For the past several months, Nate Howard has spent about four hours a day searching for old newspaper articles and books in an effort to turn neighborhood rumors into enough historical facts to recruit a small army of volunteer detectives.
Howard's efforts are part of a year-long historical project spearheaded by the Congress Heights Community Association.
The plan is to get at least 100 residents involved in identifying historic buildings, architectural designs and archaeological sites in order to foster community pride and take a major step toward creating a new neighborhood image.
Residents say that for too long Congress Heights' public identity has been entwined in the realities and stereotypes about Ward 8, an area in Southeast Washington where some of the city's poorest residents live and where even its elected officials have complained that the area has been shortchanged in jobs, economic development, educational opportunities and city services.
"People have heard of Congress Heights, but it is always negative," said Mary J. Cuthbert, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1967.
"When you live in this part of Southeast, people think you are stupid and poor. Most people here want to see a change in the attitude of the District of Columbia toward us, and we are trying to make a change in our own attitude. We are trying to do more positive things," she said.
Some residents in this neighborhood of 21,000 said there has been a sense of community for years. A woman who works late at night said she feels safer when nearby residents tell her that they are watching when she heads home.
Calvin Lockridge, the Ward 8 school board member who lives in Congress Heights, said his neighbors do not hesitate to knock on his door and ask for help in getting city services.
And others enjoy the small-town warmth created by residents who retained their southern charm when they moved to the neighborhood from such places as South Carolina and Georgia.
Congress Heights is located on hilly terrain that offers spectacular views of downtown Washington.
Except for a short business strip along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, the area is dominated by apartment buildings and detached single-family homes, many of which were built in the late 1800s or early 1900s.
Congress Heights is bounded by Suitland Parkway and Stanton Road on the North, Atlantic Street on the South, Mississippi Avenue on the East, and South Capitol Street on the West.
Residents who said they purchased homes in the area in the late 1960s for about $18,000 say those homes have sold recently for between $60,000 and $70,000.
Although residents said they believe that the D.C. government should pay more attention to the area's needs, a number of people have responded to problems by developing their own solutions.
While residents requested more city programs for young people, the Rev. Bob Mathieu and his wife, Sharon, began an outreach program for children 13 years ago.
After taking 15 children from the community to a camp in 1974, the Mathieus expanded their camp idea into a neighborhood project, which is now organized and operated by community residents for Southeast children.
Last summer, the camp program, called Camp Dynamite, raised more than $18,000 to send 300 children to a West Virginia camp for a week.
The seeds for the civic association's historic survey were planted several years ago when the community successfully protested the proposed closing of the Old Congress Heights school building, built around 1897 and located at 5th Street and King Avenue.
The building, which houses the school system's Headstart program and a number of social service programs for the area and the ward, is viewed as a community landmark. The civic association believes that identifying more landmarks and digging out more historical information will give this predominantly black community a new sense of its history.
"My research has shown that Congress Heights was one of the first suburbs of Washington," Howard said. "I've learned that a former slave named Toby Henson who purchased his freedom in 1830 also purchased a substantial piece of property, some of which is now Congress Heights."
The neighborhood has been invited to attend a workshop today, sponsored by the civic association and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, to discuss ways of making residents aware of its past. Those who attend will be taken on a walking tour past Congress Heights homes to identify architectural designs common to the Italianate-style homes, which have heavily bracketed roofs, and Queen Anne style homes, which blend Tudor Gothic and colonial details.
While residents are looking to preserve the past, they are also eager about promoting future growth for the area. Residents say economic development and affordable housing are two of their major concerns for the community, which is located in a ward where the median family income is $16,400 a year and 19 percent of the families live in poverty.
"We have lost a lot of consumer services since I moved here in 1964," said Patricia S. Carroll. "Congress Heights used to be a little town unto itself. We used to have a movie theater, a florist and a couple of restaurants. You didn't have to go to Maryland to do major shopping."
Residents first began to anticipate a major redevelopment revival six years ago after a bank opened in the area and a row of colorful town houses replaced the dilapidated and vacant naval barracks at 4th Street and King Avenue. Some residents now say that the development was not as rapid as they had hoped.
Doris Turner, social service and health coordinator for the Headstart program, said many of the residents are concerned about very basic needs. A number of people have been on the city's public housing waiting list for years, she said.
The D.C. Office of Planning said several economic development and housing projects are in the works, including a commercial real estate development for the Camp Simms site, on the eastern border of Congress Heights; a neighborhood shopping center for Congress Park at 13th and Savannah Street SE, and a senior citizens center at King Avenue and Trenton Place.
Congress Heights is also expected to benefit from the new Metro stop to be located in Anacostia.
Several residents said that despite the city's lack of attention to the community, they retain their sense that with work they can still make an impact on the neighborhood.
As Rev. Mathieu said, "Once people have been motivated and you get them the resources, nothing can stop them."