During rides from his home in Mount Vernon to Alexandria, George Washington would often stop to water his horse at a spring near a gum tree on his property. When he died in 1799, Washington deeded that part of his land to his slaves.

Now, nearly 200 years later, several descendants of those slaves still live in the area, known as Gum Springs. And the black community that has grown up there is facing a modern challenge: preserving its history while reaching for much-needed development.

"It's a depressed area," said Robert Easter, a planner whose firm, Kelso & Easter, completed a year-long study of the area last spring. "It's a community that is organized, but it's diverse. There's no real cohesiveness within Gum Springs."

In 1986, 80 percent of the households in Gum Springs reported income of $25,000 or less, compared with a median income of $49,700 in Fairfax County, according to Easter's study, which was funded by the Southeast Fairfax Development Corp. through the Saunders B. Moon Community Action Agency. It estimated that nearly 75 percent of the 1,200 residents are unemployed or underemployed.

Most houses in Gum Springs -- situated on 206 acres near Rte. 1 in southeast Fairfax -- cost from $80,000 to $90,000. Housing runs from detached single homes to low-income units.

Typical of the community is Douglas Street, a tree-lined dead-end where 1940s-style ranch houses give the feeling of another time. John Bushrod, 77, built his house on the street, then just a path, in 1947.

"It was just a woods, no road or anything when we came in," said Bushrod, who worked as a gardener at Gunston Hall and later as a quartermaster at Fort Belvoir. The county wanted to name the street Bushrod, after its first resident, but Bushrod insisted they name it after Douglas Holland, a property owner in the area.

Bushrod's next-door neighbor, Ronald Chase, said he wants Gum Springs to keep its sense of history. Chase's father and Bushrod were the first to build on Douglas Street.

"I want to see an end to the bad rap the community has," said Chase, president of the Gum Springs Historical Society.

Chase said the community has its roots in the Joint Stock Club, a black group formed in the 19th century that bought several tracts of real estate, which they sold at no profit to black families who built homes on the land.

"People overcame a lot of hardships to keep {the community} intact," Chase said as he pointed to old homesteads from a car window. "This is, and can be, a good community to grow up in."

Chase has several cousins who live in the community and can describe the history behind many of its Victorian-style houses.

Late last month, Gum Springs residents celebrated the third annual Heritage Day at Martin Luther King Park. The event included a parade, rides and games and several county officials attended.

"We want to show not only the people of Gum Springs, but also the nation, that people can maintain their origins even through adverse difficulties," Chase said. "We also wanted to show the youth what these individuals were about. We have a fierce pride in our community."

Chase said he worries that new development will encroach on the homesteads of Gum Springs until there is no more sense of community. He said low-income town houses along Fordson Road, which replaced some old houses, have made it unrecognizable as part of old Gum Springs. Chase said he would rather have seen detached homes built.

Ground is expected to be broken soon for an office condominium project at the corner of Sherwood Hall Lane and Andrus Road. The two-story brick building will have 24,000 square feet of office space, half for doctors' offices and half for other professionals, said Donald Hanback, the developer of the property.

Planner Easter recommended that Gum Springs' property owners pool their land for collective rezoning to ensure better planning and control the community's development.

To do that, Easter said the community needs to establish a greater identity. Easter also strongly recommended extending dead-end roads to connect with other roads, which he said would allow more development of affordable and elderly housing and would provide access to police patrols.

Easter also said that there should be uniform restrictions on height, architecture, density and parking requirements to provide for continuity, and that the community can enforce these restrictions through its status as a conservation district.

For 4 1/2 years, Michael Kelly and his wife Karen have lived in a spacious, ranch-style house on Bass Court, a cul de sac off Holland Road. But now they are moving to Florida and have sold their house for $235,000.

Kelly, one of the few whites in Gum Springs, said he liked the community. "I like it because back here it's quiet, not much going on. I don't like rambling subdivisions that look just the same."

"The {tax} assessments are fair, probably even lower than they should be," Kelly said. "Compared to what is considered some of the more prestigious areas {in Fairfax County}, this is something where you can do very well."

The majority of Gum Springs' housing units are rentals; of those, 63 percent are town houses and 34 percent apartments. About 20 percent of the people in Gum Springs own their own home.

Irene Ferguson has lived for six years in Brosar Park, a moderate-income detached housing project where residents received assistance from the Fairfax County government to make their down payments. She was forced to move out of her former home to make room for construction of the West Ford development, a low-income housing project.

"It's convenient," Ferguson said, noting that she is just a short walk from a bus stop on Rte. 1. "You can do most of your shopping on Rte. 1. There's not much turnover in the community. I sold my place and we moved here. We wanted to stay in the community."