On a recent tour of the remnants of the Barry Farm public housing complex in Southeast Washington, historians rattled off reasons the city should landmark the property, including that hundreds of freed slaves settled there after the Civil War.

Will Harvey, 39, a former Barry Farm resident, recognized his own personal landmarks as he followed along.

Here was where a friend was shot in the back, he said, pointing to a spot a few yards from where he once lived, a now vacant, dilapidated duplex behind a chain-link construction fence on Stevens Road SE. Another buddy was killed down the street, he said.

“It was like Iraq around here,” Harvey said. “You get PTSD.”


As the nation’s capital, Washington is a city of iconic American landmarks that draws tourists from far and wide. The city also has a slew of local markers of more debatable stature, places such as Barry Farm Dwellings, which a coalition of former residents and community organizers are lobbying the city to designate a landmark.


With a District review board scheduled to vote on the nomination Sept. 26, the administration of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is opposing the designation, in part because it could impede a plan to build 1,100 mixed-income housing units and retail on the Ward 8 site. Officials hope the project would help invigorate a historically poor and blighted area.

The District Housing Authority has already relocated nearly 200 families that lived at Barry Farm Dwellings to make way for the redevelopment and demolished more than 30 of the complex’s two-story buildings.


The developer was forced to hold off on razing 32 remaining buildings after the nomination to landmark Barry Farm was submitted in April. Opponents of the historic designation say the proponents are using the nomination process to create another hurdle for the development — a contention the advocates deny.


At a time when developers are transforming neighborhoods across the city, those who favor landmarking of Barry Farm argue it is essential to enshrine symbols of black culture in the District, including remnants of a public housing complex once regarded as among the city’s more violent.

“We’re losing so much of our history,” said Parisa Norouzi, executive director of Empower DC, a grass-roots organization lobbying to landmark Barry Farm. “Our humble history is as important as our grand history.”


Greta Fuller, a founding member of the Historic Anacostia Preservation Society, describes herself as a supporter of the redevelopment project, but she said the remaining buildings should be saved “to tell the story” of Barry Farm, from its 19th-century origins through its more notorious recent past, a story that she regards as intrinsic to the broader history of Washington.


Fuller said she is not dissuaded by the fact that, as District officials have asserted, none of the original houses occupied by freed slaves remain on the property. Nor is she bothered that the surviving public housing units — built during World War II — no longer look the same and are now largely uninhabitable.

More than a plaque is needed to commemorate Barry Farm’s past, she said.


“If you wipe it out, if you bring it all down, how many people are really going to get the feeling and understand?” she asked. “There’s something about walking through a structure and feeling that structure. How many people walk by plaques without reading them?”

Referring to the violence that often defined Barry Farm in more recent years, she said the complex’s troubled history should be included in any commemoration. “Sometimes we need to tell the story of the uncomfortableness to show how we have grown and where we are today,” she said.


Robinette Woodland, a local Advisory Neighborhood Commission member whose aunt lived at Barry Farm, said she agrees that the developer should honor the site’s 19th-century history.


Woodland, 45, a telephone technician whose brother is Will Harvey, dismissed the notion of preserving buildings that are a reminder “of all the murders that took place over there, the drive-bys and the drug dealing.”

“They need to be torn down,” she said. “Why would we want to keep that? Let’s let it go. Let’s move on.”

Redeveloping Barry Farm

On a Wednesday night earlier this month, Ronette Slamin, a senior project manager overseeing the Barry Farm redevelopment, told a Ward 8 audience that the developer planned to incorporate art exhibits, oral histories and path markers, among other things, to celebrate the property’s history.


But preserving the buildings that are the focus of the landmark nomination is virtually impossible because of disrepair, she said. In a Power Point presentation, she showed photos of surviving units with mold and gaping holes in walls.


“The history is in the stories, not in the buildings in their current conditions,” said Slamin, of Preservation of Affordable Housing, a development company working with A&R Development on the project.

Her remarks prompted Ronald Thompson, 21, who described himself as a grass-roots organizer, to stand and accuse the developer of disrespecting the community by dismissing the buildings — no matter their condition.

“A space where people live is where people build their stories,” Thompson said, later adding: “History is in those stories. But history is also in those buildings. You wouldn’t say that to a white person in Dupont Circle.”


