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Gentrifiers love windows. And the bigger the better. Big windows illuminate two things: the street below and the cool stuff inside.
To track the movement of new money across the District, just follow the plate glass. Start out near 14th and P Streets NW, at dusk, outside the Whole Foods outlet. Its towering windows throw light everywhere, as if the grocer were seeking to bless neighboring properties with its rays. A Washington Post writer once called the place “a 61,000-square-foot cathedral that cast its auric glow over P Street NW.”
The chain stores—Starbucks, Ann Taylor, Restoration Hardware—all cast that same glow, putting their inside workings on display. So do the chain homes. Look at any loft condo development in and around downtown: The exposed concrete and exposed ductwork are all exposed to passers-by through colossal windows.
But when the gentrifiers look out their own windows, they see a different tableau. Amid the acres of glass sit the homes and businesses of the holdout class.
The holdouts are the guys who’ve watched the boom through small windows. Those small windows may be attached to a town house near Logan Circle, a print shop next to the MCI Center, or a home bordering on the District’s toppled public-housing projects. Before the wide-eyed gaze of new buildings, the old buildings hunker down and squint.
The holdouts aren’t necessarily more noble than their gentrifying neighbors. Some of them may be more greedy—waiting until someone offers millions of dollars for their newly fashionable hovel. Some may just be clueless: What real-estate boom?
But they make the city a city. Historians will tell you that Pierre L’Enfant planned the District of Columbia. And he did, in a way. He came up with the spokes-and-grid thing, the wide boulevards, and the quirky park spaces.
Property rights, though, have limited L’Enfant’s sway over the cityscape. From block to block, the District comes off like a place with no blueprint at all. Today, it consists of about 173,000 property lots.
That means that in a city of just 69 square miles—a speck on the mid-Atlantic regional map—there are 173,000 opportunities to mold the streetscape in your own image: faÁades that can be painted blue, white, or rose, or surrendered to the ivy and the elements; stoops that can be sheltered with green awnings or regularly coated with dog piss; front yards that can host azaleas and rhododendrons, or cigarette butts and empties; cast-iron fences that can be festooned with old-school architectural niceties, or—fuck it!—chain-link.
Every so often, the city’s Office of Planning churns out something called “Comprehensive Plans” for the wards and neighborhoods. These documents bespeak neighborhood consensus on the makeup of each commercial strip and how many apartment buildings it can absorb.
But there’s no plan here. Planning doesn’t juxtapose a 7-Eleven with pricey apartments. It doesn’t pair a weather-beaten, century-old town house with the headquarters of National Public Radio. And it doesn’t put a downscale fish-fry next door to the city’s priciest supermarket.
Planners aren’t that smart. That’s why we have holdouts. —Erik Wemple
Don’t Tread on Me
Richard Smith protects his business with his life and his car.
By Jason Cherkis
Like most auto businesses, Hubcap Tom’s, at 23 Florida Ave. NE, has a grimy countertop with computers, business cards, and other merchant paraphernalia.
Holdout: 23 Florida Ave. NE
But owner Richard A. Smith doesn’t hang out behind the counter. He runs Hubcap Tom’s from the driver’s seat of his cherry-red Chevy TrailBlazer. When customers pass the front entrance of his lot, he yells at them from the driver’s seat, “What do you need?”
Smith keeps three packs of Parliament Light 100s wedged around his seat. He has a white towel draped around his neck and the window rolled down. He keeps the SUV facing the street, the motor always running. Just in case. “You never want to go inside and get boxed in,” he says. “You’re fucked at that point. Out here, you have options.”
Behind Smith’s strategic post lies his merchandise: rows of old and new tires, wheels, and rims. Spare Detroit-made doors cram against a boarded-up row house. Taillights dangle from hooks like Christmas ornaments. A mound of hubcaps takes up the back corner. Beware-of-dog signs are posted everywhere. Smith used to have dogs, a couple of Rottweilers and a beautiful, 80-pound black pit bull named Rocky. They either leapt the fences or were stolen. He misses Rocky most of all: “Rocky wasn’t mean—that was the trouble.”
You have to be mean here to survive. Most of the residents are gone, their houses bulldozed to make way for developer Douglas Jemal’s revamped Peoples Drug warehouse space. The housing that remains shares block space with boarded-up faÁades. At night, the warehouses close down, yielding the sidewalk to drunks and crackheads migrating from the methadone clinics nearby, Smith says. Sometimes, during the day, they come by his storefront to sell him batteries, ask him for change, or even try to steal his tires. That’s why Smith sits in his car.
The stickups are bad enough, Smith says. But he really can’t tolerate the fires. Out of spite, boredom, or whatever, he says, people like to throw gas into his scrap yard and light it. The last fire was six months ago, he says, the third in five years. The blaze cost him $20,000 worth of damage and destroyed a shed, electrical wiring, and about 100 tires. Burnt tires are a bitch to clean up.
“My heart went right down to my putz,” Smith says. “It’s depressing. It took me a month to get undepressed. You have to eat shit for two, three months to get really started again.”
