Hold a mirror to Washington east of the Anacostia River and its many faces are reflected back from the 4200 block of Foote Street NE.
Foote Street is Charlie Kemp, who sleeps under a stairway and carries his possessions in two brown paper bags; Patricia Watkins and her six children sandwiched into a one-bedroom apartment; and Mary L. Dixon, who props up the bathroom ceiling in her $90-a-month apartment with a wooden beam.
It is also Frances Fuller and Minnie Friday, hoping that the 16 vandalized apartment hulls on the block will be renovated so the value of their homes -- the only investment of their lives -- will increase. And it is people for whom renovation would mean monthly rents upped from $72 a month to figures that a welfare check or a janitor's wage could not reach.
Foote Street is also absentee landlord Maureen Bunyan, WDVM-TV newscaster, who is counting on the nearby Benning Road and East Capitol Street subway station boosting the value of her building, which she last visited in December. "I have a property manager who take cares of the property," she said. "He doesn't tell me the appearance of the block."
The forces being brought to bear on this far east Washington block are typical of hundreds of streets east of the river suffering from a clashing collection of apartments and homes. And it shares with streets on both sides of the river Washington's most crucial housing problem -- removal of poor tenants from apartment buildings to make way for single-family home ownership.
The block is one of the latest of a series of streets to see its poorer renters eased out of old, shabby apartments about to be renovated for profit. Downtown tenants often live in large buildings and can organize to protest their uprooting. But across the river, a modest rent buys an apartment in a duplex attached on one side to another building and bordered on the other by a full yard. The inexpensive space and the privacy are nice, but they leave few angry residents to organize against their eviction as they are quietly removed one by one.
Pass around a snapshot of Foote Street, 4200 block, and the people who own and live in its 36 buildings see a very different road.
Minnie Friday, for instance, can stand in her fenced front yard at 4235 Foote St. and look equal distances to well-kept frame houses owned by those who live in them and dilapidated brick apartment buildings whose main attraction is their cheap rent. In the homes she sees stability; in the apartments she sees decay.
Foote St, where Friday, 51, has lived 16 years, begins at 42nd Street with 20 paired duplex apartment buildings that line both sides of the street. They stop abruptly about halfway down the block, where the houses, small one- and two-story frame or brick homes dating from the 1920's and two apartment buildings built about 25 years ago, begin. Foote Street then slopes gently down to 44th Street, where the block is anchored by two modern apartment buildings.
It is Friday's street, and two years ago, she organized a block club to pressure the city to pick up trash strewn along it and behind the buildings and to force the street's absentee landlords to board up the shattered windows and broken doors of their vacant buildings, which have attracted vandals and arsonists.
The rumor is that these empty buildings are to be renovated and sold as single-family homes, which Friday says will bring in new residents who take care of their buildings, clean up their yards, repair their broken fences.
The decaying apartments of Foote Street were not always ramshackle. When they first went up in 1942 and 1943 they were beautiful. Each had large windows, small but bright and clean rooms, and adjoining yards. They bloomed with roses in the spring and brought air and light to the street, and exercise to the children of the young black couples who first moved into them.
Washington had a housing shortage in 1943 and, for blacks, who could live in certain sections of the city, it was severe. But as these young black families socked away savings and as the suburbs and the segregated areas of the city opened to blacks, they moved away from Foote Street. The buildings aged, people with less money moved in, landlord maintenance diminished -- the interlocking chain of decline began.
"When they first went up, they were lovely, but now it is a ghetto," said Frances Fuller, 70, who has lived in her white frame home at 4252 Foote St. since 1928, when she and her husband were a young couple. She will not even walk or drive past the apartments today.
"We tried to keep the property up, but the people at the end don't care," she said. "The just drop beer cans, bottles. They should be made to keep the places up."
Yet, in one of those apartment, behind a small front yard eroded into deep, grassless gullies, Patricia Watkins, 36, living on public assistance, was overjoyed four years ago to find an apartment -- any apartment, even one on Foote Street. She and her six children had been the victims of the forces just now coming to her new home: Their apartment was converted to a house.
"I had to wait six years to get into public housing, but then I figured I'd make better progress doing for myself," she said, as her children played in the yard that had once made her 4217 Foote St. apartment so desirable. As if crossing a bridge, they scampered back and forth over a heavy green door ripped from one of the several apartments surrounding their building.
"You can't find anything else," she said, watching them.
Over the past three years she has watched her neighbors, including her sister, leave the buildings that now stand wrecked and empty. She has no idea where she would go if forced to moved again, should Minnie Friday's dream of homes owned by their inhabitants come true.
Across and up the street at 4244 Foote St., Marie Harrison, 69, picks up the trash around the buildings where she has lived for 25 years. She is a widow who lives on a social security check and her earnings as a part-time maid. Her apartment building is a matching bookend of those across the street.
Inside her one-bedroom apartment, two pieces of carboard plug up the hole in the bathroom ceiling, where the plaster has crashed to the floor. Buckets she has put in the vacant upstairs apartment caught most of the water leaking in through the roof, which have kept it from staining the walls and ceiling. The roof was repaired a few weeks ago, but the buckets remain just in case. Marie Harrison is afraid to flick on the living room ceiling light. Her landlord told her the wires are probably wet from all the leaks.
"It's cheap rent," she said. "You can't get a place anywhere else for $72."
And that, say some of Foote Street's absentee landlords, is exactly the problem. Two-thirds of the street's houses and apartments are owned by landlords, who live far away from Foote Street on cleaner, wider and safer streets in other parts of the city or the suburbs. Rental property often is a good investment that can not only increase in value but also give the owner various tax advantages. Maureen Bunyan, a well-known television news broadcaster, paid $32,500 in 1979 for the small one-story cinder-block house at 4259 Foote St. She rents it out; the house is an investment she believes will increase in value with the recent opening of the Benning Road subway station.
Conway Jones, an insurance agent, is another absentee landlord on Foote Street. He owns 4212 Foote Street, where Charlie Kemp lives under the basement stairs. The low rents in his buildings, $95 to $110, prevent him from fixing broken windows, replacing the sheet of plywood that serves as the front door and generally fixing up the six-unit building, he said.
The block's biggest absentee owners are Sally and Aaron Riskin of Bethesda. They bought 10 of Foote Street's buildings in 1956 under their business name of Caryn Realty.
Marie Harrison with her leaking roof and Mary L. Dixon with her ceiling propped up with a beam are among their tenants.
Sally Riskin said she and her husband are trying to sell their buildings. She blamed the city's rent control law and destructive tenants for the dilapidated conditions.
It has been years, but there was a time when people on the 4200 block of Foote Street knew one another, took up collections to help out families when a father or mother died. There is none of that today. People on the street neither know nor talk to each other. There is too much change. Too much to expalain. Too much blame to be placed.
Sally Riskin blames her tenants. Her tenants blame Sally and Aaron Riskin. Minnie Friday blames people who have no pride in their homes. Marie Harrison blames bad landlords and bad tenants alike.
But Patricia Watkins blames no one, worrying instead about getting by and about which of the other Foote Streets she and her children will move to next.