Brookland homeowner Shirley Smith stood in front of her house Monday night and watered her lawn and the city's tree box. No traffic moved in the quiet neighborhood of detached houses, and she had only her terrier Noel for company.
It could have been a scene from suburbia, but it was happening in a near-downtown neighborhood that has retained its small-town character.
"Brookland hasn't changed in years," she said as she sprayed the grass with the garden hose. "There has been no extreme progress here and no decline. We have no rowdy kids and no vandalism. Brookland is a great place to live."
Police, business owners and other residents interviewed in this Northeast Washington neighborhood agree that Brookland, situated between Michigan and Rhode Island avenues and the B&O Railroad tracks and 18th Street, is safe and quiet.
Such is life in Brookland, a community with about 6,000 residents where most of the turn-of-the-century houses are owner-occupied, according to city records. The presence of the eight-year-old Metro station, Providence Hospital and Catholic University on the border of the neighborhood has not intruded on the quiet life style of this middle-class community, longtime residents said.
There are few house sales in the area, according to real estate agent Denise Champion-Jones.
"When we get a listing for Brookland, it usually sells very quickly," she said. She said the houses, most of which are detached, frame, two-story buildings, sell for about $100,000.
Paul Washington, chairman of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 5A, president of the Brookland Civic Association and a 25-year-Brookland resident, said he, like most of his neighbors, has no intention of moving.
"I feel that this is the best blend of urban and country," he said. "I live on 12th Street, which is a pretty busy thoroughfare. But I look at it from my front porch through the old oak trees. It reminds me of places in Paris."
The majority of the residents are in the 15-to-44 age group, according to 1980 census figures for the District. The neighborhood includes two census tracts, one of which shows a median household income of $19,298 and the other of $14,495. The median household income for the city in 1980 was $16,177. The community, which was predominantly white before Wold War II, has been a mostly black neighborhood since the war.
The 1980 census also shows that most of the employed residents over the age of 16 work in technical services, sales, management jobs and service occupations. Less than half of the residents work for the federal or the D.C. government.
Brookland is a very community-minded neighborhood, said Washington and City Council member William Spaulding (D-Ward 5), who represents the area.
Residents ". . . are very concerned about the quality of life in their community and the quality of government services," Spaulding said. "They are quick to let us know if they don't like something. For instance, last month a group of citizens from Brookland opposed the conversion of a half-way house for alcoholics to a drug treatment center at Seventh and Monroe streets NE . They had petitions, and a number of them came down here to visit us. We got the message."
The residents of Brookland have a history of fighting anything they see as a threat to their community.
In the early 1970s they opposed the construction of the North Central Expressway, a six-lane road that would have destroyed 69 houses between the railroad tracks and 10th Street, Rhode Island Avenue and Hamlin Street NE. They not only stopped the expressway, they forced the District government to rehabilitate the houses that had been purchased to make way for the road. Those houses were offered for sale after being renovated.
Before the Brookland Metro station opened in 1978, petitions with more than 1,000 signatures were filed with the city government requesting a residential parking permit program that restricts parking for nonresidents to a two-hour period.
And when the Brooks mansion, built by Col. Jehiel Brooks in 1840, was slated for demolition to create a parking lot for commuters, neighborhood opposition saved the building. It now is owned by the University of the District of Columbia and is used for neighborhood education programs.
Brookland took its name from Brooks, a veteran of the War of 1812 and a treaty negotiator for President Andrew Johnson, who built his mansion at 9th and Monroe streets NE for his Capitol Hill bride Ann Queen. The couple named the house Bellair and made it the seat of their 140-acre estate.
After Jehiel Brooks' death in 1887, the house was sold and the estate subdivied. The house was used as a boarding school and later as a convent before Metro bought it in 1970.
Across the street from the Brooks mansion is Col. Brooks Tavern, a Gerogetown-style bar and restaurant owned by Jim Steigman. It is the only upscale restaurant in Brookland and draws a crowd for lunch and dinner from the neighborhood, Catholic University and the Washington Hospital Center.
Steigman, who opened the restaurant in 1980, said he contacted a descendant of Brooks and copied a number of photographs of Brooks. They are displayed in the dining room and bar.
"I find it truly remarkable that two years after Metro opened, I was able to come in here and buy a building right next door to the station," he said. "And it is equally remarkable that no one else has opened a new business here but me."
Steigman theorized that there is little new business in the area because the majority of the land near the station is owned by major institutions such as Catholic University.
Brookland is one of the few neighborhoods that did not experience a commercial real estate boom when a Metro station opened.
But Brookland does have its own commercial strip along 12th Street NE. It has the look of a small-town main street: a post office and a five-and-dime, along with a shoe-repair shop, dress store, florist, pizza place, bar, bookstore, paint store and several carry-outs.
One of the failures for the community was the old Newton Theatre, a rundown building in the heart of the commercial district. Its marquee is empty and the doors are boarded. It briefly was revived in the late 1970s when neighborhood families invested their money to transform it from a theater showing X-rated movies to one oriented to family films. It failed to stay in business after a year.
One of the successful, family owned businesses in Brookland is the 3610 Boutique, which actually is several stores in one. As Velma and Bill Johnson built their women's clothing business, which they opened in 1970, they simply added adjoining buildings until they had five in a row. An inside hallway connects each one.
"We are a business family," said Bill Johnson, a retired Federal Highway Administration employe, who helps his wife with the clothing store. One of his sons, Edward M. Johnson, is an architect with his own business, which he runs from the floor above the clothing store.
"This was a Chinese laundry when we bought it right after the riots," he said. "We had a feeling about this area, that it would make a comeback. And it has."
The store features dresses and suits in the $100 to $200 range. Velma Johnson said her customers are mostly professional women, who live in the neighborhood and other parts of town.
"We've never had any trouble here," she said, as she stood behind a glass counter displaying earrings and pins. "I feel safe here. This is a nice neighborhood."
Her husband, who has added a bookstore on the same block to his list of commercial buildings in Brookland, said he is looking forward to the opening of the new main post office in Brentwood, just south of Brookland.
"We know that a lot of those employes will be using 12th Street to get to work," he said. "It could be a real boost for the neighborhood. All we have to do is figure out how to get them to stop and shop on 12th Street."