“We have nowhere to go,” said Diamonte Powell, 13, as he and his buddies, Joseph and Zo, tossed a football that sometimes careened off the hoods of parked sedans. A pocket park around the corner is known as a haunt for drug users and vagrants. Four people were shot there last month.
The racial and economic disparities that define many major American cities became the focus of urgent national concern after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis last year catalyzed months of protests. In Ivy City, hopes of narrowing those disparities center on a century-old landmark — a long-boarded-up public school named for Alexander Crummell, a prominent 19th-century Black minister and educator.
For years, residents have pleaded for the city to convert the handsome red-brick edifice and two-acre grounds into the kind of community center many neighborhoods take for granted. They envision an oasis of greenery with basketball courts, playgrounds and park benches, as well as a job training center and a public library.
While Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) largely supports that vision, a fierce debate over how to make it happen has transformed a symbol of neglect into a tableau of unrealized possibility.
In the latest twist, Bowser and a key lawmaker are in a stalemate over whether new, mostly market-rate housing is the way to finance the multimillion-dollar makeover.
If their dispute is not resolved in the next few weeks, Crummell could remain fallow for years to come, a prospect that infuriates residents such as Brenda Ingram, who lives down the street, in a house next door to where she grew up.
“I go to neighborhoods all over, nice neighborhoods and slums, and I see playgrounds,” said Ingram, 65, a retired forensic technician at St. Elizabeths Hospital. “We have nothing. Our kids have nothing. It’s like no one cares.”
More recent arrivals echo her complaint. Chloe Sellers, 35, an attorney who moved to Ivy City five years ago, said she would benefit from a library, where she could use a printer and copy machine. “We have a lot of restaurants,” she said. “We need something to invest in the people.”
A Bowser-backed plan to renovate the school and build several hundred units of housing stalled after activists complained the project included too little outdoor space. Even though nearly a third of the new homes would be subsidized, opponents contend that many of those could go to middle-income households, as opposed to low-income, and say it would amount to another enclave for the affluent.
Then, in April, the D.C. Council rejected Bowser’s request to allow housing at Crummell as part of changes to citywide land-use policies, a compendium of guidelines known as the Comprehensive Plan. But the council could still approve the change before its final vote on the plan, now scheduled for May 18.
Bowser’s main obstacle is council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), whose district includes Ivy City. He is refusing to support zoning that would allow housing unless the mayor pledges $20 million for Crummell’s renovation. McDuffie also wants Bowser to pay for a study of how a sizable influx of new housing would affect residents.
“Rising housing prices are contributing to displacement, and it is making D.C. increasingly unaffordable and unlivable for people of color,” he said. “This is the case in almost every corner of the city — especially, though, in communities that have a rich history and culture like Ivy City.”
No matter the final vote, all sides agree that a community center would give youngsters such as Mya Stuckey, 15, an important new destination.
In her neighborhood, Mya has seen builders rehabilitate and replace vacant properties, including the Hecht’s warehouse, which developer Douglas Jemal turned into spacious apartments with a fitness center, arcade and rooftop dog runs. She also has seen the opening of a Nike store, Target and Mom’s Organic Market, along with breweries, distilleries and a shop that sells motorcycle parts and apparel.
One business that caught her attention is The Lane Social Club, a privately operated recreation center where, for a fee, parents can socialize while their children play, according to its website.
“It’s pay to play — only for parents who can afford it,” said Mya, a ninth-grader on scholarship at the elite Maret School in Woodley Park. Her father, Tyrone, grew up in Ivy City and works as an escalator technician for Metro.
“I don’t know anyone who goes there,” Mya said of The Lane. “It’s not for my part of the neighborhood. It’s like you’re going to play at your house or in the street or at this place that has everything, but you can only use it if you pay.
“It’s all strange, really.”
Across the street from the two-story brick house where Mya lives with her father and grandmother, Vernon Davis last fall paid $900,000 for a property he is rehabilitating as a trio of three-bedroom apartments. He hopes to rent each for at least $2,500 a month.
Davis is an engineer, not a developer by profession. But early in the pandemic, he and his wife, a nurse, decided to seek investment opportunities. They had frequented Ivy City’s nightspots and were mindful of Crummell’s potential and the neighborhood’s proximity to an explosion of new housing at Union Market.
“We thought it would be a great opportunity,” said Davis, who lives in the Fort Lincoln neighborhood on the city’s eastern edge.
Sandwiched between New York Avenue’s bustle and a sprawling cemetery, Ivy City was conceived in the 1870s as a subdivision for Black laborers, who soon found themselves living alongside a racetrack and warehouses. Crummell was completed in 1911 and educated generations of Black children until the city closed it in 1972.
As developers migrated to Ivy City in the early 2000s, the area’s demographics changed. In 2018, Black residents accounted for 72 percent of the population in Ivy City and surrounding neighborhoods, down from 93 percent in 2000, census data compiled by the nonprofit Urban-Greater DC shows. The White population increased from 5 to 16 percent. All the while, even after preservationists deemed it a landmark, Crummell remained a ghostly, decaying presence.
As a youngster, Tyrone Stuckey and his friends became accustomed to politicians traveling through Ivy City during campaign season and promising that “we’re going to get you a rec center.”
“Nothing ever happened,” said Stuckey, now 47, sitting on his porch with Mya, across the street from the apartment where he grew up. “We never had a place to shine. We always had to go to someone else’s arena.”
