The four-acre lot, within earshot of New York Avenue, has become a symbolic crossroads for a quickly changing corner of the District.
On Harry Thomas Way, a street named for the late D.C. Council member and Ward 5 political patriarch, two large cranes hover above a community being built in Eckington. Three six-story apartment buildings have been erected, forming the shell of a complex that developers say will have 603 apartments, two swimming pools, two fitness centers and a movie room.
Bracing for an influx of residents and traffic, some dwellers in the once working-class neighborhood say the project underscores their concerns about the future. As Ward 5 voters prepare to elect a council member Tuesday, many longtime Eckington residents feel that they are being pushed out.
“You can’t raise kids in a condo,” Anthony Davis, 53, said as he looked toward the development from the steps of a rowhouse that his family has owned since 1964. “The message is obvious. They don’t want us here. It’s not even subliminal racism. It’s obvious racism.”
Davis’s remarks amplified fears expressed across Northeast Washington during the fluid contest underway to succeed former council member Harry Thomas Jr. Thomas, who followed in his father’s footsteps, is on his way to prison after acknowledging that he stole more than $350,000 from city taxpayers.
With turnout expected to be light and 11 candidates vying for the seat, political observers say that the election will hinge on turnout and that it could be won with fewer than 2,000 votes.
Four contenders appear best-positioned to pull off a victory, and each represents different aspects of the struggle to define Northeast’s future, according to voters, political strategists, activists and candidates.
Another Democrat in the race, Frank Wilds, 67, poses a serious threat to Hunter and McDuffie by stressing a message of seasoned and reliable leadership.
Tim Day, 40, is the only Republican in the contest. Although 81 percent of Ward 5 voters are Democrats, observers say there are enough Republicans for Day to win if nearly all of them turn out and he can secure some crossover support.
In the final days of the campaign, each candidate is trying to explain to voters what that candidate’s win would mean for the historically middle-class ward, which has has been shaken by the Thomas scandal.
“We are very nervous and want to feel, whoever goes in there, they have the interest of the community at heart,” said Earline Frazier, president of the Brentwood Community Association.
McDuffie, a former Justice Department lawyer who worked as an aide to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), is the favored candidate of self-described progressives who emphasize ethics reform, liberal social values and innovation. Their backing has given McDuffie a solid base of support in diversifying neighborhoods such as Bloomingdale and Brookland. City teacher and firefighter unions, the Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO are also backing McDuffie, which helps him broaden his appeal.
“This race to me is about transforming how we do politics in this city,” said McDuffie, who unsuccessfully challenged Thomas in 2010. “I think I am the most inclusive candidate in this race. You will see different races. You will see different genders. You will see different sexual orientations.”
At 28, Hunter would be the youngest member ever elected to the D.C. Council.
Hunter, who also unsuccessfully challenged Thomas in 2010, seems to excel at retail politics. On the campaign trail, he spends up to an hour talking to individual voters about how they can get a new trash can or beat back the resurgence of PCP use.
Hunter said his attentive style gives him an edge in working- and middle-class African American neighborhoods, where he said residents want government to focus on improving basic services.
“I’ve spent thousands of hours listening to people,” said Hunter, who has the support of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “They want to know they still have a place in D.C., and I try to position myself as someone who is capable of listening and takes time for that intimate conversation.”
Wilds, a former Advisory Neighborhood Commission member and chairman of the Ward 5 Democratic Party, is a familiar face to many longtime residents. After being largely ignored during the early weeks of the campaign, he appears to have gathered some momentum because of aggressive efforts to woo seniors who have historically voted in large numbers.
“I’m independent and not tied to the unions and not tied to the mayor,” Wilds said in a jab at McDuffie and Hunter. “The other candidates sold their souls to the mayor, the unions, and will say anything to get elected.”
The race is shaping up as test of who comes across as best able to represent Ward 5 amid broader citywide debates about gentrification and how the term “progressive” applies to D.C. politics.
In 2010, Northeast voters rebelled against then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) in part because they believed he catered to wealthier, whiter sections of the city at the expense of longtime, not-so-wealthy residents.
Though the Ward 5 electorate has changed little since that race, parts of the community are undergoing dramatic change. Since 2000, census data show that the white population in Ward 5 has doubled to 16 percent.
Work continues on 237 townhouses near the Brookland Metro station that will be listed for at least $500,000.
Closer to Rhode Island Avenue, not far from the Brookland Manor public housing complex, the Menomale restaurant opened two weeks ago with draft beer from across the globe and pizzas topped with goat cheese and Gorgonzola.
In racially diverse Eckington, in the southwestern edge of the ward, some longtime residents say they are fed up with all the new construction. “We don’t need housing. . . . We need jobs so people can afford these houses,” said Reese Knight, 49, a 20-year resident who lives near the Trilogy at Noma apartment project on Harry Thomas Way.
Dan Monlux, 35, who bought his house on Quincy Place two years ago, said he welcomed the new development. “I think, culturally, it’s a good thing,” said Monlux, a military doctor who notes the development will include ground-floor retail.
But Ruth Miller, 61, isn’t convinced that all residents will share in the benefits of growth.
“I don’t mind the new development, but I do mind, when there is a new development, the restaurants and the new pharmacies like CVS are around the new development and not in the community as a whole,” said Miller, who moved to the neighborhood as a chid.
Few residents in Eckington appeared to have strong preferences for any of the candidates.
Electoral clout in Ward 5 has long been centered in neighborhoods north of Eckington, near the Maryland border, areas where Wilds and Hunter both expect to perform well.
But McDuffie’s efforts to strike an inclusive message have caused much of the city’s self-described “progressive” leadership, including council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), to rally behind him.
“McDuffie has a very progressive agenda . . . and there is a unifying issue around good government that transcends wards,” Wells said.
Wilds countered that the term “progressive” is a “code word that comes from Bloomingdale and comes from Brookland” and is offensive to many African American voters.
“I resent it. . . . You can be a progressive in Bloomingdale and a progressive in Brookland, but you are talking about Ward 5,” Wilds said. “They are using it as a code word to divide up this ward.”
Wilds’s supporters also take aim at Hunter, who has been sued three times since 2010 over unpaid rent and once over credit-card debt.
Hunter, who claims he is neither conservative nor progressive, said he got in financial trouble after his full-time run for office in 2010 and has learned from his mistakes.
Some Wilds supporters have also asked whether McDuffie, a former prosecutor, should be held accountable for high rates of incarceration among African American youths.
But supporters of Hunter and McDuffie are pushing back against Wilds, accusing him of being too negative and out of touch.
“Frank Wilds should have done what I did and take a seat and let the young guys have at it,” said Bob King, a Hunter supporter and 29-year ANC member.
Whatever the result, King added, the entire city “will learn a lot from this election.”
“Lets not fool ourselves, the reality of D.C. is a tale of two cities,” King said.