Smith started Hubcap Tom’s 33 years ago, renovating an old ice house. His family was always into scrap. His grandfather had been running a District scrap yard since 1918. He branched out because of the simplicity of dealing in auto parts: You just have to know what fits and what doesn’t fit. Still, he wonders why he sticks around. He’s had about six offers to sell in the past two years. One offer was for $1.2 million. But he didn’t sell. He can’t think of anything else to do.
On a recent Saturday morning, Smith gets robbed of $150 worth of tires: He replaces a guy’s tires, and then the guy just drives off. Smith beats himself up over it all day—Should have gotten his money first.
But by the afternoon, the sun is out and customers are pawing over his tires and rims and he’s making good money.
“Whatcha got?” Smith asks one of his mechanics.
“He’s coming to get those rims,” the mechanic says.
“The guy’s here with the 900 bucks?” Smith asks.
“Yeah,” the mechanic says.
“I don’t know—my dick’s hard,” exclaims Smith, for whom a quick cash deal carries an erotic charge. “How’s yours?”
“It’s tingling,” the mechanic responds.
“Goddamn!” Smith bellows. “Let’s do it, baby….I want to get his money first.” CP
Mind Your Manor
For Leroy Washington, Meridian Manor is a return address.
By Annys Shin
In January, Leroy Washington, 72, moved into the Meridian Manor apartments at 1424 Chapin St. NW. He was heartened to see evidence of an improving neighborhood: New condo developments were sprouting up, and a nearby lot had recently sold for $3 million. All the activity has Washington convinced that his second stay at Meridian Manor will be better than his first.
Holdout: 1424 Chapin St. NW
Washington first set foot in Meridian Manor in 1979. Back then, he says, the place was in bad shape. And as the years went by, conditions only grew worse. Washington and his neighbors endured the usual battery of slumlord affronts: periods of no heat or hot water, an army of rats and roaches, and a lobby flooded with water, thanks to a leaky roof. Still, he says, the structure’s potential was always obvious to him. “I had a dream that this could be the best building in all of Washington,” he says.
In 1994, the Meridian Manor tenants took their landlord to court. A judge granted them a $1 million judgment. The tenants, though, chose to take title to their building instead of the cash. Washington thought his prayers had been answered.
The tenants, however, quickly learned that their new power didn’t mean much without money to make repairs. A $50,000 water bill, a $100,000 gas bill, an $88,000 property-tax lien ate up loans and grants that the residents had received.
The tenants also were ill-prepared to be property managers. When the trash-collection bill went unpaid, the trash hauler emptied the building’s dumpster on the ground in protest. The pile of garbage “was two stories high,” recalls Washington. It took several District dump trucks to remove the mess. Some tenants stopped paying their rent. Squatters moved into vacant units and refused to leave.
Finally, one evening in 1996, Washington was home when he heard firetrucks screaming down Chapin Street, stopping outside of Meridian Manor. Only then did he realize that his building was on fire. Once firefighters extinguished the flames, they declared the structure inhabitable. Washington says he had 10 minutes to gather what belongings he could and flee.
Washington found temporary refuge at the Roosevelt Residence for Senior Citizens on 16th Street NW, and later with his daughter in Forestville, Md. For the first month, he says, he walked up the hill to Meridian Manor every day, “just to make sure it was still there.” He occasionally would get unsolicited calls from developers interested in buying the building. But Washington and what was left of the Meridian Manor tenants turned them down every time. “We wanted a home,” he says.
The residents sought help from Washington Initiative for Self-Help (WISH) to secure financing to renovate their building. But WISH couldn’t help them, says Washington, who was a WISH board member.
Then, in 1999, Washington made a last-ditch plea for help to Micasa, another nonprofit developer, as well as the National Housing Trust and the Enterprise Foundation. Rising land values in Columbia Heights helped the developers secure the necessary $5 million in financing for renovations from about a dozen different public and private sources.
By then, most of Meridian Manor’s residents had scattered. Washington says many of the former tenants whom he tracked down weren’t interested in moving back. So Micasa recruited new tenants, mostly longtime Columbia Heights residents who had been displaced by rising rents.
Washington is perhaps the happiest new tenant. “I want to go to the Heavenly Father from here,” he says. “I hope to never have to move again in life.” CP
Grease Is the Word
Mid City Fish Market’s deep-fried fare is here to stay.
By Sarah Godfrey
Whiting fish, fried “hard,” is what most people ask for when they walk up to the wide yellow counter at the Mid City Carry Out and Fish Market, at the corner of 14th and P Streets NW. Owners Kenny and Jane Ham leave the fillets submerged in bubbling grease until they are dark brown and extra crispy, so that even people carrying the fish away are assured a loud crunch when they bite into a piece.
Holdout: 1418 14th St. NW
Mid City’s proprietors plop the hard-fried whiting in a mound of grits, call it a breakfast, and sell it for $3.39. The store’s other stock in trade is its homemade version of Denny’s Grand Slam Breakfast. “[Customers] can get a lot of breakfast for little money. We give them two eggs, one meat, home fries, and toast for only $2.39!” says Kenny Ham.
The bargain-basement greasefest doesn’t quite comport with Logan Circle’s emerging image as a gentrified locus of yoga devotees. Nearby Whole Foods dominates the neighborhood’s culinary identity with its more up-market offerings. The fish there is raw, gleaming, and often priced at $18 per pound.
