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BURNED AGAIN IN ANACOSTIA
When the firetrucks arrived at an Aug. 25 blaze on the 1900 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, three dilapidated buildings were completely engulfed in flames.
There wasn’t much to save. The biggest concern was making sure that the homeless people who sometimes frequented the place were safely out.
The charred two-story red-brick shells, which are city-owned, now look like lots of other abandoned structures in Anacostia. An old refrigerator sits out back; the smell of burned wood lingers in the air. Debris is strewn on the sidewalk.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams knows those buildings well.
They graced the front of his 1998 Christmas card. His holiday note to supporters, sent a few weeks before his first inauguration, featured a reproduction of an oil painting of the buildings by Suzanne Nicholson. The picture suggests a rustic, historic, and charming Anacostia—a place worth saving.
Back then, the crumbling relics faced demolition. At least that’s what the Anacostia Economic Development Corp. (AEDC) had on the drawing board. The group planned to build a new office complex on the site, preceded by a few swings of the wrecking ball.
The mayor didn’t share that vision. “I don’t think they should be demolished,” Williams told the Washington City Paper in January 1999. “It’s a neighborhood I’m proud of.” Williams knew the storefronts were targeted for demolition when he sent the card. He argued that the historic buildings should be renovated. Besides, the AEDC had failed to make good on similar redevelopment promises in the past.
The mayor got his way in the end. Historic-preservation concerns spared the decrepit buildings.
The card is still famous in Anacostia. “It stood out,” says Linda Eckles, an advisory neighborhood commissioner from the area. “How many people send a painting of some of the ugliest buildings in the city on their Christmas card?”
But Eckles says the mayor’s nostalgia was welcomed. “At that time, the mayor’s pledge was ‘No more demolition by neglect,’” she says.
But seven years have made a hypocrite of Williams.
“Those buildings burned because they were neglected by their landlord,” Eckles says, “and the landlord is the city.”
Williams responds to such accusations with a mea culpa. “There are many, many things through the city that are undone,” he says. “There are many things where I have not met expectations. This may well be one of them.”
Anacostians have watched as a construction boom has energized and repopulated downtown. They’ve seen the television news reports of smiling politicians flicking the switch to light a refurbished marquee for the historic Tivoli Theatre in Columbia Heights.
Anacostia hasn’t enjoyed that kind of coverage. The Aug. 25 fire gives more ammunition to those who argue that, to the municipal government, it always seems easier to complete big projects in other parts of the city.
Ward 7 resident Lamont Mitchell ran his now-closed Imani Cafe out of a storefront directly across from the charred buildings. Nicholson’s painting was the centerpiece of an art exhibition he hosted at the cafe. Mitchell used to have the mayor’s 1998 Christmas card tacked up on the wall.
He also served as Williams’ first and only east-of-the-river liaison for economic development. Mitchell worked hard to convince his neighbors that this time a politician’s promise would bring change to Anacostia. “I do share some of the frustration that progress isn’t being made as fast as it could be,” Mitchell says.
About 100 yards from the burned-out buildings sits another reminder of the mayor’s big plans for jump-starting the neighborhood. A huge fenced-in hole at Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Good Hope Road SE is the future site of something called the Anacostia Gateway, a development that will house retail space and offices, including those of the D.C. Department of Transportation.
About a year after the mayor sent his 1998 Christmas card, Williams put on a hard hat, mounted a backhoe, and ceremonially began bashing down the abandoned storefronts that had stood at the Gateway site for years. He proclaimed that the development would be the first installment of a “government centers” project that would move D.C. offices—and their employees—into the city’s neighborhoods.
At the time, Mitchell and other activists were elated to see anything big happening in Anacostia. He was certain that an influx of city employees and office workers at the new complex would fuel a revival in Anacostia. He expected his struggling cafe to be serving mobs of construction workers and eventually office workers. “I believed it when they said they would start building within two years there,” Mitchell says.
Six years later, it’s still a hole in the ground.
Work on the first phase of the long-delayed development is supposed to begin this fall. AEDC President Butch Hopkins says the commercial and retail phase of the Anacostia Gateway will be up and running in late 2006. The new Department of Transportation office is expected to be completed in late 2007.
