Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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In one of the oldest working-class African-American neighborhoods in the nation’s capital, a proposal to conserve its history has divided residents over the questions of what it means to be historically significant, and what makes a structure worth saving.

Settled in the 1920s, Kingman Park in Northeast D.C. was one of the first examples of a “separate-but-equal” community—a place where African-American veterans, government workers, and business people bought homes at a time when most neighborhoods were off limits to them. 

But while black families who grew up in Kingman Park have cheered the proposal to make the area a historic district, the community has become more white and more middle-class in recent years. Many black families have moved away, and many of the current residents oppose a preservation order that they see as unnecessary for the homes in the community. They have proposed other methods, such as the installation of historical plaques, to honor the neighborhood.

For two years the two sides have battled, but last week, D.C.’s Historic Preservation Review Board issued its decision: Kingman Park will become an official historic district.

“There are legitimate reasons to be for or against historic designation,” responds Bob Coomber, the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for the area. “There’s no excuse for ignoring the will of the people this designation will directly affect.”

“I definitely understand the desire for designation for those people that have been here a long time,” said Megan Mance before the decision came out. She moved with her husband Steve into a 1937 home on C Street NE two years ago. The couple explained that their neighbors represented a good mix of longtime residents, including their next door neighbor who has lived there for the past 30 years. “But I’m an economist,” Steve Mance added. “I have to keep in mind what’s best for our property value, and there’s really nothing special about our home that would deem designation.”

The debate in Kingman Park echoes one that is playing out nationwide. Historic preservation has typically favored affluent, white neighborhoods with unique architecture, while minority neighborhoods have been overlooked. But cities have recently turned their attention to those neighborhoods that were passed over.

“Now, diversity is of extreme importance to preservation,” says David Maloney, the city’s top preservation official. “Society’s values must be reflected to show what’s important now, the value of communities and a sense of meaning.”

Supporters filed paperwork with the city saying that Kingman Park’s historical structures include row houses, apartment buildings, commercial buildings along Benning Road NE, public school buildings, and the Langston Golf Course, which was the nation’s first golf club for African-Americans. While the row houses are not necessarily architecturally significant, supporters say the modest brick homes represent the character of a distinguished community.

Calvin Holloway favors the designation. “I grew up here, went to school here, and watched history get done away with,” he says. Now a deacon at Mount Moriah Baptist Church along the southernmost border of Kingman Park, Halloway recalls watching his church get torn down from its original location in Southwest D.C. during urban renewal, and seeing his community become gentrified. “Not only did they destroy the building, they destroyed the entire neighborhood,” says Holloway.

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Doris Rousey is the great-granddaughter of the Mount Moriah Baptist Church’s founders, who first hosted services in their home at 1220 2nd Street SW in 1885. “If they’re looking at the building, this building isn’t as significant as the history it holds,” says Rousey as she flips through the church history book. 

Mount Moriah moved to Kingman Park in 1958 after being priced out of its location on 3rd and L streets SW. Holloway, along with many other Mount Moriah members, wanted to see their church protected so that redevelopment does not again force the church, with its 133-year history, to move.

Neighborhood historic designation began in the 1970s with communities such as Dupont Circle and Logan Circle. The city’s largest historic districts are Capitol Hill, with about 8,000 buildings under preservation, and Georgetown, with about 4,000 buildings. Community leaders are now able to petition the city for consideration for historic designation.

In Kingman Park, the proposal was submitted by the Kingman Park Civic Association, a group that residents established in 1928 to address “the educational, economic and public safety concerns of the neighborhood and focus on the needs of African-American residents.” But many of the group’s members pushing for historical designation have, like Holloway, moved away.

Some current residents formed a rival civic association, Friends of Kingman Park, and conducted a poll in December that said 72 percent were against historic designation for their homes.

Coomber, who is also a board member for Friends of Kingman Park, says he was initially interested in the proposed historic district, but was persuaded otherwise when he spoke to his elderly neighbors, who he says raised concerns about affordability, new restrictions on their homes, and new permitting requirements for repairs.

Residents within historic districts wanting to renovate or add on to their homes have to complete a building permit process to ensure they are not degrading the historic values of their properties. The Historic Preservation Office inspects properties with approved building permits to ensure compliance with the standards the HPRB establishes. 

Coomber says the city’s preservation office doesn’t understand the neighborhood or the concerns of its residents. “By preserving the architecture, the concern that I’m hearing from my neighbors is that you’ll be driving out the people who have been here the longest,” he says. “Architecture preservation does not reflect the history.”

Coomber’s family home was built in 1941, some 20 years after the establishment of Kingman Park. He feels that markers and plaques would better serve the neighborhood, where he says houses are not “architecturally unique.”

Once he was alerted of the Historic Preservation Review Board’s May 3 decision to designate, Coomber says he and other residents were frustrated. 

Brandon Arnold owns a home on 23rd Place NE that was constructed in the 1930s. Arnold feels that homeowners’ concerns were not heard and that the decision to designate was steamrolled.

“I understand that [the HPO] is saying they want to work with us and talk about the guidelines. I hope they do. I hope they take the neighborhood views into consideration and actually hear what people’s concerns are, but given how they handled the application as a proposal, I’m incredibly doubtful that they will actually care what anyone in the neighborhood thinks, and suspect that they will just push forward whatever they think is best regardless of what the neighborhood thinks,” says Arnold. 

The historic preservation designation will go into effect on June 24. The boundaries of the new Kingman Park Historic District will be smaller that what the application proposal suggested but larger than what the HPO recommended—a sticking point for those who opposed it. 

Before the designation takes effect, Kingman Park homeowners will have the opportunity to have their questions answered by the HPO. They plan to work with the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission and other stakeholders on revising and finalizing the Kingman Park Historic District Design Guidelines. Once finalized, the guidelines will be presented to the Historic Preservation Review Board for approval.