Wander through eastern Capitol Hill and it’s not immediately apparent where Barney Circle begins. The neighborhood’s long strings of rowhouses are virtually interchangeable with those from the surrounding area, and there’s no sign to aid a visitor. The neighborhood’s most distinguishing feature is probably the arc of office buildings whose shape suggests the traffic circle that was once there.
But Barney Circle’s uniqueness never stemmed from its built environment. For decades, the area was known throughout the city for activism, its citizens successfully fighting crime and unwanted development to protect their neighborhood. But with an increase in new residents over the past few years, that tight community vibe has been on the wane, and cracks exposed by a grueling historic preservation struggle a couple of years ago haven’t completely healed.
Perched at the southeastern edge of Capitol Hill, Barney Circle is a small, triangular neighborhood. Potomac and Kentucky Avenues serve as its western boundaries, and 17th Street and the adjacent Congressional Cemetery mark its eastern border.
The area began developing in 1901, the result of a trolley line extension down Pennsylvania Avenue; the traffic circle served as its terminus and turn-around point. By the 1930s, Barney Circle was populated by employees of the nearby Navy Yard and a smattering of white collar workers. The rowhouses built to serve them were correspondingly modest; most have two stories, two or three bedrooms and a couple of bathrooms, small yards, and low porches.
When Eleanor Hill and her husband, Theodore, moved to Barney Circle in the late 1950s, the neighborhood was largely white and working class. “We were the first African Americans on our block,” said Hill, now in her late 70s.
That changed after the 1968 riots: Barney Circle turned over completely and became almost 100 percent African American. But it remained a cohesive community. “We looked out for one another,” remembered Hill. “If it snowed, we’d call our neighbors and find out if they needed anything, and we’d have block parties once a year.”
And when drugs started moving into the area around 1989, residents formed an ‘orange hat patrol,’ the second in the city, to monitor suspicious activity on the streets. “We walked every single night except Sunday,” said Hill. The first walk of the year always occurred on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s observed holiday and was celebrated with a rally and refreshments. “It got bigger and bigger, and a lot of the political people would come”—including the mayor and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, said Hill.
In 1996, residents—plus a swath of other concerned citizens—won a long-fought battle against the proposed Barney Circle Freeway, a 1.5-mile spur that would have connected the Southeast Freeway with East Capitol Street. Neighbors contended that the highway, an initiative led by federal, regional, and local agencies, would have added pollution and traffic to the area while reducing nearby parkland.
“We were always known for our strength as neighborhood advocates,” said Hill.
Given those successes, it’s not surprising that when an unsightly apartment building went up on a formerly vacant lot in the late 1990s, residents mobilized to prevent other similar developments. It was several years before they learned about historic preservation as a potential tool to maintain the area’s wholly residential, early-20th-century flavor, “but once we did, we jumped right on it,” said Hill. By 2004, community members were seeking to label the neighborhood a historic district, and had begun forming committees and holding meetings.
But the process dragged out for years. It was 2010 when the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board finally scheduled a hearing on the topic. By then, the neighborhood was dotted with new residents who’d been attracted by Barney Circle’s housing stock and location and didn’t simply take their neighbors’ word that historic district designation would be a big win for the area. Many were dismayed by its fine-print restrictions—including having to file for a permit to change a home’s façade—and were willing to fight the process.
Brian Flahaven, 34, who works for a higher education organization and is now the community’s ANC commissioner, was one of those newcomers. He and his wife arrived in 2007 and quickly began protesting the issue. “I felt strongly that residents didn’t have all the information they needed about what a historic designation was,” he said.
The disagreement eventually disintegrated into an all-out skirmish, with both groups going door-to-door and circulating anonymous incendiary fliers. In the end, during a packed meeting that took place in Congressional Cemetery’s chapel, members of the Historic Preservation Review Board sensed that the majority of the crowd opposed designation and chose to not call for a vote. And in November, Flahaven beat the pro-historic district incumbent for the ANC seat.
Flahaven, it seems, was right: even some longtime residents hadn’t initially realized how onerous historic preservation rules can be. “For me, it was too much control, telling me what kind of fence I can put up,” said Ulysses Hoston, 58, whose family has lived on G Street for 70 years.
But the motive behind the process was never about restricting fence options; it was about halting major challenges, such as teardowns or unattractive third-floor additions, to the community’s appearance. And members of the community—including Flahaven, who’s become something of a mediator—are still seeking a compromise, in the form of a less limiting ‘historic preservation lite’ option.
According to David Maloney of DC’s Historic Preservation Office, though, residents can’t agree on even the most basic policies at this point.
For Eleanor Hill, who misses old community events like block parties and cleanup days, the controversy forged a tragic divide between neighbors. “You don’t really get to know people anymore,” she said. “It’s just sad. People speak but they don’t come together.”
But others, including Flahaven, say that the 2010 battle had an upside: it brought new and old residents, many of whom had never spoken, face to face.
“If you could take one positive thing from the historic district battle, people definitely got into it and got to meet each other,” said Flahaven. “I think we’ve come a long way since that conversation.”
Amanda Abrams is a freelance writer.