Shepherd Park is a Northwest Washington neighborhood that can, and usually does.
When some real estate speculators were cashing in on racial fears in the late 1950s, some Shepherd Park residents took the lead in fighting block-busting tactics and tried to make fair housing the rule.
Recently, when Wendy's proposed putting one of its fast-food outlet in the area's business district, Shepherd Park residents convinced it to think again, and prevailed on the D.C. Council to build a library there instead.
And after bars with nude dancers began to proliferate on upper Georgia Avenue, Shepherd Park residents pressured the city's liquor board to crack down and helped push through a liquor licensing law that gives voters a say over who sells alcohol. "I think it's fair to say that the Shepherd Park community is one that defends its own rights to live in a safe and culturally enriched environment," said D.C. Council member
Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-At Large), who lives in the nearby neighborhood of Portal Estates. If Shepherd Park residents occasionally seem to have their dander up, it's because they are protective of their cohesive
sense of traditional, and some not-so-traditional, values. Behind the facades of brick colonial-style houses, most of which were built before World War II, lives a largely integrated community of some of the city's most highly educated and civically active people. Marriage, family, education, racial equality -- these are no mere buzzwords in Shepherd Park. They shape a collective point of view that does not treat lightly intrusions from the outside.
"Everyone does what he can to keep the community the way it has been for a number of years," said longtime resident Juanita Thornton.
Today, those qualities continue to attract young couples and second-generation home buyers who vie for a scant number of available houses that range between $100,000 and $240,000 in price. Thirty-four homes were sold in Shepherd Park during the first half of this year, according to Rufus Lusk & Son Inc.
"We thought it was a great place to live and raise a family in the District," said Eric Washington, 33, an attorney in the D.C. Corporation Counsel's Office who recently moved to Shepherd Park with his wife Sheryl, a staff member of the Senate Commerce Committee, and their 10-month-old daughter Lindsay. "It's real quiet and peaceful."
Wedged between 16th Street, Georgia Avenue, Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the Maryland line, Shepherd Park boasts some of the District's most impressive demographics: almost 90 percent of its adult residents are high school graduates and more than half spent at least four years in college. The median household income, according to the 1980 census, was nearly $50,000. A majority of wage earners work at managerial and professional specialty jobs.
It is home to Howard University President James E. Cheek, D.C. Council member Hilda H.M. Mason (Statehood-At-Large), several senior aides to Mayor Marion Barry, as well as numerous lawyers, doctors and federal government policy makers. Many residents consider the community's racial mix a bonus. Shepherd Park is about two-thirds black and one-third white, and its population is about 5,000.
It wasn't always so, and today's Shepherd Park represents a radical departure from the community its developers originally had in mind in the 1920s and 1930s.
Then, Shepherd Park was a bastion of white Protestantism. Nearly every home was bound by a covenant prohibiting blacks and Jews. After World War II, though, the Supreme Court ruled those covenants unenforceable.
Gentiles fled as a large Jewish community, originally based in Southwest Washington, continued to move north and west across the District. Blacks and real estate speculators followed them, spreading fear among some white homeowners.
Marvin Caplan, whose first move into the city was to the Manor Park neighborhood south of Shepherd Park, recalls the block-busting techniques.
"Scarcely a night went by that a dealer wasn't on the front porch saying, 'Now that the neighborhood is changing, don't you want to sell?'."
Caplan helped form Neighbors Inc., a racially mixed group whose objective was to integrate a large portion of Northwest D.C. east of Rock Creek Park. When he moved to Shepherd Park, Caplan found a receptive audience.
"Quite a few young white families liked living in an integrated area," he said. "They believed in integration. They wanted their children to have the experience of living in a heterogeneous, diverse neighborhood."
Neighbors Inc. held open houses to promote the idea. The group met with Realtors and published its own listing of homes for sale, encouraging buyers who believed in integration.
That was in the early 1960s, when the civil rights movement helped charge the Neighbors Inc. ideals. An awakening came later, as the children of the movement moved up through the D.C. school system.
Shepherd Elementary School has provided a focal point for the community since the early days of the integration movement. It was one place to hold meetings. And it has excelled in meeting the educational standards of the neighborhood's intellectually demanding parents.
But after graduating from Shepherd Elementary, students moved on to more distant junior and senior high schools where they mixed with lower-income students, frequently with unhappy results.
Caplan, for one, still rues his children's experiences after they left Shepherd Elementary. "They were running into very difficult problems with the kids they encountered," he said. "I was forced to recognize that I wasn't going to sacrifice my kids to my convictions. So I shifted them" to schools elsewhere.
Many parents in the community now send their children to private schools, Caplan said. But Shepherd Elementary still scores far above city averages academically, and its principal, Edith Smith, said parents continue to be demanding about its educational standards.
"My last parent meeting was on a Saturday," Smith said. "There's one meeting after another. Here are people meeting in the summer so that on the first day of school the after-school program will be in place."
Residents are equally protective about the neighborhood's surroundings. For example, they opposed Wendy's plans to open an outlet on Georgia Avenue.
"We told Wendy's we had enough beef on Georgia Avenue," Thornton said. "We had beef and bread and beer, but we needed another 'b': books."
So the neighborhood pushed for a library. The Shepherd Park branch library is slated to be built and opened by late next year.
Even more nettlesome to neighbors, though, was the spread of bars with nude dancing on Georgia Avenue, despite repeated complaints to city officials.
"The Georgia Avenue corridor is so close to the area that surrounds it," said Washington. "One of the problems we have is that these late night places affect the residential areas directly adjacent. ... We are concerned. We do have kids."
Residents complained that the bars brought strangers, unwanted traffic, late-night disturbances and drug traffic. Banding together with other nearby community groups, they succeeded earlier this year in getting the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to refuse to renew a liquor license for the last of four sex-oriented businesses that had opened along the business corridor.
Now Shepherd Park homeowners point with some pride to the expansion of a local appliance store, the opening of a clothes boutique and a new seafood outlet.
"It's very significant that Shepherd Park has been stable for so long," Jarvis said. "A lot of other Washington neighborhoods haven't.