But Whole Foods fish isn’t available until 8 a.m.—which in this part of town says it all. Mid City is up and running at 6 a.m., just in time for the workers who are advancing gentrification at nearby building sites. “The workers tell me, ëMucho trabajo, poquito dinero,’” says Kenny Ham.
There’s a reason why Mid City’s retail space isn’t catering to the mucho dinero crowd: The landlords just aren’t greedy enough. The building that houses the operation is owned by Aaron O. Richman and his brother, Joseph. In 1996, they inherited it from their parents, who bought it in 1948.
As property owners, the Richmans have seen far worse times along the 14th Street strip. They held on to the building through the 1968 riots, when many neighboring buildings were destroyed, and the three-decade hangover that followed. And they’re staying put now, in the midst of a development boom that is revitalizing the corridor with art galleries, Whole Foods, and soon a cluster of new luxury apartment buildings being built by PN Hoffman.
Speculators frequently dangle offers in front of the Richmans. And the landlords could certainly gouge a more upscale commercial tenant. Yet they signed a 10-year lease with Mid City in November 2002. So there’ll be no downtown branch of Yanÿu coming in anytime soon. “It has been owned by our family for a long time, and we hope to hold on to it,” Aaron Richman says.
There may come a day when the market for deep-fried fish swimming in a pool of grits dries up. But for now, the Hams say that their carryout benefits from the many construction projects in the neighborhood; workers from the Hoffman sites, and others around it, are loyal customers.
“It tastes good, and we provide a service for them,” Kenny Ham says. “We need money, but we don’t think like that. We’re a down-priced store. Someone must give the workers breakfast.”
The Hams have run Mid City for about five months, but the carryout has been a fixture on the 14th Street corridor for more than 20 years. In addition to regular visits from workers, the site has been a favorite of Health Department inspectors. Since 2000, the store has racked up six “Unsatisfactory” inspection ratings —one since the Hams took over.
The store serves about 50 customers during the lunch rush, nearly twice that number on a good day during the breakfast run. But with the average customer spending only between $4 and $8, the Hams admit that they fry up more bacon than they bring home. “We don’t make enough money,” says Jane Ham, before quickly amending that to say they do “very well.”
As they should: The only competition in the cheap-breakfast biz comes from the Ridgeway carryout next door. The rival offers the exact same deals as Mid City: eggs, homefries or grits, toast, and meat for $2.39, and an identical $3.39 fish breakfast.
Both eateries have their loyalists, but the neighborhood attracts enough bargain hunters to keep both spots humming. Some, like Logan Circle resident Cassaundra Whitt, patronize both spots.
“I eat breakfast at the first one and lunch at the second one,” she says of Mid City and Ridgeway, respectively. “Then I eat dinner at home. They’re both good, and they’re both the same price, so I try to give business to both.”
Southeast resident Garrett Howard, who works in the neighborhood, is less diplomatic—he’s a die-hard Mid City devotee. “He likes the breakfast,” says a smiling Jane Ham as he walks through the door for a homemade iced tea in the middle of the day.
“It’s cheaper than a lot of places,” says Howard. “And it’s breakfast.” Even if Whole Foods were open early enough for him to grab a bite before work, Howard isn’t sure he would venture over to check out the offerings. “It’s too high,” he says of the pricey grocer. “You only go in there to get odd stuff like…well…I guess I don’t know what you’d get in there.” CP
It’s a Shame About Ray
Group-home harmony takes a big hit when the landlord moves in.
By Jason Cherkis
I lived through the real-estate boom from the turret of group-house privilege. As Mount Pleasant filled up with rich new residents, their BMWs, and their babies, I watched from the grand front stoop of a brown-brick, three-story corner house—all with the comfort of a Barry-era $370 monthly rent.
The only hassle was the prickly relationships with roommates. We had a nonprofit lifer who performed Shabbat services at the house, transforming our stoop from a smoking pit into a pulpit. A Naderite harbored a squatter in our spare fifth bedroom. And god forbid that our resident union organizer found us cheating on the recycling.
But none of these characters prepared me for the late-November day when my landlord, Ray, made good on his long-standing threat and moved in.
We knew Ray as the perfect landlord. He fixed things on time, let us have parties, took an interest in our lives, and never hiked our rent to market rates.
But we liked our landlord just where he was: far away on his Pennsylvania tree farm. Over the past year, however, we picked up signals that our landlord buffer was eroding.
When the house’s soap-opera addict moved out, 61-year-old Ray offered to take her room. He relented at the last minute. Still, he insisted on micromanaging us: During the summer, he asked us to remove the rickety chairs on the stoop because the neighbors had complained. “The neighborhood is changing,” Ray explained. “We have to fit in.” Then he threatened to bar us from hanging out on the stoop altogether.
We are all on a month-to-month lease, a dicey rental relationship that could end any day with little warning. When we asked Ray for a lease, he said sure, but he’d double the rent. And soon he leaped to threatening a wholesale takeover of the house, evicting each and every one of us. Even he knew the folly of those threats—we’d all just end up in Landlord and Tenant Court forever.
“I can’t kick you guys out,” he once said. “It would cost me $10,000.”
