City Paper is not for tourists
The Swansons have lived in Ivy City for 26 years. They have watched half their neighborhood disappear. And now they may disappear, too.
Next to the vacant apartment building down the street from the Swanson family’s home, a stack of wood chips, old suitcases, broken furniture, and trash bags has filled an alley for as long as anyone can remember. The joint next door, empty for 20 years, has been gutted by fire. It tilts a few degrees to the left. Across from that house, a boarded-up pink two-story has a back yard that is home to a half-dozen junked cars.
In total, seven of the 17 houses on the block are abandoned. The street itself, concrete-white, seems abandoned, too: It hasn’t been paved in ages. There’s so much vacant real estate that a prostitute known as Country is able to use one semioccupied house as her residence and another fully empty house as her place of business. Opposite the Swansons is a vacant lot where the grass is as tall as the 4-foot fence. This is what it looks like when a neighborhood gets ready to die.
But inside the house at 1832 Providence St. NE, 10-year-old Andria Swanson does her own internal math. She’s assessed the damage, thought things through, and decided that her two-story home has serious problems, too. A lot of problems. Problems she would like fixed. The 4-foot-7, 54-pound fifth-grader’s list of problems comes scrawled on scraps of white paper, some of the writing jotted so furiously that it will prove illegible. The scraps have all come to rest in an orange bucket she calls the “Problem Box.”
Tonight, at the Swanson family’s first-ever official family meeting on a cool early-April evening, that little pail contains complaints about the mess of dirty dishes in the kitchen sink, sibling-on-sibling squabbles, and the tone of Andria’s grandmother’s voice.
Hardly global crises, the problems are nonetheless real—the kind that Andria can grasp with her bony fingers and take in with her almond-shaped brown eyes. She’s trying to play house, but that’s a tough game in a house like hers, where the big troubles overshadow the ones she keeps in her pail. Like the sinking floorboards in the dining room. Like the growing crack in a bedroom ceiling. Like the surrounding neighborhood, which seems to be in the process of imploding.
With the jumbo TV turned off, the three generations of Swansons who share three bedrooms sit in the living room, their eyes on Andria: her younger sister, Kiara, 8; her brother, Marquise, 6; her mother, Alicia, 26; and, smoking a Salem 100 and sipping a post-work can of Budweiser, her grandmother, Jeannette, 56. Padding their laps by turns is the family mutt, St. James, named after Jeannette’s husband, who died in 1992.
“If you got a problem,” Andria offers, “write it and read it.” No one moves from the couch. The bucket is already full of problems, anyway, most of them Andria’s.
Andria goes first, fishing problem after problem out of the bucket. “I think Grandma should show Ma the respect she should want,” Andria reads. “And Ma should show Grandma the respect she should want also. They should stop fussing and be a family.”
Of course, being a family is the very reason they’re all here. Alicia moved back home with her three kids in February 1999. The childhood nostalgia, free rent, and baby-sitting help from her mother were enough to bring her home after stints living in Landover, Md., and on Naylor Road in Southeast.
But now, after 14 months under one roof, mother-daughter and grandmother-grandchild tensions are high. “It’s the same thing every day,” Jeannette Swanson says. “You are supposed to do the dishes. They pile up in the sink. The bathroom—you leave it dirty….Most things, I shouldn’t have to ask you to do.” She is still wearing a turquoise-colored janitor’s smock from St. Elizabeths Hospital, where she has worked for 29 years. She knows about keeping clean.
Alicia Swanson—whose room, like her kids’, is littered with dirty clothes—agrees that beds need to be made and clothes put away. Marquise and Kiara admit the error of their ways, too. Promises are made. “I love you”s are whispered.
At the end of the meeting, Andria calls for a closing prayer. They all gather in a circle, hold hands, and close their eyes. “I hope everybody can solve their problems in an even and nice way,” says Andria. “I hope everything can come back together, like we can eat dinner at the dinner table together, have Sunday dinner….Everybody can be a team, as one, the Swanson family. Amen.”
In many ways, the struggling Swansons are way ahead of their neighbors. They may be trying to clean their house and salvage their relationships, but the rest of Ivy City seems to be giving up. The Swansons are some of the few residents who want to change things, unmade bed by unmade bed. But the odds are stacked against them. Chances are, they will probably leave Ivy City. And maybe that’s as it should be.
Over the past decades, the Swansons have seen half of their neighborhood’s population depart. They’ve seen properties go vacant and stay vacant. As they have mowed their lawn, taken their kids to school, and whiled away evenings on their front porch, Ivy City has ceased being a neighborhood by any real definition. There are none of the usual ornaments—no pools, playgrounds, or clean streets. In their place are padlocks and plywood.
