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Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

A couple moves to Columbia Heights to build a new neighborhood—and comes face to face with the old one.

Ethan Fesperman and Aidan Hoyal greet trick-or-treaters with a big plastic pumpkin full of candy. It’s their first Halloween in their new place, a cream-colored brick town house close to the corner of 11th and Girard Streets NW in Columbia Heights. They’ve worked hard to make the fixer-upper livable, and tonight, as they stand on the front stoop, their excitement is palpable. Five kids, dressed as a ghost, a witch, and three security guards, clamber up the steps. Hoyal showers them with compliments and lets them dig into the pumpkin for their candy. “This is definitely home,” she says. A few weeks ago, however, she wasn’t so sure.

One hot September Saturday, Fesperman and Hoyal were lugging a table down the street on their way home from a yard sale when two teens drove by in a car and yelled at them. “Go back to the suburbs!” the young men shouted.

It’s an incident the couple can laugh about, because they’re not from the suburbs. But it was also a disconcerting reminder of the ambivalence some neighbors may have toward them and what they represent: the growing number of upwardly mobile, childless newcomers who are buying houses in Columbia Heights. Which, in the racially charged climate of the District, is a euphemism for the growing number of whites.

Fesperman and Hoyal, both 30, do not fit the easy stereotype of invading gentrifiers. Although he works as a special ed teacher and she as a Web designer, they are certainly not rich. And they say they chose to move to Columbia Heights because of its diversity, not in spite of it.

“It was too homogeneous,” says Fesperman, referring to the Woodley Park neighborhood where he and Hoyal lived after moving to D.C. from Nashville two years ago. Besides, when the couple began house-hunting, they found they couldn’t afford to buy a house near where they lived—or where they spent most of their time. Houses in Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan, and Mount Pleasant were priced out of reach. Still, low interest rates and the city’s $5,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers made the idea of buying attractive.

“Finally [the real estate broker] gave us the name of this program you can go through, where they help you buy a home,” says Hoyal. “We didn’t have money for anything.” That program was run by the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America. Founded by a Boston union in 1988, the nonprofit seeks to help working-class and minority families and neighborhoods by providing mortgages featuring below-market interest rates and no down payments.

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After looking at just three Columbia Heights properties, the couple settled on a three-bedroom row house in the 2800 block of 11th Street. In October 1999, the two began negotiations, and by the last day of February 2000, they had closed a $134,000 contract on the place. It had been abandoned, then partially renovated, then abandoned again.They moved in at the end of April and got to work making it habitable.

Today, the presence of new home buyers like Fesperman and Hoyal is helping to turn Columbia Heights into what many residents call “the next Georgetown”—which itself was a lower-income minority neighborhood until an influx of middle-class whites after World War II transformed it into one of the toniest places in the District. This change worries long-time homeowners like Azalie Hightower, whose African-American family has lived in Columbia Heights since the ’50s. She hopes the neighborhood’s rich black heritage won’t be forgotten as it was in Georgetown. Columbia Heights “was downtown for a lot of black folks,” she says. “To go downtown didn’t happen, because everything was segregated.”

It’s not just buyers who are exploring largely black and Latino Columbia Heights in search of affordable housing. Renters are eager, too.

“The majority of people who [contact me about renting a house] are white,” says Jerome Bailey, a landlord who bought four rental properties in the community this year and who, like three other rental owners interviewed, is black. “I’d say 80 percent.”

For Fesperman and Hoyal, their situation has led to a strange self-awareness. “Hell yeah, we moved here ’cause it’s changing,” says Fesperman. “We wouldn’t have moved here 10 years ago. There’s no way.” At the same time, he can see that his very presence threatens to alter neighborhood dynamics: “It’s like a coral reef: It’s a beautiful thing, but very fragile. There’s a balance that has to be maintained.”

What really sold Hoyal and Fesperman on their new neighborhood was a spiral-bound charrette book, the result of a monthslong process sponsored by the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development and the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights. The booklet featured a plan for the community once the Columbia Heights Metro station was completed and described a multiracial, mixed-income community full of parks, businesses, restaurants, and theaters. The idea bandied about by local activists and potential developers was that the opening of the Metro stop last fall signaled the dawn of a new era for the community. Fesperman and Hoyal, as new homeowners, hope to be a part of the transformation of a run-down neighborhood.