But Ray had a better scheme, one so perfect that it would soon have us wishing we could leave: he would move in and quickly turn into the Roommate From Hell. He’d spent years not just collecting rent but carefully observing group-house dynamics, studying, mastering the intricate chemistries that make housemates either grow banana peppers together in harmony or turn into BattleBots over bathroom maintenance. He had mastered all the house rules and knew how to break them: visiting our unattended bedroomà, touching our stuff, tossing out our furniture, pulling passive-aggressive moves not even previous chore czars would fathom pulling. The fallout? There would be police and restraining orders and blood-pressure medication.
But in November, when Ray first walked through our front door, sleeping bag in hand, we didn’t know anything. We were just group-house lambs.
Ray took the old union organizer’s third-floor room. It was the best room in the house, and it was right across the hall from mine. He prefaced the move by implying that he would be nothing more than just another roomie. The other roommates—my brother, Todd, and punk rocker/baby sitter Amanda—and I thought this wasn’t a big deal.
“Ray’s not even going to be around,” Todd offered.
On Ray’s first night, he was around enough to turn the house upside down. One by one, our new roommate flipped over the couches and cleared out the cluttered bathrooms, scattering tables in his wake. The couches all lay facedown with their legs in the air.
“I’m throwing the couches out of here,” Ray bellowed. One of the couches had committed the ultimate sin in Ray’s book: It had left scratches on his hardwood floors. The floors were his baby, his black Cadillac Escalade, to be treated with respect. It had not been our fault, he assured us, but he added we were still lucky he didn’t really go apeshit.
The whole scene left us scared and shellshocked.
When Ray went to bed that night, my roommates and I held a house meeting in the kitchen. The agenda was countermeasures. We whispered, for safety’s sake, brainstorming any tactic that could make him uncomfortable—or at least realize he had housemates. We seized on toilet paper. We would fight back with a toilet-paper embargo. We decided to use up the remaining rolls and then not replace them, keeping a secret stash in Amanda’s room. He was sure to bend to our wishes. After all, we had experience in group-house living. Going without toilet paper was the ultimate group-house leveler. Even if he was twice our age, we could at least, well, make him buy toilet paper.
When I went upstairs, that night, I found that Ray had dismantled the bathroom. In so doing, he had moved my toothbrush to a secret location at a nearby table. New roommates aren’t supposed to touch their housemates’ toothbrushes.
The next morning, Ray was at it again, this time targeting the books and tennis rackets.
“Is this yours?” Ray asked. It was before 9 a.m., Day 2, and he was already clearing out the foyer closet. His voice rang with agitation as he flopped dusty paperbacks on the floor and gathered up long-forgotten umbrellas.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Could be.” Whatever, dude. You’re not supposed to go through that closet. No one ever did. It’s house rules.
“Is this yours?” Ray kept at it.
When I took over my bedroom, I didn’t throw out the newspaper clippings and poetry books of the previous occupant, a neo-beatnik. I was even too lazy to toss his old wine bottles. In group houses, old stuff stays until long after it becomes ownerless, untraceable, without any roommate copyright. But that night, and every night that week, we were having to save group-house hand-me-downs from the Supercan—or listening to one of Ray’s rants about the goddamned floors.
“I told you guys: You have to have coasters underneath everything,” Ray said. I argued with him—we did have coasters. But, well, things get lost, things disappear.
“We didn’t fuck up your floors,” I said. “You told us it wasn’t our fault. In fact, the offending couch wasn’t even ours. You can’t blame us for this. You can’t hold it against us.”
Eventually, Ray brought out his smoking gun—one of the legs on my bed frame didn’t have a coaster. “I told you about the coasters,” Ray said. “I can’t trust you guys.” I dashed up to my room and threw an old New Yorker under the leg. It didn’t matter. Ray found the same problem with my brother’s bed. He threatened to take Todd’s bed away.
As for any furniture on the main floor, Ray had a new rule: There had to be both coasters and rugs placed under them. Inspections to follow.
Ray’s mood didn’t improve by the end of his second day. “He told me in exasperation he wanted to kill himself,” Todd reported back to Amanda and me. I couldn’t believe I was living with this guy. We decided to give each other Ray Mood Updates. Checking his mental wiring became a vital part of our daily lives. His bad mood meant maybe not coming home at all. His good mood meant we could enter the house, make dinner, and maybe watch some TV. But we had to make sure the TV wasn’t too loud—and, eventually, on a program he approved.
By the end of the week, the furniture started disappearing. Two couches went first. Then a bathroom table. Then our favorite chair. We don’t know what happened to any of it. Ray offered only his version of events: “You don’t understand. I just don’t want anything on those floors.”
The toilet-paper embargo seemed to have little effect; Ray had his own secret stash, in the basement bathroom. With each day, he became more emboldened, more eager to piss us off. Still, we had one thing binding us to our increasingly unfurnished house—$370 per month rent. With that rent, we could afford to put up with Ray.
For a while, we played patsy to Ray’s cause. We Swiffered the floors and collected the errant newspapers. We cleaned the kitchen and scrubbed the bathrooms ’til they shined. All things we had never tried to be good at. When it snowed, we shoveled the sidewalk. For our efforts Ray gave us a “C-plus/B-minus.” I wanted a B-plus, but he refused. I can’t believe I begged for a B-plus.
