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It took gentrification a while to steamroll Turrets Syndrome. The Big G finished the job on some tasks: the restoration of empty and decaying houses, for example, and the opening of cafes and a few shops. Community boards have been added to work with police to protect the hoods’ new amenities.
Other projects are on G’s to-do list. For example, the brick silos at the abandoned McMillan Sand Filtration Plant are going to be accompanied by a mall and apartments sometime in the next 15 years, and an old firehouse in Truxton Circle (which, ahem, stopped being an actual circle in 1947) is being turned into a multilevel, multicuisine restaurant.
On top of that, this area includes the rapidly developing and unfortunately named NoMa, and its northern reaches are just around the bend from Greater U Street’s delights. The hoods are accessible on Metro’s green, yellow, and red lines and are located on decent bus routes.
Turrets Syndrome has quite a bit to offer the slacker urbanite. Pick up a coffee and a delicious grilled cheese sandwich from the Big Bear Cafe in Bloomingdale (which happens to be one of the only restaurants in that neighborhood). Enjoy the well-tended gardens with their interesting lawn art while noting the storefront churches and (frequently) well-maintained early-20th-century row houses across North Capitol Street in Eckington, as well as the enormous Queen Annes of LeDroit Park.
You could check and see if the art space at 87 Florida Ave. NW is open (probably not), wander up to the boarded-up space on the corner of 1st and Rhode Island to see if Heller’s Bakery has moved in yet (it hasn’t), and then putter over to the tucked-away Crispus Attucks Park to see how its transformation into a tamed patch is coming along. (Nicely: The rose bushes look and smell wonderful, and the division of the park into dog-friendly and dog-unfriendly zones is nearly complete. There are benches under shady trees, and a lot of the back porches facing the park are being fixed up.)
You get the feeling in these neighborhoods that there is community, and art, and the prospect of a good future, even if there isn’t yet anywhere to get a cocktail.
In honor of all this development, let’s contemplate the career of Amzi Barber, the Asphalt King.
Barber was a short-term president of Howard University who left his post during Reconstruction to found an all-white “romantic” suburb on 40 acres of land purchased from the university. The houses in this suburb are invariably spectacular and were all designed by the architect James H. McGill. They’re a mix of row houses and large, incongruous-looking stand-alone Victorians, the aforementioned Queen Annes, and other houses that seem oddly like they might have been 19th-century McMansions. But classier.
Then Barber named the whole thing after his father-in-law —LeDroit Langdon—the father of his second wife (the first wife died a few years earlier). Not much later, Barber became known as the “Asphalt King” due to his ownership of an asphalt company mired in lawsuit after lawsuit; this was the late 1880s, just as America was being paved over; Barber turned out fine, and his obituary in the New York Times notes that in addition to having largely been responsible for traffic as we know it, he was also a great yachtsman.
It’s worth noting that when LeDroit Park was built, it was surrounded by a fence and armed guards, a protected enclave for the neighborhood’s white residents. The fence didn’t last long, repeatedly torn down by the black neighbors it was meant to exclude. In 1893, LeDroit Park’s first black resident moved in, and other black professionals followed suit.
There is no fence around LeDroit now, but there is a gate, right on the corner of Florida and T. On one side of the gate are the large, unusual houses of T Street, which are either restored or are being restored. On the other side of the gate was a long-standing Moroccan restaurant that was priced out of its space, and a block from there is the Howard Theater—the first full-scale theater in America built for black performers and black audiences. It’s where Ella Fitzgerald was discovered. The Howard’s got a chicken-wire gate around it these days, and while there is a lot of talk about it being restored, right now it looks like it’s been hit with firebombs.
Across the street from the Howard Theater is the Dunbar Theater, another of the city’s legendary black theaters. Now it’s a bank.
• Across from the McMillan Reservoir on First Street is the Bloomingdale Inn, where you’ll want to put up your parents if you don’t have a spare bedroom. The Bloomingdale is owned by Lorraine Wilson, who bought the row house from Howard University in 1998. Before the Bloomingdale Inn was an inn, says Wilson, it was a place for African-American Catholics to worship, when Catholic University was still segregated. The house still has details from its previous use: In a guest room on the first floor, you’ll find the raised platform where the priest would stand (now it’s a place for relaxing); in another room you’ll find a low-hanging mirror. Innkeeper Gerald Wilkson explains that it was considered unseemly for priests to look at their own reflections, and so the mirror was hung high enough to make sure their vestments were on properly but low enough that priests could not see their own faces.
• World Missions for Christ is not just a cool-looking storefront church across the street from Big Bear. It is also the subject of a 2004 documentary—Let the Church Say Amen—which follows the lives of four struggling neighborhood residents who go to this poky, run-down church and find hope and support there.