Michael Hodge, of the D.C. Department of Planning and Economic Development, disputes the notion that Anacostia is somehow last on the priority list. “It is unfortunate that the perception exists,” Hodge says. “And that is all there is—a perception.” Another Williams staffer says the mayor is annoyed by the slow pace of the Gateway project.
East-of-the-river neighborhoods may never embrace Williams—a fate he has long accepted. Activists there continue to take potshots at him, despite his accomplishments, which include about 7,000 new housing units in Ward 8, plans for a new Giant supermarket at Camp Simms, a new Skyland shopping center development, and lower crime rates.
The mayor has recently taken to highlighting the good things that have happened on his watch. His public schedule in recent weeks has included removing graffiti to commemorate the millionth request received at his citywide call center. He toured a spruced-up elementary school in Ward 8, using the occasion to take on critics who point to only what is not working in the city. His photo-op-packed schedule has prompted one aide to say that the mayor is operating in campaign mode.
Williams defends his record on preserving D.C.’s large stock of abandoned but usable buildings. “Look at the number of properties that were doomed by demolition by neglect [when I took office], and look at where we are now,” he says.
“Does this excuse what happened with these properties? No one regrets more than I do when we lose valuable historical properties, valuable properties in a neighborhood, valuable properties with an obvious symbolic value,” Williams says. “Especially since I used them in an important message.”
Hodge says city workers dropped the ball when it came to securing the Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue property after vandals had repeatedly broken in. “This was one of those times we did not pull the trigger quite fast enough,” he says.
It’s not as if the city was completely unaware of what was happening on its own property. A branch of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs is on an adjoining lot—less than 100 feet from the burned buildings. Employees arriving to work at the agency’s Office of Investigations, Weights and Measures could have easily noticed each time the boards sealing the back of the building had been peeled off.
Hodge—like most Williams-administration officials—points out that with so many city initiatives ready to go, the waiting will soon be over for Anacostia. Another encouraging sign: Developer Douglas Jemal, who always seems just one step ahead of D.C.’s emerging markets, has bought up property around the charred buildings.
The pipeline may be full, but improvements to Anacostia may come too late for Williams. He has said he is leaning against running for a third term. Even if the developments stay on track, Williams may never get to cut a ribbon or soak up cheers in Anacostia.
When asked if he would be frustrated if someone else got to enjoy the fruits of his labors, Williams keeps to his well-rehearsed nonanswers to questions about a third term.
“You never know,” he says. “I may be around.”
•The D.C. primary election is more than a year way, but at-large D.C. Council candidate A. Scott Bolden is already starring in an attack ad. D.C. voters, though, won’t see it unless they plan to visit the Big Apple. In the 30-second spot, Bolden slams his former boss, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, for failing to promote enough “people of color” during his tenure. Bolden is backing former Judge Leslie Crocker Snyder, who is trying to unseat the 30-year incumbent in New York City’s Sept. 13 Democratic primary. “Nothing has changed in New York with that office,” says Bolden, who left his job there as an assistant district attorney in 1991 after fulfilling a three-year commitment. He also publicly criticized Morgenthau’s promotion record in 1990. “I’m sure they weren’t unhappy to see me go,” he says. At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson says he’s not overly concerned about one of his rivals’ grabbing some free, high-priced air time. “My focus is on the residents of the District of Columbia,” says Mendelson.
•D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) Superintendent Clifford Janey took a trick out of the political bag to make a citywide splash on the first day of school: He sent a recorded message to the home of every DCPS student using a new automated calling system. Schools spokesperson Roxanne Evans says the system will be used for practical purposes such as announcements of weather-related closings. But Janey’s inaugural message takes a cue from the now-familiar D.C. Election Day spiels from politicos. After introducing himself and welcoming students back to school, Janey turned on the customer-service charm: “Thank you for choosing DCPS,” he said, according to text supplied by Evans. “It’s our goal to regain the respect and admiration we once had as a high-performing school district.” Expect the system to get some heavy use: Evans put the price tag at $315,700.
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.