county's Redevelopment Authority, which is overseeing the project, said the complex will be empty and ready for a developer by next spring.
But it's unclear how the county will meet that timetable. Prince George's has spent nearly $10 million to buy 56 buildings at the complex. It has $2.4 million to purchase the remaining 84 properties, which are divided among many private owners. Jim Keary, a county spokesman, said Prince George's has "other possible sources of funds, if necessary." He declined to elaborate, citing continuing negotiations.
As part of the celebration of Windsor Crossing's opening, community leaders plan to reroute the annual summer parade from Suitland Manor to the complex, which includes a 6,500-square-foot community center and an outdoor swimming pool.
Alberto and Lorena Chavez said they expect to attend the festivities with their two young children. Alberto Chavez grew up in Arlington, and he wanted to stay there. He and his wife never imagined moving to a condo in Suitland with a sprawling living room and a fireplace.
But here they are.
"I still can't believe it," Lorena Chavez said, smiling as she wrapped an arm around a pillar outside their freshly painted front door.