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Putting Down Roots in D.C.

By Gabriel Escobar
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 10, 1992

Mount Hamilton and Hickey Hill in Northeast Washington once looked over the city’s flatlands, including a wild-rice swamp by the Anacostia River, and the area’s topographical distinctions and varied soil made it the ideal location for the National Arboretum.

What was probably not envisioned by the early planners of one of the city’s premier green spaces—a “perennial feast of botanical education,” as a 1918 proposal for the Arboretum called it—was that the area also would be home to one of the District’s smallest and most distinctive communities.

One would be hard-pressed to find another District neighborhood where the contrasts are so stark and in such close proximity. This is a place where walking just one block on R Street NE places one at the Yellow Cab garage or at the foot of pastoral Mount Hamilton, where sought-after brick homes built in the 1930s have the bucolic Arboretum as their front yard.

On the west lies Bladensburg Road, one of the oldest arteries in the city, and on the north is New York Avenue (Route 50), a gateway to Washington. Both are home to light industries and motels, and traffic rumbles 24 hours a day.

Boxed in on the east and south by the Arboretum, the little neighborhood of the same name has cultivated and maintained a distinctly suburban image—maple-lined streets, ample lawns, awnings and wrought-iron fences.

“I think a lot of people hustling and bustling up Bladensburg Road don’t know this is here,” said Cynthia Greene, who moved into the area 22 years ago and until recently was president of the Arboretum Neighborhood Association.

The community is so small that a right turn off Bladensburg Road, using any of four parallel streets starting with R Street, places the visitor smack in the middle of this residential oasis. At its widest point it is only about two blocks long, and the whole neighborhood can be toured at a leisurely pace in less than an hour.

A surveyors map from 1927, the year the Arboretum was finally established by an act of Congress, shows the Arboretum neighborhood divided into 414 narrow lots. At the time, the federal government was trying to buy additional land for the national park, and large tracts south of R Street and east of 24th Street were privately held farms.

It was not until 1929 that the first houses on Randolph Place (now curiously shortened to Rand Place) were constructed. In the 1930s the rest of the single-family homes were built, and the first homeowner efforts to have R Street paved were opposed by Congress because some feared it would drive up the price of land needed for the Arboretum.

The next major change in the neighborhood did not occur until 1962, when construction for the Parkway Plaza apartment complex began. The 185-unit project, which is off T Street, was opposed by homeowners who feared it would have an adverse effect on the neighborhood. Those concerns did not materialize, and instead many now feel the complex ended up contributing to the community by donating two parcels of land.

One is now the site of the neighborhood recreation center on Rand Place, which has tennis courts and a basketball court. Residents and the center’s director, Tom Dimmins, said the facility has proven to be one of the heralded attractions of the neighborhood, drawing as many as 70 children from the Arboretum community and surrounding areas.

A free after-school program at the center is staffed by volunteers who help neighborhood children with their homework. Sponsored by Howard University and run on Fridays from 4 to 6 p.m., the sessions are especially helpful to single mothers, said volunteer Jean Mason, known throughout the area as “Aunt Jean.”

“I don’t care whose child you are, I’m going to see your report card,” said Mason, who works for the Department of Health and Human Services. “You know how they did it in the old days? Well, that’s how we do it in the neighborhood.”

The other parcel is now home to the 5th District police station house, completed in 1974 on the corner of Bladensburg Road and T Street. Although the Arboretum’s isolation has traditionally kept crime at a distance, periodic break-ins and other problems that plague city neighborhoods occur.

The Carver Terrace and Langston Dwellings housing projects are south of the Arboretum itself, and crime in those areas resulted in the closing of the Arboretum’s M Street entrance earlier this year. Residents said the presence of police, who often cruise through the Arboretum neighborhood or park their private vehicles on its streets, has discouraged serious crime.

The Arboretum neighborhood has 1,453 residents living in 586 housing units, according to the 1990 census. The census tract, however, includes the Gateway neighborhood in the north, and the actual population of the Arboretum community is probably smaller. Real estate agents said houses do not come on the market often, and when they do they generally sell quickly.

The average price ranges from $100,000 to $150,000. Real estate agent Wesley King said he has a $145,000 contract on a Rand Place house that was on the market for less than a month, unusual in this stretch of Northeast where property does not move quickly.

At Parkway, senior property manager Francis Scheffenacker said the occupancy rate is about 97 percent. Apartments there rent for $595 a month (a special promotion) to $655 or $675 for a two-bedroom unit.

Houses along R and 24th streets NE are the most sought after because they border the Arboretum. Residents such as Carroll Williams, Lewis Johnson and Odessa Hackney all moved in in the 1950s, attracted by the Arboretum and the suburbia-in-the-city atmosphere. At the time, the surrounding area was considerably different than it is now. Williams remembers a horse farm on New York Avenue and brick kilns near T Street.

The neighborhood has always had a strong sense of community, these residents said, and that has produced tangible results. A plaque was recently placed in the recreation center, in honor of those who fought for its construction, and the community has mobilized against several projects it deemed inappropriate for the area.

Residents fought the Capital City Inn, a homeless shelter that caused considerable neighborhood consternation before it was demolished in 1990. A Salvation Army plan to build a shelter on New York Avenue, just west of Bladensburg Road, also has drawn strong opposition and is being watched closely by the association.

“I’m not for it and I think many of the residents aren’t for it because we can see it turning into the same situation,” said Greene, referring to the neighborhood’s problems with the old shelter.

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