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Hillcrest, Penn-Branch:
Discovering the Pleasure
Of Living in Southeast

By Deneen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 20, 1995

Paul Savage, a retired man of means, could live anywhere he wants. But he chose to live in Southeast Washington.

Now, he realizes that a lot of unknowing people on the other side of the District carry a stereotypical image of Southeast Washington as a place over there, across the Anacostia River where poverty runs rampant.

Those people obviously have not seen Savage's neighborhood, a community of rolling hills, manicured lawns, red brick colonials and ramblers, balconies and nice cars.

The Penn-Branch and Hillcrest neighborhoods are also full of civic-minded, highly educated middle-class people who love their neighborhoods and are demanding respect for communities east of the Anacostia.

"A lot of people are stuck in this town because of economics. I happen not to be in that category," said Savage, president of the Hillcrest Community Civic Association and vice chairman of the Penn-Naylor Coalition of Civic Organizations.

"I'm here because I want to be here. I live here by choice. It is a suburban atmosphere within the confines of Washington," he added. "I've lived in this house 25 years because I want to."

Savage, a retired federal government executive, and his wife, Barbara, raised two children in Hillcrest.

"Hillcrest, east of the river, is not dissimilar to certain parts of Ward 3 {in Northwest Washington} in terms of the character of the homes," he said.

The communities of Penn-Branch and Hillcrest, which were once considered suburbs of Washington where people moved because it was hilly and they could get fresh air, are often referred to as the best-kept secrets in Washington.

Hillcrest is bounded on the north by Pennsylvania Avenue SE, on the east by Southern Avenue, on the west by 25th Street SE and the south by Naylor Road and 25th Street SE.

The neighborhood of Penn-Branch is bound on the south by Pennsylvania Avenue SE, on the west by Branch Avenue, on the north by Pope and Nash streets and on the east by Texas Avenue.

"A lot of people don't know this kind of neighborhood exists east of the river," said Tony Robinson, 32, who recently moved to a house on 36th Street SE. "It's one of the hidden jewels in the community. It's a beautiful place to live."

Robinson, who is chief of staff for D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), lives in the same neighborhood as his boss.

Chavous, who lived in Penn-Branch for six years, moved to a bigger house in Hillcrest 1 1/2 years ago.

"It's one of the best neighborhoods in Washington," Chavous said. "A lot of my neighbors like the positive publicity because it helps defuse the negative image of Southeast, but on the other hand they don't like it because every time people talk at length about some of the neighborhoods over here, we see a flurry of activity with people trying to purchase homes."

Chavous said people are protective of the neighborhood. "It's very close-knit. Folks are very private and very concerned about keeping the neighborhood intact. There is always a lot of scrutiny given to folks when they move into the neighborhood. People want to make sure the neighborhood keeps its character."

The character of the Penn-Branch and Hillcrest neighborhood is one of a community of civic-minded people who are organized. People watch out for each other. Some of the retired residents organize trips to Atlantic City or to garden shows out of town. They've planned a festival next month to celebrate the generations of people who have lived in the community.

Alberta Paul, president of Penn Branch Citizens/Civic Association, said her neighborhood is divided into 25 blocks. Each block has a captain who keeps the neighborhood informed about what is happening.

"There is not a family that has lost a child that the civic association doesn't know about. People get an old-fashioned hospitality welcome when they move in," Paul said.

"It's an organized collective community that just wants to have a serene place to live. Most of us are Washingtonians, born and raised here, and have no desire to move out of the District of Columbia, no matter what."

Paul said that when tragedy strikes a family, the neighborhood offers support to family members.

Recently, she said, a young woman lost her fiance in a motorcycle crash and block captains sent a support basket to the woman's family. "People have been over there supporting the parents. . . . Or like last year during that tragic gas explosion, the man who lived a block and one half from me was killed."

The man, Sidney Faison, was killed as he tried to divert traffic from natural gas leaking from an underground pipeline. Faison, a street engineer, had lived in a red brick home in Penn-Branch for 23 years.

"The block captain collected money and the association sent a large floral arrangement to the funeral," Paul said. "People feel they are not left alone."

The neighborhood has formed a safety patrol, in which neighbors volunteer to drive through the community day and night carrying two-way radios. If they see anything suspicious, they call a base station, which relays the message the police.

Paul said organization is important in any community. "It should exist in any urban city," she said. "If we are going to always maintain the beauty and cleanliness and safety of this community, we have to be organized."

Paul said Penn-Branch and Hillcrest have joined with other neighborhoods surrounding them to create a stronger lobbying coalition to deal with common problems, such as the underground water flow that is wearing away the infrastructure of the sewage system and gas lines. They also organized to let city officials know they wanted to maintain bulk trash pickup, street sweepers and rat control.

"We have supported things across the city. We are not just concerned about ourselves," Paul said.

The umbrella association is called the Penn-Naylor Coalition of Civic Organizations, or Pennco, and consists of 14 civic associations from the Sousa Bridge to the Maryland line. The group has lobbied the city to provide services to Southeast equivalent to services provided in the city's other wards.

The neighborhoods draw upon the talent that lives there. "When we had to deal with the ABC {Alcohol Beverage Control} Board, we didn't have to hire a lawyer," Paul said. "The lawyers who live in the community took the case."

Savage said residents also have been pressing such major stores as Giant and Safeway to provide better shopping in the area.

"It's ridiculous that my wife and others who have disposable income have to go to Maryland and Virginia to shop, simply because the offering here is not up to our standard," Savage said.

"The fact of it is it's not good enough. We are first-class people who refuse to take second class. They have a responsibility to offer the same quality of goods and services that they would offer in McLean. . . . The only thing that changes is you go from majority African American to majority Caucasian. The color of the money is the same."

The cost of houses in the neighborhoods run from about $150,000 to more than $300,000. Many of the sturdy houses were built about 50 years ago.

"They are real houses with hardwood floors and brick," said Valyncia Lindsey, who moved to Hillcrest six years ago from Arlington.

"It's a really, really good place to live," she added. "There are older brick homes. The homes don't look the same. The houses tend to have a lot of yard, which is unusual for Southeast."

© The Washington Post Co.

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