Then again, my mates and I had always been F-level group-housers. Before Ray came, we rarely cleaned the place. As stewards of a historic property, we sucked.
Ray himself didn’t partake in any chore-doing. He left stacks of newspapers on the kitchen floor and a trail of grubby footprints wherever he stepped. And with those footsteps usually came Evil Stepmother recriminations. He’d rub his hands through his graying hair and then offer fresh orders—remove the beer bottles from the back porch, mop the kitchen, clear out the old newspapers. He usually followed his commands with threats—for example, he said we’d have to hire a maid to come in every two weeks.
When we protested Ray’s regulations, he would pull out his ace in the hole: The ’88 lease, a document that our group-house ancestors must have signed, back when Ray held the hippie ideal of creating a commune with a chore wheel. No one had ever seen this agreement, but Ray has a photographic memory of it. Whenever we did something wrong or challenged him on our rights, he would refer to the lease. It would quickly assume mythic status, becoming the Dead Sea Scroll of leases.
Because none of us had read the elusive rental agreement, Ray helped us out by keeping a list of our responsibilities posted in the kitchen pantry. Among the 18 items, there were eight rules pertaining to the floors alone. He barred from the house all bikes, water beds, wet sneakers, “running shoes…inside the house without checking for embedded stones—this includes other open-grid shoes,” and pets. (Fish and invertebrates are exempt from the pet ban, because they pose no threat to the floors.)
When Ray wasn’t invoking the Great ’88 Lease, he was making alterations to the house. One night, I came home to find him puttering again in my bathroom. He peeked out from the door to tell me he was going to turn the bathroom closet into a shower. I knew the special closet-shower wasn’t for me. This was just part of his plan to get us out of the house.
“Sure,” I said. “Whatever.” I was too tired to contest his plans. I went to my room and blasted some angry tunes. This was my latest strategy, something that had worked on other roommates. Rites of Spring or Sonic Youth would surely have him bowing to my every command. I would extend my private jam sessions late into the night just to make the point: I live here, too. But Ray later bragged that the city noise, all of it, helped him get the best sleep he had in years. The guy’s a machine.
Ray had one assistant on the floor-protection beat: Kevin, a longtime neighbor and friend of Ray’s. He had lived in the basement of our house for eight years and so rarely came up for air that we just knew him as the Lonely Guy and diligent house narc. He’d consistently report back to Ray on our activities: We played the TV too loud, we let a band stay at our house, I got in a screaming match with a tyrant neighbor after he caught me dumping trash in his Supercan. Soon enough, Ray would call to complain that Kevin had complained.
After Ray moved in, Kevin, 44, made his own power grab. Bitching that his basement digs were too cold for him, he took over the landlord’s third-floor bedroom when Ray was out of town. He moved his peanut butter, his microwaveable dinners, and his cereals upstairs. Kevin soon set up an observation post from our living room.
Kevin played the beat cop perfectly. Failure to obey his orders meant threats or much worse. He bragged about wanting to toss my brother through a window. And as for the Washington Post, he saw the morning paper as a free commodity, like mail service and clean air. He refused to pay his $13 share of the bill for the paper, which was long past due because of him.
But one January morning, Todd and Amanda caught Kevin freeloading openly, sitting in the living room reading the Post. They decided to confront him: Pay up or give up the paper.
Kevin refused to pay the bill or quit reading the A Section.
When the asking and refusing reached a stalemate, Kevin shoved Todd aside and retreated to the basement. Soon, though, he was back, and this time he grabbed my brother and slammed his head over and over against a kitchen wall. Amanda had to pull Kevin away. My brother’s face was scratched and bloody; he hadn’t even fought back.
Kevin left our group house in handcuffs that day, charged with assault. Before he left, he tried to impress the police with his group-living bona fides: “I’ve lived here for eight years.” Because that had nothing to do with tenderizing my brother’s head, the officers hauled our group-house cop away. Because of the restraining order, Kevin returned only once—with a police escort to pick up his scattered belongings—and hasn’t come around since.
The tension kept racheting upward as the day of Kevin’s trial approached. We learned that Ray had agreed to testify on Kevin’s behalf, as a character witness. He pleaded with Todd to drop the charges against Kevin. “It would be one thing if he broke a bone,” Ray argued.
On the morning of the trial, Ray launched his final push for a group-home purge. There was the issue of his blood pressure. He told us he would have to raise the rent by at least $100 each.
Even when Kevin’s trial was postponed, the advance continued. Ray came up with new psychological warfare tactics. He started with what I call the Gaslight Effect. He left the lights on in nearly every room all the time. In the basement, he left the radio on through the weekends. It felt as if he were everywhere even when he wasn’t. It freaked me out big time. But defense was easy enough—I simply turned off the lights.
Still, Ray matched my tactic light for light.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked him. “It’s a waste of electricity.”
“Nobody is ever home,” Ray shot back. Kinda true. “Burglars can walk by this house and see we’re an easy target.”
Ray then launched into his newest tirade—the newspaper. Sometimes we didn’t pick up the paper in the morning and bring it inside. Another signal to those burglars.
