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LeDroit Park:
A Marriage
Of Past, Present

By Angela E. Couloumbis
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 6, 1996

In a city of monuments and museums that speak the language of the nation's past, the LeDroit Park neighborhood in Northwest Washington tells its own compelling story of activism and change.

Built in the 1870s and promoted as a "romantic suburb," Ledroit Park had large, expensive homes. Its residents were mostly white. They named the streets after the trees that lined the sidewalks and built a wall around their community.

Students from nearby Howard University eventually tore down part of the wall and the residents soon removed the rest. By the early 1900s the neighborhood became home for Howard faculty members and many of the city's prominent black leaders.

Today, some of the Victorian homes still stand, but a drive through the LeDroit Park reveals it to be a medley of renovated old mansions, row houses and some vacant lots that are attracting developers who find the neighborhood architecturally different from other downtown districts.

"This was and still is an attractive and interesting place to live," said Terry Brown, a LeDroit Park resident for more than 30 years and the founder of the LeDroit Park Preservation Society. "It has a rich past, and the people who move here feel that they're part of this community's ongoing tradition."

Located south of Howard University, LeDroit Park is one of Washington's smaller enclaves, extending from Florida Avenue on the south, Elm Street on the north, Second Street on the east and Bohrer Street on the west. Residents live a short walk from the commercial center that sprang up around Howard's campus, as well as a number of community organizations, such as the civic association, that sponsor activities geared toward bringing neighbors together.

The community prides itself on being a center for activism and social change, and the neighborhood boasts of a long list of activists who called LeDroit Park home -- suffragette Mary Church Terrell, publisher Colonel West Hamilton, educator Anna J. Cooper and poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar.

Walter E. Washington, the District's first elected mayor, has lived on the 400 block of T Street in LeDroit Park for more than 50 years. On the same block, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson bought and restored a 1,860-square-foot house with a two-car garage that is nearly 110 years old.

"This is a cohesive neighborhood and, through their efforts, residents have helped maintain that cohesiveness," said Washington, who added that when he first moved to the neighborhood, the city was segregated and LeDroit Park was predominately white.

Today, LeDroit Park attracts professionals who enjoy living near the center of the city and students from nearby Howard University who find the five-minute walk to campus convenient.

Overall preservation of the community has become one of the most important and at times divisive issues for residents. LeDroit Park was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, and since then residents such as Brown have fought to maintain the neighborhood's distinct architectural character. That, in turn, has raised the question of how to develop the vacant lots that over the years have depressed the neighborhood's housing prices, which range from $85,000 to $130,000, though some of the larger homes have sold for up to $220,000, Brown said.

In the last year Manna Inc., a nonprofit affordable housing developer in the District, has proposed building two-unit condominiums that will resemble single-family houses on the 400 block of U Street. The proposal has split the community between those who think the plans interfere with the neighborhood's architectural cohesiveness and those who believe that something needs to be done with the vacant lots.

The debate centers on the design of the proposed homes, Brown said. Manna originally had proposed to build stucco-style condos. Most of the structures in LeDroit Park have brick facades, and the Preservation Society, which is working closely with Manna, has recommended that the company adhere to the existing architectural pattern.

"We want the design to be compatible with what we already have in the neighborhood," Brown said. "It is important to me to see that the architectural integrity of this neighborhood is not wiped out."

But residents such as Lawrence Guyot, who heads the Advisory Neighborhood Commission and supports Manna's development strategy, said that the company's plans are consistent with the Preservation Board's requirements.

The proposed housing, Guyot said, also will encourage homeownership in the area, which in the past decade has witnessed families arrive as renters rather than buyers.

"The type of housing {Manna} has proposed is not only consistent with what we have, but will add to the character of the neighborhood," said Guyot, who is circulating a petition in favor of the proposed plans he intends to present to the Preservation Board.

Jim Dickerson, Manna's chairman, is concerned that the company will not be able to finance the project while keeping with the recommendations of the board.

"The word affordable housing sets off warning flags in many people's minds," Dickerson said. "We are still working with the Preservation Board, and we are trying to follow their guidelines, but we're not sure whether we have the resources to incorporate all of their recommendations. Our strong preference is to not engage in an acrimonious or adversarial relationship with those in the community who don't agree with our plans."

Despite the disagreement, LeDroit Park residents enjoy a closeness that is unusual for a downtown community, said Anita Rice, president of the LeDroit Park Civic Association. She bought her home 17 years ago. Her father grew up in LeDroit Park, and Rice someday plans to give the home to her daughter.

"It's surprising how many people who live here have roots that they can trace back to this neighborhood," Rice said. "This community is like a close-knit family. We know when to disagree, and we know when to come together and rally for a cause."

© 1996 The Washington Post Co.

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