For the better part of four decades, the Marbury Plaza apartment complex stood as an oasis of security and affluence amid some of the more troubled streets of Southeast Washington.
With amenities rarely found east of the Anacostia River, the building attracted some of the brightest and best of black Washington, those who wanted to live and play in upper-middle-class surroundings. The high-rise buildings in the 2300 block of Good Hope Road, which offered grand views of the cityscape, became a must-stop on any political candidate's trail east of the Anacostia River. Longtime residents also recall the days, about 30 years ago, when singer Isaac Hayes had an apartment here and threw parties in the community room.
But in recent years, as the surrounding area has become increasingly attractive with the city's surge in development, Marbury Plaza residents have seen their sanctuary slip. Gone are the dry cleaners and fitness center. Now tenants complain of faulty pipes, backlogged maintenance requests and their biggest concern, security lapses.
Some surveillance cameras are missing, and residents and their D.C. Council member complain that private security guards walked off the job for lack of payment last month. A convenience store in the building was robbed in recent months, as was a tenant as she left an elevator.
In this deteriorating climate, two forces seem to impinge on Marbury's residents from the adjoining neighborhood: a nearby criminal element and the ever-expanding development boom that is pressing affordable housing out of the District.
"This was the place to be. Now it's the place to get out of," said L. Yvonne Moore, a Marbury Plaza resident since 1981 and an advisory neighborhood commissioner.
The Lightstone Group, which manages the property, responded with a statement that said it "has been managing this property for a matter of weeks. Certain concerns from residents have been brought to our attention, and we are in the process of working on several remedies."
The 40-year-old complex, situated on a hillside just east of the Anacostia, features 672 apartment units in two high-rise buildings, along with a series of garden-style structures. On clear nights, the complex's high-rise apartments offer vast views, from Washington National Cathedral to the Anacostia bridges -- including the Capitol and the monuments -- and across the Potomac River to the Virginia skyline.
Residents say they love the location, with close access to Metro and major commuter arteries. And those advantages lead some residents to wonder whether capitalistic motives may be part of a plan to allow the property to deteriorate and drive out longtime renters, in favor of a higher-paying clientele.
"We know it's prime real estate," said Kevin Jayson, a five-year resident who serves on the resident board.
Nathan Weldler, regional manager for A&A Marbury LLC, a partnership based in Brooklyn, N.Y., that purchased the complex in April 2004, said there are no plans to force tenants out. "Nothing could be further from the truth," he said in a telephone interview last week. "Ownership is committed to putting money into the building" for current renters.
The flashpoint of discontent for many residents came, literally, on Jan. 11, when a second-floor laundry exploded. It killed a 2-year-old girl and her mother and injured 19 others. D.C. fire investigators believe the explosion was caused by thieves pulling laundry equipment from natural gas lines in an attempt to steal coins, said spokesman Alan Etter. As a result, the laundry rooms on all 11 floors of one high-rise have been barricaded with plywood.
The event galvanized a handful of renters to form a tenant association.
"Immediately after the fire, we had everybody's attention, but life goes on, and everybody's attention span wanes," said Connie Smith, the resident association president.
Three management companies and at least that many security companies have been in charge this year, said residents and D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), who has helped guide residents to get organized and pushed ownership and management for improvements.
A late evening tour of the complex last month revealed unmanned front desks, where residents' mail and, in some instances, keys were left unsecured. The plexiglass front-desk windows were easily slid open, providing access to those items.
Water spots from the explosion stain hallway carpets, and other carpets show damage from leaky ceilings. Security camera wells were empty, and the cameras that did work had no one monitoring them at the front desks.
Residents said stairwell and fire doors often are propped open and garage doors often are left unlocked or are broken. Such inadequacies allow fear of crime to wash into residents' minds as quickly as water from leaky pipes. The second floor, where the explosion occurred, remains unoccupied but accessible, and residents fear it could be occupied by vagrants, addicts, drug dealers or worse.
"You've got a lot of areas of that building that can be havens for illegal activity," Gray said. "Security has to be a function of management. I think it's at the top of the list of priorities."
Just outside Marbury Plaza's doorstep is a busy district for crime, with drug activity, prostitution, car theft and sporadic violence. So far, however, relatively little criminal activity has found its way into Marbury Plaza, despite the thefts and residents' fears.
D.C. police recorded 21 crimes there during the first nine months of the year, said Inspector Alton Bigelow of the 6th Police District. "They don't have a whole lot of crime. Anytime they need us, they'll call us," Bigelow said. "They need a good security company."
For security, management has hired the citizen watch group Guardian Angels, known for sweeping into drug-infested neighborhoods, as guards.
Led by John Ayala, the Angels' D.C. area coordinator, the group has filled the security void for the past several weeks, after the last company quit.
Dressed in the familiar red beret, white Guardian Angels T-shirt and combat-fatigue pants, Ayala attended a resident meeting last month with folks who questioned the Angels' qualifications, abilities and even their dress code.
The residents' safety committee is "very serious on behalf of this community about public safety," said Lester Smith, a member of the committee.
Ayala said the Angels offer a visible deterrent to criminals and can be in close contact with police during emergencies. He said that guards would work the high-rise front desks from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., and that other guards would patrol the grounds nightly. The Angels plan to become certified as a licensed security company, a status important to residents.
The problems management had paying the previous security company have led Jayson, the resident board member, to worry if other bills will be paid or if promised renovations will be completed. "This winter is really scary. We don't know if we're going to have heat, lights or water," he said. But despite complaints of leaky pipes and ventilation problems, city inspectors have found no building code violations, said Smith, the resident association president.
A statement released by the New Jersey-based Lightstone Group, which also is part-owner of the Marbury, said management hired "a new, experienced manager," along with a superintendent and maintenance team. It said the company also has started working on a $1 million renovation of the second floor and set aside money to finalize other renovation projects.
"While we cannot control the past, we are committed to a better future for the residents of Marbury Plaza," the statement said.
Weldler said a maintenance team is in the process of inspecting every apartment and making repairs as they are identified.
But the resident association does not trust management to fulfill its promises without pressure. Members took that message to the streets this month, with a protest rally outside the building.
Signs read: "No Laundry Rooms since January -- Stop Playin" and "Safety is Not a Luxury."
Paula McMillian held a protest placard as she stood on the sidewalk with a dozen or so other residents. She wants better results for her $950-per-month rent.
She blames a faulty air-conditioning unit for her older sister's asthmatic symptoms and the hospitalization of her 13-month-old grandson Isiah, both problems that occurred in the year since she moved into her two-bedroom apartment. Isiah has "had respiratory problems, and he's been in the hospital twice," McMillian said.
Her son Steve Hilliard, 27, carries around pictures of moldy, filthy air ducts on his cell phone. And McMillian said that no matter how much she cleans the unit, mold and bacteria return.
"I clean it with Clorox -- about a week later it's green again," McMillian said of the air conditioner.
Council member Gray said that he believes the best solution would be for residents to band together to buy the building but that such an effort failed this year.
Though the performance of building management has slipped in recent years, Moore, the advisory neighborhood commissioner, said residents also don't take the same pride in their building as they once did. Gone are the floor captains and the men who would volunteer to escort women to their cars.
"In the '80s you could eat off the floor of Marbury Plaza. Now you can't even look at it," Moore said. "Maybe management is responding to us on our level."
She recalls the times when Marbury Plaza drew the elite of black Washington and beyond -- days that seem long gone.
"You should see us put our chains up on our door, before it gets dark," Moore said.