Finally, in mid-March, I tried to go on the offensive: I left the newspaper out front on purpose and waited for his response. Sure enough, that afternoon, Ray caught sight of the lonely Post still in its plastic bag, still on the stoop.
“Why didn’t you pick up the newspaper?” Ray asked. This time I was prepared.
“Were you here this morning?” I shot back. Gotcha. Ray admitted he had been—and had even moved the newspaper from the steps to the stoop.
“Why couldn’t you bring the paper in?” I asked. “How lazy can you be? You walked inside and you couldn’t take the paper in?” This was my Watergate.
Ray admitted he had left the paper out. But, he said, he had done it on purpose: “I left the paper out so the robbers could see it,” he said. “I’m gonna wait for them and then catch them breaking in. Then I’m going to confront them. That’ll send a message to those boys on the corner.”
“What boys on the corner? The drunk old men?” I asked. “The ones who aren’t ambitious enough to panhandle?”
“I don’t want to argue about it,” Ray said. That had become his latest retort, replacing the ’88 lease.
In the following week, Ray would move my toothbrush again—just to get back at me.
Two weeks ago, I came home one evening to find that Ray had started renovating the bathrooms, dried paint chips surrounding the shower, his tools left on the floor. Late into the night, Ray set to painting the third-floor bedroom. Every brush stroke meant he was closer to gentrifying our group house. We soon fought over the closet-shower, and we fought over his defense of Kevin.
“I really feel bad for Kevin,” Ray said. “It’s just terrible what happened.” He meant Kevin’s getting barred from the house.
On a recent weekday evening, Ray lectured me on the stoop. The block, warm and peaceful, was filled with dog-walkers and baby strollers. Ray said he had thought things over and decided to bump our rent up from $370 to $600 per tenant, a price none of us could afford. He then slipped into the argument about chores and floors. He wanted a chore wheel up, fast. I promised we’d comply. But we never got around to it.
The floors and the dirty dishes didn’t matter anymore. The wildness of it all was vanishing with each fresh coat of paint. Soon I would be joining the beatnik, the grad school do-gooder, and the squatter—becoming house history. CP
NPR passed on buying Geoffrey Washburn’s 1,207-square-foot lot. Will downtown developers do the same?
By Annys Shin
Geoffrey Washburn has some experience handling the economics of downtown development. In the mid-’80s, construction of the Washington Convention Center forced Washburn and his father to sell their business location at 9th Street and New York Avenue NW.
Holdout: 611 Massachusetts Ave. NW
So they moved their shop, Home Realty Inc., a few blocks east, to a town house at 611 Massachusetts Ave. NW. At the time, the building sat in a desolate landscape of parking lots interrupted by the occasional crumbling row house. Washburn thought that someday the neighborhood would improve—and that perhaps someone would eventually buy him out.
In 1993, National Public Radio (NPR) appeared to answer his dreams. The broadcaster purchased the ’70s-era office tower next door and slowly began to buy up the block.
For whatever reason, though, NPR has just worked around the Home Realty building. First, NPR expanded into a small one-story building next door. Then it turned the parcel on the other side of Home Realty into employee parking. Finally, three years ago, when the broadcaster needed still more space, it leased offices many blocks away, at 13th and H Streets NW.
Washburn still expected more development to come to his end of Massachusetts Avenue. But even after construction on the new convention center began in 1998, the parking lots remained.
Then, in late 2001, cranes began appearing in every direction. To the west of Home Realty, workers are renovating the old Carnegie Library into the soon-to-open City Museum of Washington. To the east, Clark Construction is building condos. And Washburn’s old headquarters on New York Avenue is a hole in the ground—the future site of an office building. “The past 10 years, we’ve been waiting for development in this area,” Washburn says. “Now it seems as if it’s happening instantaneously.”
As an old real-estate hand, Washburn figures that being at the epicenter of the boom has got to be worth something. He reckons his tiny 1,207-square-foot lot is worth a bundle—far more than $314,340, the value listed in D.C. real-estate-tax assessment records. But so far, no one has come knocking on his door, not even NPR. Says an NPR spokesperson, “We haven’t made any offers to buy that property.” CP
There Goes the Neighborhood
Yvonne Holley has seen Southeast through the worst of times. Are better days on the horizon?
By Sarah Godfrey
Yvonne Holley used to have tons of neighbors around her place at 3150 Stanton Road SE. Most of those neighbors, though, lived in public-housing projects that the city has since razed. Now, she’s flanked by just five homes, a child-development center, and an elementary school. “We’re the only ones left,” says Holley, who has lived on the street for more than 20 years. “I’ve never had this experience before.”
Holdout: 3150 Stanton Road SE
Holley’s strip of Stanton Road, between Suitland Parkway and Alabama Avenue, is one of those places that city leaders cite as evidence of urban revival. The projects that once hemmed her in—the Frederick Douglass and Stanton Dwellings—are giving way to Henson Ridge, a new community being built with a $29 million federal grant.
The retired federal employee had doubts about living in the middle of a largely deserted neighborhood but has found that she likes the quiet. “I was afraid of an increase in crime when they emptied everything out, but that hasn’t happened,” Holley says. “It has surprised me that it doesn’t feel like a ghost town, but, then again, living over here, you already feel isolated.”