Barry Farm has been a potent symbol of African American life in Washington since 1867 when the Freedmen’s Bureau bought 375 acres of Julia and David Barry’s tobacco farm to sell parcels to blacks migrating from plantations. The profits helped fund African American institutions such as Howard University.


Within a few years, hundreds of black families — Frederick Douglass’s three sons, among them — were living at Barry Farm, creating what the District’s Historic Preservation Office recently described as a “thriving, self-contained African American community.”

Facing a shortage of affordable housing in the early 1940s, the federal government built more than 400 units of public housing at Barry Farm, the largest subsidized development at the time.

Until the developer began demolishing Barry Farm last year, the buildings remained, though their exteriors were refaced and porches removed during a massive 1980s renovation that District officials cite to argue against a landmark designation.


While “directly associated with the development of public housing for African Americans during World War II — a significant event in the urban planning architecture and social history of the District — the buildings do not retain sufficient integrity to convey the values and qualities for which the property is judged significant,” the Historic Preservation Office wrote to the review panel in June.

Nevertheless, Derek Hyra, an American University public administration and policy professor, said Barry Farm — even its vestiges — has grown in significance over time as the city’s black population has declined and lost political power in the District.

The debate over Barry Farm, as well as other historically black neighborhoods, has “become a battle ground to preserve the legacy of African Americans in this city,” said Hyra, who has studied gentrification of the U Street corridor and Shaw. “How do you upgrade the area while keeping the historical legacy? If you do that, it minimizes the cultural displacement. I’m not sure the city is thinking about that.”


In addition to housing the poor, Barry Farm over the years became known for hosting the Goodman Basketball League during summers, which has drawn large crowds and visits from NBA stars such as Kevin Durant.

The complex also earned a reputation for blight and violence. On Christmas Eve morning in 2013, as a television news crew filmed, someone fired a pellet gun at a man dressed as Santa Claus, striking him in the back during an annual toy giveaway.

By then, the District had included Barry Farm in its New Communities initiative, a plan to break up concentrated poverty by redeveloping public housing projects as mixed-income communities with retail and other amenities.

The plan to redevelop Barry Farm suffered a setback last year when the D.C. Court of Appeals vacated a zoning commission approval of the project, contending that the panel had not given adequate consideration to the potential displacement of residents.

As the development team reworked its plan, a group of former tenants, aided by Empower DC, filed the nomination to landmark the remaining Barry Farm buildings.

Under the current proposal, about 1,100 units of mixed-income housing would be built, including 380 units of public housing to replace the 444 units that would be demolished. Another 100 units of public housing have been built at two other nearby sites. Anthony Waddell, a vice president for development at Preservation of Affordable Housing, declined requests to talk about the project.

Designating the remaining 32 buildings a landmark would limit what could be built and “drastically” reduce the project’s affordable housing units, said Angie Rogers, a senior Bowser adviser overseeing the project. It would also diminish the number of family-sized apartments, she said.

The timing of the landmark nomination — six years after the Housing Authority picked the development team — has fueled suggestions that proponents are using the process to seek leverage for demands that include additional public housing units.

“It’s just another form of trying to stop progress,” said Rhonda Edwards-Hines, president of the Barry Farm Resident Council and a supporter of the redevelopment project. “Why didn’t they do this earlier? Now that they see it’s coming to pass, that the buildings are going to come up, now they’re trying to stop it.”

Detrice Belt, a former Barry Farm resident and a leader of the campaign to landmark the remaining buildings, denied that the nomination was a delay tactic and said she only learned in recent months that seeking historic status was an option.

“We’re just getting the facts in and learning to do everything,” she said on a recent Saturday as Empower DC organizers and the historians led the tour of Barry Farm.

Along the way, the tour guides pointed out that Barry Farm’s former residents included prominent tenant and school desegregation activists, as well as musician Herb Feemster, of Peaches and Herb, whose hits included “Reunited” and “Shake Your Groove Thing.” In 1967, they said, Black Panther Stokely Carmichael convened a meeting of community organizers at Barry Farm.

As he listened, Preston Grays, 31, who attended the tour to show his support for preserving Barry Farm, said the complex “symbolizes the culture of Southeast. If they erase this, it will change the look and feel of Southeast.”

Will Harvey said he was more concerned about whether former Barry Farm families would return to the property than saving buildings, the sight of which he said still “causes me some kind of euphoria — and makes me think about a lot of stuff.”

“You don’t want to think about it,” he said, “but it’s there.”

This story has been updated.