Fifty years ago, when James Banks was growing up in Barrys Farm, a section of southeast Washington between Morris Road and what is now Suitland Parkway, that part of the city - officially named Hillsdale because of the terrain - was still rural.

"There were dirt roads and a street-car down Nichols Avenue," recalled Banks, a former D.C. housing official who is now vice president of the Washington Board of Realtors. "People had large plots of land with gardens, pigs, cows and horses. Everyone knew everyone else. It was a small town."

World War II housing shortages brought an end to far southeast's bucolic times, however.

That whole area of the city east of the Anacostia River was zoned to facilitate apartment construction. The gardens were plowed under and undistinguished "garden" apartments were built in their place. Within a few years, equally dreary public housing projects filled in much of the vacant land until far southeast became known as a dumping ground for low-income apartments.

Today, the dumping ground is undergoing a determined, if slow, turnaround. In recent years, private developers, the District government, and several financial institutions have put money into rehabilitation and improvement efforts in the area. Although it is not the concerted and controlled effort of urban renewal, which remade southwest Washington, change is apparent.

In the West Highland area on Wheeler Road SE, abandoned and burned apartments have been weeded out; new town houses and rowhouses with patios, yards and parking spaces have taken their place.

"We have had an upsurge in construction in far southeast," banks said. "As many town houses and homes have been built in the last three to four years as had been built in the prior 20."

The new, privately built housing - including some semi-detached houses Banks had a hand a - sells for $40,000 to $55,000 a unit.

On the High Point-Barnaby tract between Southern and Alabama avenues, for instance, 150 contemporary town houses, built by Seidel Associates, have replaced and old low-income housing project. At Massachusetts Avenue and 42nd Street, 43 town houses have been built by Gildar Construction Co. in a project called Fort Dupont Woods.

At Least 300 more town houses are planned or built at such sites as 24th and wagner streets, Young Street, Naylor Road at Fairlawn Avenue, Naylor and Alabama Avenue and Southern Avenue and 12th Street.

Developer William Cafritz has applied for zoning to build 150 town houses and apartment house for the elderly on the 11-acre Wilburn tract at Martin Luther King Avenue and 4th Street. The property was formerly used for Air Force housing.

In historic Union Town or Anascostia, the neighborhood between Good HOpe Road and Martin Luther King Avenue, the National Housing Service, a private, non-profit corporation, is helping low-and moderate-income residents finance what James W. Lowell, director of NHs calls "sympathetic rehabilitation." Within the last two years, 50 to 60 of the 2,000 houses in the area have been rehabilitated, in part with special help from local banks and savings and loan associations.

People buying new or existing houses in southeast tend to be residents of the area who want to stay there, according to Jim Banks.

"People are willing to live in southeast who have an option," he said. "They have the means to buy elsewhere."

Cafritz, who plans to break ground on the Wilburn tract - his third project in Southeast - this spring, said sales at the first two developments have been "satisfactory."

"Some areas (in the city) sell faster, some slower; this is typical," he said. "We aren't unhappy and we aren't sold out."

Town house development in far southeast has been stimulated by a zoning moratorium on garden apartments, suggested by Banks in 1970 when he was the mayor's assistant for housing programs. Since then, the District has spent $85 million for new schools, recreation facilities, libraries, road widening and other improvements in the section.

"There had been 20 years of neglect in far southeast, said Terry Pell, chief of the city's capital improvements division. "We hoped that by improving the area, more building would take place, and now that seems to have happened."

What zoning changes, government housing officials, private developers and residents have not been able to solve, however, is the problem of inadequate commercial services in the area.

"One-third or more of the people in far southeast do their shopping in Prince George's County, which is unfortunate in terms of taxes and jobs lost," Banks said.

J. Kirkwood White, assistant director for zoning and planning in the Municipal Planning Office, said the city has been "trying to get a supermarket, but store and shopping center going but no big chains will come forward." Retailers were worried about the economic health of the area after the 1968 riots, he said, but are "just becoming aware of the incomes of people there." Now, he said, business attitudes are beginning to change. He said Safeway Stores has recently expressed an interest in "getting involved in far southeast."

"The housing is going well," White said, "and the commercial is likely to follow, but not immediately until retailers see an improved market. It's a real shortcoming - people are shopping in Maryland, and we don't want to see that continue. Commercial services for the area are our priority right now."

White said his office is helping stores collect marketing information, is setting up meetings between community groups and the retailers and is providing information on available land.

The active homeowner and civic associations in far southeast have been concerned about the lack of commercial development, but they are even more worried about where it will go, according to D.C. Councilwoman Wilhemina Rolark, who represents that sector of the city.

"We don't want residential area impacted by commercial sites because that would demean it," she says.

Rolark said she has been frustrated by the piecemeal action she and the residents were forced to take concerning development in Ward 8. The city's planning office, she said, had not developed a land use plan, so the residents had to study each zoning case as it came up. "That takes too much work," she said. "We need a system."

Rolark also pointed out that much of the future of the area is contingent on the federal government.

"Nearly 50 per cent of (the Department of) Housing and Urban Development's foreclosed property in the District is in far southeast and they are just sitting on it," she said. "Nothing's happening."

The presence of active civic and ahomeowner groups is seen as a positive indication that the turnaround that is underway may be gathering momentum.

"Town houses owned by individual families stabilize a population," Bank points out. "People who but carry on civic responsibility; they have an investment to protect.Renters, if it gets tough, move.

"But the problems of far southeast are many and more than other sections of the city. There's great unemployment, high crime, and 50 per cent of the city's public housing is east of the Anascostia. If the building and single-family buying continues though, it turn this area around." CAPTION: Picture 1, The William Cafritz Development Corp., is finising 31 town houses, priced from $49,500 to $53,000, in the Granada South development at Southern Avenue and 12th Street SE. The firm completed an additional section of town houses nearby last year. Cafritz also plans to build 150 town houses and a high-rise for the elderly on a former Air Force housing tract in southeast.; Picture 2, Fort Dupont Woods town houses, at Massachusetts Avenue and 42d Street SE, were built by Gildar Construction Co. Prices range up to $55,000, the highest currently being asked for new town houses in far southeast Washington., Photos by Ken Feil - The Washington Post; Picture 3, Bordering southeast is the new Hillcrest Towne, developed by Savage-Fogarty, on Oxon Run Parkway near Southern Avenue in Hillcrest Heights.; Picture 4, New town houses at Skyland Park, left, are tucked in between single-family houses built earlier at 24th and Wagner streets SE by developer Robert Blitz., Photos by Ken Feil - The Washington Post