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Greenleaf Senior Dwellings:
Mixed Blessings

By Mary Ann French
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 14, 1992

Most people welcome the arrival of spring. Not so at the Greenleaf Senior Dwellings, a newly renovated eight-story public apartment building in Southwest Washington.

"With the weather changing, it gets dangerous for the elderly to go up to the Safeway," Alice Dorsey, 67, president of the building's Resident Council, said of the short walk across M Street. Warmer days and nights draw people out into the street from surrounding public housing projects, she said. Crowded living conditions spark tempers and drug deals explode in violence, so any outing involves risk.

"It's either that or pay someone to go to the store for you," Dorsey said, "and that gets expensive."

Those who live in Greenleaf Senior Dwellings brag that they're in the best of the 20 facilities the District maintains for low-income elderly tenants. But they are measuring with a plumb line that others wouldn't touch.

It's true that their community room is busy with games of cards and pool and that residents have organized flower clubs and gospel choirs.

But consider, also, that the lock on their front door is broken, leaving an unarmed security guard the only barrier between residents and intruders. The fire alarm doesn't work either. Nor does the intercom, which is supposed to allow tenants to call the front desk for help if they fall ill or become incapacitated.

A D.C. Housing Department official blamed the breakdown of the intercom on "overusage," and said some "tenant education" was needed to keep the system in good repair. Everything else is reportedly being fixed.

"Each person that comes down here to look says a certain part has been ordered," Dorsey said. "Everybody in Washington has promised us something ... from the [D.C.] Council on down."

Even so, about a third of the building's 456 units have showers with no stalls, so that when tenants bathe, water runs all over their floors.

"It was a dumb thing, and y'all can quote me on that, the way they did it in the beginning," building manager Lillian Tymus said Tuesday night at a Resident Council meeting. "All I can say is they are trying to correct their dumbness now."

Some water fountains in the halls don't work and many sliding doors on the balconies have no screens, so pigeons fly in on days that are too warm for heat and too chilly for air conditioning.

And this is the best, they said.

The building was designed in 1960 to house families who, officials said, so badly wrecked it that the city gutted and renovated it several years ago to accommodate senior and disabled citizens. Large apartments were cut into smaller ones, with sometimes bizarre results.

For instance, one set of units has closets almost as large as their bedrooms, but they have no hooks or rods where clothes can be hung. "One lady who lives on the eighth floor has made an office out of it," Dorsey said. "But I don't want an office in my apartment. I want someplace to hang my clothes."

Nevertheless, Dorsey said her complaints are small compared with beefs she hears about other projects in the area. "This is an ideal place to live," she said, "if we can just keep it this way."

So far, a recent sprucing up of Greenleaf's family section has been maintained, Dorsey said. And the nearby James Creek Dwellings, which were built during World War II, are well kept up. But all around are signs of change for the worse.

More than 15 percent of the city's public housing is close by, according to Gottlieb Simon, Advisory Neighborhood 2D's executive director.

"There was never such a thing as a master plan" for constructing public housing, said former D.C. mayor Walter E. Washington, who headed the National Capital Housing Authority in the 1940s. "What directed [it] was the cheapness of land and its availability ... and [the limitations of] segregation."

Lots in Anacostia could be had for 28 cents a square foot back then, he said, compared with $7 a square foot downtown. The parts of Southwest that were covered with alley dwellings were also cheap.

"There was a bitter fight about Greenleaf because it was sitting right in the middle of a high-rise, high-income development," Washington said of Carrollsburg Square, part of Southwest's "new town" that abuts the project.

They sit across the street from each other, but they're a world apart.

"I didn't ever think I'd be in public housing," said Dorsey, who moved into Greenleaf two years ago because her rent in a private building was going up so fast and it regularly threatened to consume all of her retirement income.

Many of the seniors seem similarly amazed to find themselves living in a government building, even those who have lived in projects 40 and 50 years.

"The philosophy was that families would stay there and improve, upward mobility would develop and families would ultimately be able to buy and move to private housing," said Washington. "That was the thinking, but it didn't happen."

Sylvia A. Williams, 65, still is a resident of the system after 36 years. Along the way, however, she managed to raise three daughters in public housing who went on to buy homes of their own. "I tried to teach them to move on and make room for someone less fortunate," she said.

Williams said she never thought she would end up in a place like Greenleaf, but she's pleasant about her fate and, like many of her neighbors, often reminds herself that things could be a lot worse.

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