From her upstairs study with the cigar-smoking goddess on the wall or the futon downstairs where she snuggles in to get her real work done, Kimberly Gaines likes to listen in.
The DJ who lives beside her in Northeast Washington went through a Cuban phase. The blues fans down the road and the corner church with the blaring speakers seem to be vying for audio supremacy.
“Sometimes I think they compete for who has the raunchiest blues song,” Gaines said of her less reverent neighbors. By Sunday mornings, “everyone’s at the church, regardless if you go to the church or not.”
She’s lived on this street in Deanwood for only a decade. But it feels like home.
“You can hear the music of the neighborhood,” she said.
Gaines, 38, and her artistic partner, Seshat Walker, 40, have launched an ambitious experiment to see whether that same spirit can be amplified community wide. They are going around their transitional Ward 7 neighborhood, listening. Their goal is to track down and capture the faces and stories of 25 people who bring Deanwood to life.
The friends and former classmates from Savannah College of Art and Design come with a gimmick and a good heart. Gaines, who sees the world through cat-eye, tiger-print glasses, is the photographer. Walker does the interviews and came up with the idea for the giant white poster-board cutout they hand to subjects. It makes them look like they’re inhabiting a life-size Polaroid. The photographs and biographical sketches are going online and eventually in an exhibit.
“We wanted to frame the person, so they would be more focused on,” Gaines said.
David Smith, a single father of five who succeeded his mom and dad as head of the Deanwood Citizens Association and supplies the mac-and-cheese at meetings, is one of the subjects. So is Deborah Jones, who helps businesses remake their sagging storefronts as head of Deanwood Heights Main Streets and on a recent night shuttered her offices at 10:30 after another late-night community session. RonDell Pooler, who runs a nursery for the community-building nonprofit Washington Parks & People, was added in November.
“We always get the negative,” Smith said. “The work they’re doing is the opposite of that. I think it will create a momentum.”
He’s had to deal with a neighborhood kid who keeps burglarizing his house and with outside investors buying up properties down his street. But that hasn’t soured him on the rich opportunities he sees all around, including creating cultural and historical tours based on the area’s history of resisting slavery.
“If you don’t tell your story, other people will tell it for you,” Smith said. “That’s the most important piece. We have to tell our story.”
Walker grew up in a small town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. She cites her dynamic and fearless uncle, Vincent Hynson, for inspiring her to get involved. He was a skydiving, cake-baking farmer, actor and preacher who worked with kids with mental disabilities. “I was like, I want to live his life. He did everything unapologetically,” said Walker, who still chokes up talking about him.
Gaines points to a table beside her bed filled with row after row of photographs of deceased elders, some descended from escaped slaves and abolitionists. “This is kind of the council,” she said.
They’ve become inside observers, sometimes dropping in on people who have been around so long they’re barely noticed anymore.
“They were all right, the two ladies,” said Irvin Parker, 69, who’s been working at Deanwood’s Suburban Market since his father opened it in 1961. “They were good people.”
Today, the market sells tilapia filets, oatmeal and pineapple soda. Back then, Parker would walk outside to pick cherries, apples, peaches and pears. “I used to love it,” he said.
The neighborhood evolved around him, sometimes in the wrong direction, Parker said.
“At one particular point, I knew every family around here. Now, I probably know about 10,” Parker said. “I saw a major change in the ’80s. . . . The kids came up, the older people died off. They just weren’t friendly.”
He’s moved out of Deanwood now — splitting his time between the District’s Capitol View neighborhood and Annapolis — and commutes back for work. Although he’s hopeful about the influx of people moving into the neighborhood, the long-running migration to big supermarkets still stings. “Small stores like us, all we do is catch the scraps that fall off,” he said.
Still, Deanwood is full of stories worth telling, some of them his, such as the time he leapt on his father’s thoroughbred Rosslyn and took off down a dirt road.
It was the 1950s and Parker — then 8 or 9 — had something to prove. He had been talking big in the neighborhood about his dad’s racehorses but wasn’t allowed to ride them. Then, he sneaked one out in the middle of the night, walked to where his dad couldn’t hear and threw on an English saddle.
His rival on a quarter horse jumped out to a big lead for a couple of blocks.
Then Rosslyn woke up.
“When that thoroughbred cracked, I couldn’t even hold him,” Parker said. “That horse ran about a mile before I got him under control.”
He took Rosslyn to the water pump for a secret wash to prevent the thrashing that would have come from Dad discovering a sweaty horse.
Now in the summers, Parker races boats with dual 700-
horsepower engines on the Chesapeake Bay.
Gaines and Walker’s project is called My Deanwood, and it’s on Facebook for now. They hope the images and stories catch on. But it can be slow going.
“We have 59 people. I’m sure the 59 people are like: ‘Oh, cool. They did another one.’ It’s not like hundreds of people know about it,” Gaines said.
They don’t know how it might morph. Maybe they’ll turn to young people for a while. Or, Walker said, maybe they’ll go on to explore other activities she thinks of as “civic innovations,” such as maybe putting up gigantic brightly colored signs on abandoned properties reading, “Cut me,” “Paint me” or “Clean me up.”
“The 25 people we do, that’s not to say we’re done. There are plenty of people who make a difference,” Gaines said. “Every day there’s some history that happens.”