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Many D.C. residents crave the cachet of living in a historic neighborhood: Georgetown colonials, Cleveland Park Victorians, and Capitol Hill row houses all have earned spots in the National Register of Historic Places as well as the attention of area homebuyers.
The staff of the Brookland Community Development Corp. (BCDC) thought any neighborhood would like to keep that sort of company, and has spent years laying the groundwork for turning an eight-block stretch of the neighborhood between Michigan and Rhode Island Avenues NE into a historic district. Brookland, however, has been doing its best to duck that honor—for many residents, historic status doesn’t bring to mind just decorative woodwork and quaint awnings.
“ATTENTION BROOKLAND RESIDENTS TO SAVE YOUR HOMES,” reads a June flier warning residents that their neighborhood was under attack by historic preservationists: “Not Another G’Town/Foggy Bottom. Not another SW – DC. Not another Cap Hill. Not Another Shaw Removal.”
It’s not that the neighborhood’s houses are unworthy of recognition. Though less regal than the four-story row houses of Dupont Circle, Brookland’s homes exemplify the architecture of a midcentury working-class neighborhood: a diverse array of Queen Annes, now-prized Depression-era Sears & Roebuck prefabs, and Spanish-revival homes. “You can really see the development of American architecture in a trolley-car suburb,” says Mary Farrell, a retired preservation expert who now volunteers full-time for the BCDC.
The reaction against historic preservation is more about the company that Brookland wants to keep: Such illustrious historic neighborhoods as Georgetown, Foggy Bottom, Dupont Circle, and Capitol Hill are historic, but they’re also historically African-American—with an emphasis on “historically.”
Bob Artisst, a 20-year veteran of the Brookland Civic Association and Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 5A, notes that historic designation has done wonders to preserve Georgetown’s architecture—but nothing to preserve its African-American roots. He knows, he says, because he grew up in one of the neighborhood’s black enclaves: “Snow’s Court, Phillip’s Court,” he says. “Whites are living in those houses now, and they were considered the slum of the slum.”
Predominantly black Brookland was once an Irish and Italian neighborhood, and now that morning commutes from Herndon are getting too onerous, Artisst says, the neighborhood is swamped with real-estate agents and developers looking to buy it back. Even though many BCDC boardmembers and volunteer staffers grew up in or near the neighborhood, Artisst sees them as interlopers. “They’ll get a group of people together and call it a neighborhood coalition when really it’s a coalition of die-hard crackers,” he says. If the BCDC had its way, “This would be a quaint college town, nice houses and nice people, 90 percent white with a few blacks living in it.”
How that would result from declaring everything “historic” is unclear. It’s true that historic preservation is a mixed bag for homeowners: Though it guarantees that your neighbor can’t replace his Queen Anne with a McMansion dwarfing every other house on the block, you might as well forget about installing affordable vinyl windows and be prepared to wait a month or two for approval to put on a front porch—most exterior renovations require permission from the Historic Preservation Review Board.
The property-rights issues alone are sufficient grounds to oppose preservation, ANC Commissioner William Boston believes: “In D.C., we’re already dealing with limited voting power, services are suspect, we’ve got a hybrid school board—I’m not really for limiting anything else.” But he’s not sure that the hundreds of other neighborhood protesters were concerned with libertarian philosophy. “People think there’s a plot within historic preservation,” he says. “It’s sort of like ‘I know I didn’t want it, but what was it?’”
The BCDC isn’t exactly the sort of group whose activities would be expected to raise suspicion: The nonprofit organizes spaghetti dinners. It gives free historical walking tours of Brookland for anyone who’s interested. It runs a neighborhood art gallery. It’s responsible for a twice-weekly farmers’ market.
But at the moment, it’s in the doghouse of a large swath of the neighborhood it serves. Last Wednesday, Boston told a cheering crowd of several hundred, “We have to go after renegade organizations in the community—that’s where the head of the snake is.” He was referring to the BCDC.
The way Brookland at large learned of the historic-district bid didn’t encourage reasoned discussion. Although the BCDC says that its interest in protecting Brookland’s history has never been a secret—that goal appears in the nonprofit’s bylaws—ANC commissioners say they had no idea the organization had completed the years of background work necessary for a historic-preservation bid and was already working on the formal application. Boston says that Brookland likely would have disapproved of the BCDC’s plans under all circumstances, but, because the community was blindsided by the proposal, what would have been a polite no turned into howls of outrage.
Because of the controversy, the Brookland Historic District was dead on arrival downtown. At a meeting last Wednesday at Slowe Elementary School, Boston read a letter from the D.C. Historic Preservation Office stating that, in light of the protests, it would refuse to even consider making Brookland a historic district. David Maloney, the office’s deputy director, then took the floor to receive a thorough dressing-down.
“There’s nothing nefarious about [historic preservation],” he said. “Yes, there is!” somebody shouted. A moment later, when an audience member declared that the BCDC shouldn’t have been allowed to apply for a historic designation at all, Maloney got exasperated. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but that’s life. We are not going to police the—” He was drowned in a chorus of boos.
That isn’t how the Historic Preservation Office likes to do business, says Lisa Burcham, the office’s director. “The [BCDC] outreach effort was not quite to the level of professionalism that we had experienced working with some of the other organizations,” she says. “Unfortunately, the perception is such that designation leads to gentrification.” And in hindsight, some preservationists concede that more outreach to the community at large would likely have helped their cause. “Maybe we should have done a two-page flier first. It just didn’t seem like it was necessary,” says Farrell.
While Brookland is wary of historic districting now, pressure from developers may make preservation opponents reconsider their position, Farrell suggests. “It just takes time,” she says. “The sad thing is, you lose a lot while you’re waiting for the change.”
She points to a house at 1035 Newton St. NE being offered up for $1.3 million; the owner bought it for $495,000 in May. While most real-estate listings would describe the house’s appealing features, this one merely notes that the lot is zoned to permit 10 condos. “Allows for a tear down and 12,500+ sqft of living space,” the ad reads. “[H]ow does $4.7 mil in revenue from condo sales sound!?! This is a goldmine!!”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by William L. Brown.