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A liquor store on the corner of 45th Street and Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE fronts a sign with the word SUBURBAN in tall letters. It’s a word that runs through much of the history of Affordia, particularly during its most vibrant era in the years following World War II. Fender bender? Go to the Suburban Garage. Tank of gas? Head to the Suburban Filling Station. The neighborhood bodega? Suburban Market. Take the family out for an afternoon of roller coaster and carousel rides? In the middle of town was Suburban Gardens, which was open from 1921 to 1940 and still claims the title of the only permanent amusement park erected in D.C.
Deanwood was founded as a black enclave separate from the bustle of D.C.—for years it was largely rural, many city services didn’t arrive until the ’50s, and Suburban Gardens was a rebuke to the whites-only recreational spots elsewhere in the city. A recent photo history, Washington D.C.’s Deanwood (Arcadia Publishing), details how the neighborhood was built on parcels owned by the Sheriff and Deane families, with houses constructed by local black architects. (Most prominent among them was H.D. Woodson, who also worked on Union Station and became the namesake for the sole high school in Ward 7.) For decades, Affordia operated as a self-sufficient burg with a thriving business district. Among Deanwood’s civic leaders was Nannie Helen Burroughs, who in 1909 founded the National Training School for Women and Girls, which was renamed in her honor in 1964, three years after her death. The private school still stands high on a hill, just off the road that now also bears her name.
Today, a trip down that street and Deanwood’s other main drags—Division Avenue and Sheriff Road—doesn’t immediately inspire visions of a boom town. With the exception of the occasional church, liquor store, and salon, the neighborhood is sleepy and heavily residential. If you’re hunting for a bite to eat, your options are pretty much limited to a Chinese carryout; a bodega on Division, its register behind Plexiglas, is among the few food-shopping options (the last neighborhood supermarket closed in 1999). For bargain-hunters and developers, this may be the last frontier in the District: There are some apartment complexes, but largely this is a neighborhood of houses. Deanwood’s grassy, hilly landscape has made it more amenable to detached homes—you’re more likely to see ramblers than duplexes and row houses. You’re also likely to get it cheap: The ZIP code comprising Deanwood and Benning Heights has the lowest median home value in the city ($257,100). That number represents a 10 percent spike between 2006 and 2007, so it’s a fair bet that Affordia won’t be particularly affordable much longer.
An influx of new residents would mark a change in character for the area. “Many of the homes in the community were built by people who still live there,” says Kia Chatmon, head of the Deanwood History Committee. So the goal among civic leaders is to attract development without losing its status as a healthy home for generations of residents. “We’ve been underserved, underretailed, and looking at quality-of-life issues,” says Sylvia Brown, president of the Deanwood Citizens Association. “We’re ready for the private sector, and for new neighbors, either coming back because their family base is in Deanwood, or looking at Deanwood as a place to get your starter home and grow your family.”
Some of the infrastructure for that growth is already in place—parks, housing stock, a dedicated Metro stop on the Orange Line. But abandoned properties and car thieves are also part of the landscape, says ANC member Alice Chandler. “We do have people who’ve come to the neighborhood in the past 10 years, and they’ve made a good try of it,” she says. “But there are people who, we must admit, probably rent out their homes or pass them down to family members who don’t have responsibilities other than to pay the taxes.”
Efforts to get redevelopment moving and bolster the community are under way, though they’ve been moving slowly. One of the first puzzles to solve is the Strand Theater building on the corner of Division and Nannie Helen Burroughs, which housed the neighborhood movie theater until 1959. A historic designation for the façade is pending (the neon sign still stands, though it’s rusty and out of service), but an RFP for rehabbing the four-story building received only one response. More successful is the effort to replace the minuscule Deanwood Library Kiosk with the $26 million Deanwood Recreation and Library Center, complete with an indoor swimming pool and senior lounge—if all stays on schedule, it should be operational next year.
• After Suburban Gardens closed, it became home to Suburban Heights, a housing development designed to accommodate soldiers returning to the neighborhood after World War II. The architect was John Graham Jr., who was later one of the codesigners of the Space Needle for Seattle’s 1962 World’s Fair.
• The Strand Theater, opened in 1928, was the hub of Deanwood’s cultural life for three decades, hosting movies and dances. Now owned by the city, it’s abandoned and crumbling—a foot of water was reportedly found in the basement last summer. Ward 7 leaders like Councilmember Yvette Alexander are hoping to bring some of the redevelopment funds for the Lincoln Heights and Richardson Dwelling housing projects to remake the Strand as a mixed-use hub.
• As with most neighborhoods, arguments are endless about where Deanwood’s exact borders lie. Officially, the southern border is Marvin Gaye Park, which would make Deanwood the boyhood home of the Motown icon—he spent part of his teen years in a townhouse on 60th Street NE. The home was part of East Capitol Dwellings, which was demolished to make room for Capitol Gateway Estates. The park plays host to the annual Capital Hip-Hop Soul Fest; this year’s takes place July 26.