Holley lived in Frederick Douglass as a child—her family moved there in 1951, when she was 11 years old. “There was a shopping center with a sit-down restaurant—Slade’s—and there was a grocery store. Some people here were doing the right thing; some weren’t. But there were no drugs, and there weren’t a bunch of people doing the wrong thing at the same time.”
When Holley moved back, in the late ’70s, purchasing her current home for a price in the $40,000 range, she found her old neighborhood ravaged by drugs and crime. “I bought it because I was a single mother and it was what I could afford,” Holley says. “There was a lot of drug dealing, but I never saw anything go down. I never saw anyone shot or laying in the street dead, but that’s what was going on.”
What’s going on these days seems far more benign. Kids from the nearby schools mill about the neighborhood. They now take their time walking across Stanton Road, a thoroughfare that buzzed with fast traffic in the days of the projects. The children occasionally stop to press their faces against the chain-link fences to inspect the remains of public housing: piles of old bathtubs, spooky playgrounds without swings or slides, a forgotten child-size bed frame.
Surveying the mementos left behind by her former neighbors, Holley says she sees herself as a survivor of what she calls the “20-year crime wave” that gripped the area. “I won—now the neighborhood is being upgraded,” she says. CP
Robert Dorsey has outlasted hot-metal type, construction of the MCI Center, and land-hungry developers.
By Annys Shin
Merchant Robert Dorsey receives occasional reminders of just how close the MCI Center is to his 6th Street shop. In 1997, during arena construction, the sidewalk outside the Wilson-Epes Printing Co. became a trench. “I had to step up 2 feet to my front door,” recalls Dorsey. Without sewer drains to collect storm runoff, rainwater leaked into his basement. After one particularly hard rain, he says, flooding destroyed $35,000 worth of printing parts.
Holdout: 707 6th St. NW
And then there were the developers. Before the christening of the MCI Center, Dorsey says, he received as many as 10 calls a day from land speculators scoping out his property. “I’d come in later in the morning and my manager would say, ëI got four more nutcase calls.’ It was like a daily update on call the get-rich-quickers.”
The phone calls were just the beginning. Once the arena was complete, developers sent a small army of suits to make a pitch for Dorsey’s land. They came in twos and threes, Dorsey recalls. In the past six years, he reckons, he’s received at least two dozen offers.
None of the figures they floated satisfied Dorsey, who won’t disclose his asking price for his 2,700-square-foot lot. The value, he argues, depends on what developers want the land for. City tax records assess the land, in its current use as a print shop, at $648,000. JBG Cos. last year paid from $315,000 to $3,811,000 apiece for several similarly sized parcels on 6th Street, according to city land records.
These days, developers are wary of approaching Dorsey’s storefront. “My reputation precedes me here,” he says.
Every time Dorsey dispatches an offer, he preserves a bit of history. Since it opened, in 1941, Wilson-Epes has been the District’s premier printer of U.S. Supreme Court briefs. On any given day, some of the most prominent government and private lawyers make the trek to Dorsey’s “sleepy, small, dumpy, dirty shop” for last-minute proofreading.
It wasn’t until 2000 that Wilson-Epes installed state-of-the-art digital legal brief machines. Before that, it was one of the last printers in the country to use the hot-metal method of typesetting. Twenty-two hours a day, six days a week, 19 journeymen slammed and banged away on four vintage Intertype machines and two large flat-bed presses. “I had typesetting machines older than the ones on display at the Smithsonian,” says Dorsey.
To keep his equipment in working order, Dorsey employed a full-time machinist, who had to constantly tweak the machines and replace parts, which weren’t easy to come by. His Heidelberg cylinder press hadn’t been manufactured in 40 years, says Dorsey. The previous owner had accumulated a storehouse of cast-iron and soft-steel parts in the basement. “Once they were under water, they were cooked,” Dorsey says. “I had to throw them away.”
Dorsey, a Vietnam War veteran, isn’t the type to take that kind of hit and roll over. He keeps a “Bullshit Bag” tacked to the wall behind the front counter, wears his hair a little long, and sports a skull ring on one finger. When asked how old he is, he answers that he’s “old enough to know better.”
After the MCI Center was completed, in December 1997, Dorsey shot off a snarky letter to arena owner Abe Pollin. He says he wrote to congratulate Pollin on his stunning achievement. But he also made a point of mentioning to his new neighbor that construction had nearly wiped his business out. “I was patting myself on the back for putting up with it,” Dorsey says.
Dorsey’s side of 6th Street has become a living Monopoly board, with land changing hands every few years. Recently, some of the many development schemes for the block have broken ground. Behind Wilson-Epes, AvalonBay Communities Inc., a residential developer based in Alexandria, is building luxury high-rise apartments called the Avalon at Gallery Place. A historically designated town house next door is being converted into condos. And next door to Wilson-Epes, JBG Cos. is building a residential high-rise.
Dorsey says he’s a holdout by default: “If I had a reasonable offer, I wouldn’t stand in the way of progress.”
But, he complains, the developers who have approached him so far “are all talk.”
