They came to celebrate the good times -- when their Southeast Washington community was so tight that no one went hungry because neighbors were willing to share what little they had. They came to reflect on the bad times -- when drug trafficking turned their once-peaceful streets into a war zone and ultimately contributed to driving them all away.
But the relocated residents of the now-demolished Eastgate Gardens public housing complex mainly dropped by the eighth annual reunion picnic yesterday to catch up with old friends and dream about the day in the not-too-distant future when they will return to a rebuilt community with new homes and new rules aimed at keeping out the riffraff.
"Our vision is to rebuild Eastgate better than what it was," said Inita Jackson, president of the Eastgate Redevelopment Association. The organization, made of former Eastgate residents, fought for a federal grant to construct a new development when District housing authorities moved out the last remaining families in 2003.
Jackson sat at a picnic table at Fort Dupont Park and proudly displayed colorful drawings of a planned senior-citizen apartment building and townhouses.
"You've got to screen the people coming in -- you can't have anybody who is a seller or user of drugs," she said. "You've got to take a housekeeping course, so you can learn how to keep the place up."
Construction of the unnamed development in Marshall Heights is scheduled to begin in the fall and be completed in 2007. It is part of a U.S. Housing and Urban Development program called HOPE VI -- Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere. Located on the grounds of the old Eastgate Gardens complex, it will be bounded by F Street and Queens Stroll Place on the north, Benning Road on the west, Fitch Street on the south and 51st Street on the east.
The $76 million project will be financed by a $20 million HUD grant, as well as private and city funds. Under the program, the D.C. Housing Authority will oversee construction of about 170 units -- detached single-family houses and duplexes -- for low- and moderate-income residents. More than 100 of the units will be sold; the rest will be rented as public housing.
The development also will include a 100-unit apartment building for senior citizens. The centerpiece, residents and housing officials say, will be a new public school and a community arts center partially funded by Def Jam Recordings.
"We're committed to building better communities in Washington by redeveloping former public housing into vibrant communities for a variety of income groups," said Zachary D. Smith, a spokesman for the authority, which has completed about a half-dozen similar projects in the District.
More than 200 people gathered for yesterday's reunion picnic, listening to R&B music, eating chicken and reminiscing. Some talked about kindly gestures from neighbors, the man who took it upon himself to clean the street and a woman who regularly gave out pieces of her rosebush for others to transplant.
Daniel Walters and his wife, Linda Mahoney, who were married two months ago, recalled their childhood days at Eastgate: the Fun Wagon, a makeshift drive-in where movies, mainly Bruce Lee features, were projected onto the side of a building; talent shows featuring children and adults performing songs by the Supremes, James Brown and the Jackson Five; Boy Scouts; the championship girls' softball team; and go-go bands Legacy and Familiar Faces.
"Eastgate was a nice place to grow up," said Mahoney, 42.
Many of the 230 or so families were relocated to other public housing complexes or Section 8 housing. But Mahoney, community representative for the new development, said about 100 residents, including she and her husband, want to move back. "It's going to be even better," she said.
Lucy Johnson was at Eastgate in the beginning, in 1966, and at the end, in 2003. During those 37 years, she lived through good times and hard times that came with the drug wars. In the early days, she was known as Candy Lady for the candy apples she gave children. But in 1998, her 32-year-old son, Anthony, was shot to death during a robbery at the complex.
"My son was so well loved I found myself consoling people instead of being consoled," said Johnson, 62.
Jackson said that she, Johnson and another former resident, LaVerne Hedrick, pursued the HOPE VI funds even after being rejected initially. The group is in the process of selecting the building facades and deciding on a name for the new community.
She said she is thinking about calling it Noah's Landing, after a former slave, Noah Jones, who in the 1800s bought part of the land on which Eastgate was built.
"Noah was a gardener who used to sell his produce on Central Avenue," Jackson said. "It was quite an accomplishment for an ex-slave to purchase land. We want to give him his recognition."