As a parent, he said the frustration deepened when he had to take Mya to playgrounds in other neighborhoods. “I didn’t bring her home from the hospital for that,” he said. “I’d rather she be excelling at basketball than for us to cry year after year about this.”
A new basketball hoop arrived in Ivy City five years ago, though it was put up by a homeowner. Ryan Linehan, an IT consultant who had just bought his house, paved his 30-by-30-foot backyard and opened it to any child who wanted to play ball.
Over time, Linehan added lights and a filtered water fountain. The other day, he said, more than a dozen kids were shooting hoops.
What Ivy City deserves
With its plethora of vacant lots, Ivy City had long been a site for what more affluent neighborhoods probably would not want — a homeless shelter, a youth detention center and parking facilities for school buses, snowplows and salt trucks.
But residents drew the line when then-Mayor Vincent C. Gray in 2012 leased the Crummell site as a parking lot for 65 motor coaches. The advocacy group Empower DC successfully sued to block the plan.
Four years later, the Bowser administration embraced a developer’s vision for Crummell that included a community center and 343 apartments, 240 of them market-rate. The development team included Greg Casten, owner of ProFish, a seafood wholesaler on the same block as the school and an Ivy City fixture for more than three decades.
But opponents — including Empower DC, which had submitted a competing bid — criticized the project for containing too little outdoor space. They also complained that the mayor was ceding public property to a largely private development that would impose new economic pressures on low-income neighbors.
Parisa Norouzi, Empower DC’s executive director, said any housing built on city-owned property should be subsidized for the poor. She also said the city should invest money in remaking Crummell without linking the conversion to building market-rate apartments.
“You wouldn’t tell Chevy Chase, ‘You don’t get to have a community center unless it’s tied to private development,’ ” she said, referring to the affluent Northwest neighborhood. “In the age of racial equity, Ivy City still has to convince the city that it deserves basic amenities.”
The Bowser administration is seeking remedies. As a short-term answer, the city plans to put two basketball courts and a play area on Crummell’s grounds this summer.
Longer-term solutions are more elusive.
John Falcicchio, the mayor’s chief of staff and top economic development adviser, said the administration “remains committed to revitalizing the school.” But he was noncommittal about whether Bowser would provide the funding McDuffie demands.
Falcicchio said the District has used private development to finance public projects in the past, citing the renovation of the Stevens School in the West End. In the case of Crummell, he said, market-rate apartments are necessary to fund the affordable units, as well as the school’s facelift.
It is “incumbent” on the council, he said, to revise the existing land-use guidelines to allow for housing at Crummell. “Anything less fails the neighborhood.”
McDuffie countered that for decades, the District’s “one-dimensional focus on building for newcomers has displaced many longtime residents, and I refuse to let that happen in Ivy City.”
If the mayor is “truly committed” to a community center, McDuffie said, she will fund a $20 million renovation. “Ivy City deserves nothing less.”
‘Different cultures, morals and beliefs’
Joe and Tim Klipp-Lockhart paid more than $500,000 for a three-bedroom apartment in Ivy City in 2018, drawn by the new nightspots and the possibilities at Crummell across the street.
After moving in, they encountered trash-strewn streets and broken glass. There were also shootings. Two years later, as the couple contemplated starting a family, they rented their apartment and left for the suburbs.
“We wanted to be part of the change,” said Joe Klipp-Lockhart, 36, an Air Force aviator. “We thought Crummell would come along. We thought playgrounds would happen. The ball was moving, slowly, but not as fast as our family wanted to grow.”
Across from their condo, Peta-Gay Lewis owns a five-bedroom house she bought in 2011 for $214,000 through a city program that spawned more than 50 subsidized homes in Ivy City, many on vacant lots.
Lewis said she would accept a portion of the Crummell site for affordable housing. But she also wants market-rate units to make the community center “self-sustaining” and attract higher-income residents.
“No one wants to live in a community that’s like the projects, where all the poor people are forced to live together,” she said. Opponents of higher-priced housing, she added, “don’t speak for everyone.”
Until 2018, Lewis, a real estate agent, held an Advisory Neighborhood Commission seat now occupied by Sebrena Rhodes, 54, an Empower DC organizer. Rhodes wants only subsidized housing at Crummell and said she would be wary of new residents who could afford luxury prices.
“What can anyone with a six-figure income be for that we’re for?” she asked. “You have different cultures, morals and beliefs. If market rate goes up, taxes go up. We’re just trying to eat and pay utilities.”
And then there are those like Tyrone Stuckey, who sees Crummell’s grounds as they once were, a place to play. “To picture something else, that’s not what it is,” he said. “If you say something bad about affordable housing, it’s a negative — the phrase is sacred. There’s already so much construction in D.C.”
Two blocks away, Fritz Hubig, 47, was about to take his daughter, Serafima, 4, to the playground. The slide in the pocket park across from his condominium is part of what drew Hubig, who owns a real estate brokerage, to Ivy City in 2016. But he doesn’t take his daughter there.
On many days, only adults are in the park. Children have found needles and drug paraphernalia in the grass. A couple of weeks ago, after a burst of gunfire, Hubig and his daughter watched from their window as a dozen police cruisers swarmed.
When she wants to play, he drives Serafima to a playground two miles away.
“I want green space. I want something that provides hope,” he said as he contemplated Crummell’s future. “Everyone has a valid point, but why can’t everyone come together? Why are we mired in the mud?”
Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Nora Simon. Design by J.C. Reed.