“They’re the bottom of the barrel as far as I’m concerned. They come in here, see a pair of jeans and a collar, and think I’m a dummy,” Dorsey says. He cut his share of deals in his time. A self-described “corporate dropout,” he bought Wilson-Epes in 1993 after spending 18 years handling mergers and acquisitions for major corporations.
The developers, Dorsey says, fall into a predictable pattern: “Instead of doing right and optioning the property, they offer you the sky. Then they do a study period. They come in 60 days later and they say, ëThree million is too much. We’ve studied it. We can give you 1 million.’ In the mergers-and-acquisition trade, we call it ëgetting a haircut,’” Dorsey says. “The psychology of it is that you’ve already made up your mind to sell.”
The last developer to make a play for Dorsey’s property was JBG, which owns the parcels on each side of Wilson-Epes. “It makes sense that they would take me out,” he says.
But negotiations with JBG, which began in 2001, didn’t go smoothly. “They told me, ëMayor [Anthony A.] Williams wants you to sell. The mayor would like us to develop this whole block,’” Dorsey recalls.
JBG Managing Director Stewart Bartley denies invoking the mayor. “We did not say that,” Bartley says. Dorsey, he argues, “mischaracterized” their exchange.
Bartley’s version goes something like this: “The city would like to see as much housing downtown as possible. Any city planner would like to have development in a uniform way—not with a missing tooth.” He insists that all he told Dorsey was that “the city might have incentive packages to relocate him. We suggested he look into that.”
Relocation, Bartley recalls, was one of Dorsey’s major concerns. So JBG hired a broker to find alternative spots. Dorsey rejected them all.
Ultimately, the disagreement boiled down to price. “[Dorsey] had some expectations that were well above what we could offer,” says Bartley, who declines to quote specific figures.
“His property would be worth more when joined in a development, from a real-estate perspective,” says Bartley. “But he’s not in the real-estate business. He’s in printing, and it might have made more sense for him to keep that location.”
“[The offer] netted out to be just a trade,” says Dorsey. “There should’ve been something in it for my risk and inconvenience.” The price, he argues, should reflect “what it would cost me to move my business and stay in business.”
After several months of back-and-forth, talks between Dorsey and JBG ended. “I told them to get out and stay out,” says Dorsey.
Bartley says JBG pulled out “because at some point you have to commit to a building design.”
Construction hasn’t begun yet, but Bartley says JBG hopes to break ground soon next door to Wilson-Epes on a 12-story building with 46 units to be called the Cosmopolitan. The marketing campaign has already begun. A sign in the lot entices passers-by with the pitch: “Be the City. Be the Style. Be Cosmopolitan.”
“I wish we could have worked out a deal with [Dorsey],” says Bartley.
Then after a pause, he asks, “Has [Dorsey] said that he might be interested in talking to us now?” CP
Landlord Willy Toribio takes Mi casa es su casa literally.
By Sarah Godfrey
Willy Toribio bought the house at 3329 18th St. NW in 1963 for $19,000. Today, the property could fetch more than $500,000. Profits of that magnitude fueled D.C.’s recent real-estate boom. Toribio, however, explains why cashing in on the market doesn’t particularly interest him.
This was the first house in America for me—I’m from Lima, Peru. I came here 18 and single. Then I got married and my wife became pregnant. I worked as a busboy, making 95 cents an hour. She made 55 cents an hour as a maid. We needed to move to have more sace for the baby, and I wanted to buy a house, but no one would sell to me because I was Spanish-speaking and had no credit.
Holdout: 3329 18th St. NW
Then I saw a sign up here: “For Sale.” The down payment with closing costs was $2,400. I had saved $5,000, so I told them, “I have the money.” They looked surprised, but 20 days later I moved in. I moved here in 1963 and lived here for 15 years.
I helped a lot of people in this house. I let a few guys live in the garage, and in the winter, when it got too cold, I let them live in the basement. Some were on drugs; some were drunks—all completely homeless. My wife said, “Why do you help these people?” I said, “Am I going to let the police get them? No. This isn’t their country—they need help.”
I gave them food, hot tea. There were seven, eight, 10 of them at one time. I’d tell them not to make noise because of the baby. They would say, “OK, Willy. No problem.” They were nice to me. They’re all dead now….Because of their memory, I keep this house.
I bought [this house] for $19,000. I painted it, everything. The basement was full of rats. I learned painting, how to fix things. This house was in bad shape then, and so was the neighborhood. I was held up twice—in ’64 and ’66. This neighborhood is changing.
I have two jobs—I’m a paint contractor and a bartender at the [Rockville] Woodmont Country Club. I have a house at Georgia and Warder—three bedrooms and a basement apartment. I charge $1,200 a month. I bought that house in ’91 for $96,000. Now it’s [assessed at $135,070]. I own five homes—I rent four and live in one. The members at the club say, “Willy! You’re in the neighborhood now.”
I came into this country with $5 at 18. I worked at Woodmont and went to school to learn English. When immigrants come here, they want you to give a deposit, a credit card. Some don’t have that, so they won’t give them an apartment, a phone. I give them a place to live. There is one family in this house—from El Salvador—they’re very nice. I charge them a very low rent—below market. I come and eat with them, play with their kids, give them advice. I will never sell this house. CP