For many in the Washington area, Fort Totten is a way to get somewhere else, a barely noticed midpoint in their regular commute. What they may not realize is that it’s a legitimate neighborhood, too — a small sliver of Northeast that, like so many D.C. communities, is undergoing gradual but very real change.
Lying in the center of a jumble of quiet neighborhoods including Michigan Park, Lamond-Riggs and Manor Park, Fort Totten is bounded by the Metro tracks to the east, Riggs Road to the north, North Capitol Street to the west and Hawaii Avenue to the south. It’s a small area, made smaller still by the large swaths of green space taken up by a recreation center, a giant community garden and the rambling, wooded Fort Totten park.
In fact, most of the neighborhood’s homes are located on or directly off the area’s spine, the hilly Fort Totten Drive. Apartment complexes line the road, while single-family homes lie on the few east-west streets just off of it.
That’s arguably the heart of the neighborhood: peaceful streets such as Crittenden, Buchanan and Allison containing long strings of duplexes and rowhouses made of brick or stone and shaded by tall willow oaks. With their network of back alleys and quaintly cluttered front yards, the streets have a well-tended, comfortable atmosphere, the kind you get when people have lived in their homes for decades.
According to residents, that’s very much been the case. “It’s a nice neighborhood. No crime, none of that,” said Juanita Jackson, who’s lived in the area for more than 35 years. The community was particularly tightknit in the past, she said, with residents banding together to hold block parties and other activities. “It was one big happy family when my kids were little.”
But over time, the original residents grew older. And while some had children who moved into nearby homes to raise their own kids, the neighborhood gradually became quieter. Outdoor life — on porches, in alleys — decreased, and Fort Totten turned into a place where neighbors peeked through their blinds to see what was going on outside, but wouldn’t actually venture out.
“Most of the people here are elderly,” said Dave Motley, 50, who has lived in the neighborhood for seven years but says he’s still viewed as a newcomer. While the longtime neighbors all know one another, he doesn’t socialize with them much. “A lot of people don’t even use their front doors; they drive in the back alley and right into their back yards.”
That’s what the area was like when Joe Finley, who runs the Totten Life blog, bought his home nine years ago. “When I moved in, it was still very close-knit. Most people had been there a while,” said Finley, 31. But that began to change a few years ago. Now, he said, “you’re starting to see some of the older residents recognizing that they want to retire; maybe they bought their house in the 1960s and are seeing the value and moving. And there’s definitely a larger amount of young professionals coming in.”
That latter change might be the function of the District’s reheated housing market, as first-time homeowners venture farther and farther from Northwest in search of low-cost houses. It might also be a spillover from nearby Brookland, with its robust stock of single-family homes and small but burgeoning commercial strip.
Of course, Fort Totten isn’t Brookland. The neighborhood doesn’t contain a single sit-down restaurant; to-go offerings are largely limited to Subway, Chinese food or pizza; and the closest supermarket is just over the Maryland border. Residents looking for intriguing dining options say they head to Hyattsville, Brookland or even Bloomingdale.
But that will change soon. Fort Totten is one of the District’s few Metro stations lacking nearby pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development, and the city — given its focus on increasing growth around Metro stations — has been successfully working to draw developers to the area. Two big projects are scheduled for a couple of parcels just east of the station. They aren’t in Fort Totten itself, but they’re close enough that residents are bound to be seriously affected.
Neither project is moving forward yet. But once they’re complete in a few years, the two — Fort Totten Place and Art Place at Fort Totten— will bring more than 1,000 new residential units and hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail space, including one of the city’s new Wal-Mart stores, plus a children’s museum.
Reaction among residents is mixed, said Finley, who himself bought his house with exactly that kind of growth in mind. “Some people are really, really excited, even long-termers. It’s neighborhood revitalization,” he said. “But at the same time, you have people concerned about increased traffic and maybe more property crime.”
But not everyone has the distant future in mind. Some seem perfectly content with where the neighborhood is right now. Like Francis Siaya, for example, who was heading up to the park with his young son Kihaka on a recent evening. A Fort Totten resident since 2006, he said he doesn’t know much about the future construction but has been very happy with the area’s development so far.
“It’s changed, but for the best — more integrated now, much more young,” he said. “Maybe it’s because I was an implant in the past, but it seemed like [residents] already had their routines. Now it’s easy to get to know your neighbors a little more — there are a lot more people talking to each other.”
Amanda Abrams is a freelance writer.
ZIP CODE: 20011
BOUNDARIES: Riggs Road to the north, the Metro tracks to the east, Hawaii Avenue to the south and North Capitol Street to the west.
SCHOOLS: Barnard Elementary School, LaSalle-Backus Education Campus (elementary and middle school), MacFarland Middle School, Roosevelt High School.
TRANSIT: The Fort Totten transfer station, on the Green and Red lines, lies no more than a 15-minute walk from any point in the neighborhood. The station is also served by a range of buses.
HOME SALES: The neighborhood’s stock of single-family homes is fairly small. According to Alex DeLorme, an agent with Lindsay Reishman Real Estate, four Fort Totten houses have sold in the past year, at prices ranging from $244,000 to $399,000, and one is now under contract after having been listed at $259,000. The wide price range reflects each home’s condition: Many have been occupied by a single owner for years and haven’t been updated in decades. Still, says DeLorme, “most are totally livable and a totally good deal. I’ve had people purchase there because they get more home for their money.”
WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE: Fort Totten Park, Fort Totten Community Garden, Keene Recreation Center, Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School, Rock Creek Cemetery, Catholic University, Providence Hospital, Lamond-Riggs Library.
WITHIN 15 MINUTES BY CAR: Brookland’s 12th Street, Washington Hospital Center, Catholic University, Trinity Washington University, Rock Creek Park, Howard University, Columbia Heights, Hyattsville, Silver Spring and the National Arboretum.