On the narrow streets of LeDroit Park, where there are few trees to muffle the noise, the sound of tapping hammers rides the breeze past refurbished Gothic mansions and boarded-up houses.
On nearly every block workers lay bricks, trim grass, or hammer new wood in the midday sun. LeDroit Park is a Northwest Washington neighborhood caught in that in-between stage, where old homesteaders live beside newcomers, where empty shells sit next to regal houses.
A small community tucked below Howard University, just blocks from the city's new municipal building and convenient to downtown, LeDroit is one of the most recent discoveries of young families looking for affordable homes.
The community is bordered by Second Street on the east, Sixth Street on the west, W Street on the north at the foot of Howard University and Florida Avenue on south.
Within its borders is a slightly smaller historic district, featuring brick sidewalks and distinguished architecture.
The entire neighborhood is a mixture of slim row houses and huge square-shaped mansions. While some blocks are full of vacant lots, others feature rows of multicolored slate roofs, Victorian peaks, lattice trims and intricately carved cornices.
"One of the nicest things is the mixture of people, those who have been here a long time and those who are new renters," said David Parker, a lawyer who has lived in LeDroit for six years and serves as chairman of the area's Advisory Neighborhood Commission and president of the LeDroit Park Civic Association.
Journalists Warren Leary and Jeanne Sadler moved into their two-story Victorian row house in LeDroit Park five years ago because, as Sadler explained, "It's convenient and the houses have character."
"It's also affordable," Leary said. "At the time, a lot of black professionals were moving here and renovating houses. We had hoped this might be an area that could be a black Cleveland Park, an area where you could have nice homes and good environment for the black middle class. . . . "
At the moment, the community, with nearly 26,000 residents, is comprised of a mixture of white- and blue-collar workers, but most newer residents have tended to be college-educated professionals.
"We liked the idea of moving into an area where blacks were not at the tail end of development, but at the forefront of it," Leary said.
"We felt we had a chance to do it a little differently than it has been done in a lot of areas, not displacing people here, but moving in and becoming part of the community," he said.
Changes have come slowly to LeDroit and the average single-family home, which was assessed at $57,569 during the last tax year, has risen to only $58,455 for tax year 1987, according to a D.C. Department of Finance and Revenue spokeswoman.
The slow pace of development is a mixed blessing for those who want houses renovated and repaired, yet fear gentrification will alter the neighborhood's old charm.
Originally, the development of large homes styled after Italian villas and Gothic cottages was built in the late 19th century as an exclusive enclave for whites.
The builder, Amzi L. Barber, fenced off the land, posted guards and named the community after his father-in-law, LeDroit Langdon.
Later, from the turn of the century through World War II and into the turbulent 1960s, some of the city's most prominent black families lived in LeDroit Park.
Members of the black literati visited the homes regularly for afternoon tea on screened porches or blended whiskey beside a fireplace.
But soon after the riots in 1968, during which a nearby commercial strip on Seventh Street was destroyed, the neighborhood fell apart and buildings began to deteriorate.
"A lot of the oldtimers died or moved on," said Theresa F. Brown, a resident of LeDroit Park for nearly 30 years. "In most cases, the younger relatives didn't want the property, so they sold it or rented it. The buyers aren't rushing. It's a small area and the houses are small."
Still, LeDroit's most famous couple, former D.C. mayor Walter E. Washington and his wife, Bennetta, have remained in the three-story white brick house at 408 T St. NW that belonged to her parents.
Last year, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, civil rights leader and Democratic presidential candidate two years ago, bought the two-story white brick house next door on the corner of Fourth and T streets.
"In my mind's eye -- even as a child -- I feel [my father] wanted one of his children to be here, to keep the family homestead," said Benetta Washington, who has lived in the house since she was one month old. "I could never reproduce this anywhere else."
She recalls when old trees lined the streets, their limbs bowing to form arches over passing cars, and she remembers when on each block there was a family with at least one nationally recognized achiever.
"It is very, very significant that some of us maintain our homes in the inner city so others will be encouraged to stay or come back . . . ," said Walter Washington, who has lived in the house since the couple married in 1941.
While residents say they seldom worry about crime, most of them agree that for some time a significant community issue has been the decaying neighborhood properties owned by Howard University.
Brown said, "They want to use it for institutional purposes and we want it to remain residential."
Civic association president Parker said, "The big thing is to see if we can get Howard to fix up the big vacant properties it owns."
Alan Hermesch, a Howard spokesman, said, "There are some properties in the LeDroit Park area that Howard has plans for. Under the plans, which have been approved by the Board of Zoning Adjustment, the facades will be improved and restored.
"Over the past four years, the university has spent millions of dollars improving properties in the LeDroit area. The university continues to be sensitive to the needs of the community," he said.
While the neighborhood is surrounded by Metro bus routes, it will be the early 1990s before a station on the subway system's Green Line, currently under construction, opens near LeDroit Park.
Some people are betting that by that time LeDroit will have experienced a full rejuvenation.
"A part of what makes a difference in a community is the staying power people have," said Walter Washington. "The area was great once, and it can be again."