In her old neighborhood, Hoyal says she never felt as if there was room for her to be active in community affairs. But since moving to 11th Street, she’s attended a slew of neighborhood meetings. “You see that you’re part of a problem and part of a solution at the same time,” she says of her newfound role as community-builder. “Potentially, this could be a really, really cool neighborhood.”

What Fesperman and Hoyal hadn’t bargained for was the resistance from the community that was already in place. “I still struggle with this,” Fesperman says. “When we came out on the house tour, they’d put balloons up on all the houses, and we were all walking along—about 75 percent of us were white, doing the whole house-tour thing. I suddenly felt like an interloper. People were watching us, and I could sense the resentment. You’re just this goofy happy-go-lucky guy, when here you are walking in on someone else’s life.”

Almost immediately, the two noticed the difference in their surroundings. “I was shellshocked,” recalls Fesperman. The difference lay in little things. “Like when I sit on the porch and drink a beer, it’s a very simple thing, but OK, the other day I was sitting on the porch and drinking a Corona and it seems people don’t drink Corona on my block. They drink Bud, Miller High Life. There’s a real concept that Corona is a yuppie beer….I turned the label so it’s not so high-profile.”

And then there were the big things. The day before she moved in, Hoyal recalls, she was sitting with a friend on the front porch when some kids came up and said, “You know, that’s a crack house.” She didn’t think anything of it. After all, they were pointing to her new home, not some derelict eyesore. Later that day, Hoyal says, “we had the inspection, and I opened up the gate in the basement and this baggy of rocks—I guess that’s crack—fell out. We put it back. We were paranoid that it would bring something down on us if we took it away.”

The crack problem continued even after they moved in. “This summer we tried to grow flowers, and every day one of the flowers would be pulled up by the roots. We’d put it back in the ground, and the next morning, it would be pulled up again. Someone told us this was a drop-off point for crack and someone was hiding it under the flower,” explains Hoyal. “We kept putting the flower back in, though—and you know, that flower’s still alive.”

But what’s really at issue is not which type of beer people drink, or even drugs. The issue is who is moving into the neighborhood and who is moving out. “I passed by this street guy, and you know how most of the time they say, ‘Give me a quarter’? Well, this guy said to me, ‘I’ll sell you this house for $289,000,’” says Fesperman. “I laughed, but you don’t think somebody like that is going to say that.”

Right now, though, it seems that housing prices are uppermost in many people’s thoughts. Tonya Butler-Truesdale, a fifth-generation Washingtonian, bought a house on Fairmont Street, just around the corner from Fesperman and Hoyal, three years ago. “Whites are moving in, which means property values will go up, so it’s a good investment,” says the attorney.

Like Fesperman and Hoyal, Butler-Truesdale is uncomfortable being labeled a gentrifier. “My color puts me on one side of the issue, and my reasons put me on another,” says Butler-Truesdale, who is black. Sure, she’s as excited as the next person about the prospect of more shops, reduced crime, a convenient Metro station, and a community she can help build and maintain. But she also knows from experience the kind of troubles that arise when higher-income homeowners come into a neighborhood and start to bother the lower-income ones.

“My family has had a home in the Dupont Circle area for over a hundred years. My aunt still lives there, but when I go to see her, I’m not welcome in that community,” says Butler-Truesdale. “We’ve had all kinds of difficulties there. Other members of the neighborhood have called inspectors to have [her house] condemned. They don’t understand that the person who lives in there is on a retirement income and cannot maintain it like someone who can afford a $400,000 house. Does that give them the right to force a sale?”

If current trends continue, some of Butler-Truesdale’s neighbors may soon face similar problems. Although an estimated 75 percent of Columbia Heights town-home residents are also owners, according to Gracie Rowlling, director of financial counseling center Change Inc., most are also poor, and many are retired. “Who I am angry with are those who choose to come in and make development changes and push for something more like Dupont Circle,” says Butler-Truesdale.

Inside their new house, Fesperman and Hoyal are examining the wood floors that their next-door neighbor just refinished for them. Their walls glisten with a new coat of paint, and a radio talk show wafts from the stereo they’ve set up on a folding table, which serves as a makeshift kitchen counter.

“The threat of someone moving in and making the prices go up—that’s one thing. But I say, ‘What about all these empty houses?’” asks Hoyal, who wants to see the area’s many abandoned properties turned into affordable housing instead of luxury condos. “If suddenly all those houses were sold and remodeled, then—bam!—the market would go up. But if we could get low- to middle-income families to move in there, that’s different.” CP