Credit: Darrow Montgomery

The residents of Hillcrest deserve better than Pizza Hut. They deserve better than Payless and RadioShack. And they deserve a free-standing Starbucks, not just one that’s housed inside the local Safeway.

Why? Because the residents of Hillcrest, part of Ward 7, take care of their lawns. The green spreads of this east-of-the-river neighborhood will never be confused with the Astroturf front porches found elsewhere; nor are they the overly tended lawns that you might find in, say, Wesley Heights; they are pristine and real, reflecting the handiwork of good and old and regular citizens. See them on the annual Hillcrest garden tour, an event that’s more than a decade old.

Excellent lawn care, of course, is merely an indicator of other things, like high median incomes and tightknittedness. A glimpse at Hillcrest’s Listserv shows some of the immediate concerns of its residents: an announcement for a fish fry, gripes about Internet services, a local artist showing at Artomatic, a posting for a moving sale, a flea market to raise money to send kids to camp, and links to natural treatments for cancer.

Those postings reflect a community that’s eager to consume—if only it had some decent stores.

Residents are betting on a 16-acre site nearby that is the planned location for the Skyland Town Center, an ultra-modern development that seeks to build condos, apartments, retail, parking garages, and “meeting places” at the intersection of Good Hope Road and Alabama Avenue SE, continuing a trend of bringing a touch of Tysons Corner into the heart of Southeast.

But just a touch. Neighborhoods to the north of Hillcrest—such as Randle Highlands, Penn Branch, and Fort Dupont Park—suffer a parched retail landscape alongside robust residential communities, although they appear to be on the upswing. A four-story building on Q Street SE in Randle Highlands, for instance, has been purchased by the Southeast D.C. Partners (SEDCP) for conversion into a recreation center. In Fort Dupont Park, citizens organized to save their year-round ice rink—the National Park Service was threatening to close it—in order to save programs like D.C.-Inner City Excitement (D.C.-ICE), a youth speed-skating club.

Hillcrest’s southern flank—including Garfield Heights, Buena Vista, and surrounding areas that spill into Ward 8—is revitalizing its way into the well-manicured fold. Slowly morphing since the late 1990s, this pocket of Southeast is still not exactly beckoning to young, wide-eyed interlopers with a sense of urban manifest destiny, but that’s not a bad thing. There are more services and businesses and better housing than there has been in a long time. Those improvements, however, haven’t caused the thoroughgoing displacement that typically accompanies such change.

Just a few months ago, a new Giant grocery store opened in this community as part of something called the Shops at Park Village. Of course, Park Village is not a D.C. neighborhood (yet). Exactly what existing neighborhood hosts the new Giant and the Shops at Park Village is a matter of some dispute. D.C. atlases place the retail center in Shipley Terrace, yet activists in adjacent Congress Heights claim it as their own. Says Congress Heights resident Sandra Seegars: “I can see it from my house and I can walk to it. Regardless of what neighborhood it is, it’s in my neighborhood.”

One thing everyone agrees on is that it’s the only supermarket in all of Ward 8. And speaking of groundbreaking, the Shops also includes a still-under-construction IHOP, which will become the first real sit-down restaurant in Ward 8.

The area does, however, have palm trees. Not real ones, mind you—fake ones that adorn the splash park at the Villages of Parklands, a rehabbed apartment community between Alabama and Mississippi Avenues SE. The plastic trees are now regarded as the first sign of the slow but steady revitalization of Southeast, and no self-respecting story on the neighborhood is complete without them.

Touchstones

• Allen Chapel AME Church: Called “The Cathedral of Southeast,” this church served free blacks in the Good Hope community prior to the Civil War, former slaves who became landowners in the area after the war, and many, many other people since. It’s been on Alabama Avenue SE since the street was called Hampton Road, before a 1920s name change.

• Hillcrest has been nothing but steadfast in its self-image. Hillcrest Citizens’ Association’s first Hillcrest Bulletin, an annual publication, was titled Why Not a Suburban Home in Hillcrest, D.C.?; it was published in 1928. And some things never change. From the Bulletin: “People have become so accustomed to going Northwest that they have overlooked entirely one of the best sections of Washington from every point of view. There are many reasons why Hillcrest should appeal to all good people.”

• Green spaces: Aside from the area’s healthy serving of typical city parks, it hosts the mammoth, 370-acre Fort Dupont Park. Once part of the Civil War defenses for Washington, Fort Dupont (as in the actual watch-out-they’re-shooting-at-us fort) and its surrounding foliage became a national park in the 1930s. This slice of nature isn’t merely good for soothing your inner-transcendentalist, though. With a skating rink and an athletic center, it also services your inner jock.