Even the drug dealers bitch about the mountains of trash that dot the blocks. “Just look at it,” says a sometime pot dealer who wants to go by the name Fats. He stops his sentence, letting the view of an empty apartment building speak for itself.
Just as the District is experiencing a resurgent economy and the tightest housing market in decades, Ivy City looks ready for extinction. It’s a place where the stock boom hasn’t hit, where the falling crime rate hasn’t translated, where neither refurbished housing projects nor gentrified town houses are part of the equation. It’s not a place where the working class of the old D.C. will ever come face to face with the SUV drivers of the new D.C.
Still, at the end of the Swanson family meeting, Jeannette and Alicia Swanson discuss 1832’s future. Jeannette says she would like to move out and sell the house—maybe to her daughter. After graduating from Strayer University last June, Alicia found a steady job, as an office manager at the Roots Public Charter School, in August, and she is feeling a little more confident financially. She can handle the $580 per month mortgage payments.
“The neighborhood is a part of me,” Alicia says. “Ivy City was a little city. It was our little city.” That night, a tentative deal is made: Alicia will take over the house. But over the course of the next six weeks, all of the family’s promises will begin to dissolve.
Ivy City is shaped like a cartoon rocket ship. Its 16 blocks are a part of town you could easily miss while driving up New York Avenue on your way out of the District. Like many sickly patients, the neighborhood has gone through extensive organ removal: First the city took out the school and the playgrounds. Then a poor economy snipped out the grocery store. Then the suburbs vacuumed up the residents.
What’s left in the area bounded by New York Avenue to the north, West Virginia Avenue to the south, Mount Olivet Road to the west, and strings of warehouses to the east is an urban graveyard: Dead Fords and Chevys line the blocks. “Clean It or Lien It” signs mark empty lots. Old tires crowd sidewalks. Apartment numbers are squiggled in spray paint. Basketball hoops are made from cut-out milk crates nailed to utility poles. Vacant houses are haunted round the clock by the local prostitutes and addicts.
The nearby railroad tracks that make Ivy City look so spooky today are actually a big part of the reason the neighborhood was created in the first place. The area was developed in the 1880s as a brick-manufacturing hub along the Baltimore & Ohio railroad tracks. Back then, Ivy City encompassed more territory; it was big enough to house both the National Fair Grounds—a horse-racing track—and the Ivy City Jockey Club, as well as the brick factories.
By World War II, the majority of Ivy City’s houses had been built. What was left of its open fields became industrial complexes and warehouses.
Charles Brown and his family live two doors down from the Swansons in a row house that his great-uncle built. Brown, who grew up in the ’50s on Providence Street, remembers the block before the Swansons even lived there, back when the Brooks family owned 1832. He remembers when Ivy City had ivy, when both professionals and working-class tenants occupied his street. “It was a self-contained community,” he says. “Any type of services you needed, it was right here. We are talking a black community.”
In the halcyon days of midcentury, says Brown, Ivy City actually functioned as a city. Locals found jobs in the warehouses. The grocery stores, churches, and school sustained the neighborhood. He jokes that, as a kid, he would look up from his front porch and pray to the Hecht Co.’s warehouse tower. He thought God lived there.
But Brown adds that talk of its demise has long been an integral part of the community: “They’ve been trying to tear down Ivy City ever since I was in the first grade.”
And as the warehouses closed in the ’70s and ’80s, and the crime rate increased, the residents of Ivy City, including Brown, began moving out. But four years ago, he returned with his family to take over his old house.
Brown, 48, blames the closing of his old school, Crummell School, for the neighborhood’s decline. Located on Gallaudet Street NE, a block from Brown’s house, Crummell opened its doors in 1912 as one of the first black schools in Northeast. Named after Alexander Crummell, a noted local author and pastor, the facility would become the center of Ivy City. But after segregation ended, Crummell’s students migrated to formerly all-white schools. The school closed in the late ’60s.
These days, most Ivy City kids trek roughly six blocks through the adjacent Trinidad neighborhood to Webb Elementary; the Swanson kids go to the Edison Friendship Public Charter School. Since Gallaudet Supermarket, the neighborhood’s grocery store, closed, in the ’70s, the nearest supermarket has been two miles away at the Hechinger Mall. The dry cleaner and barbershop are gone, too.
Sometimes, Brown says, he’ll go to look at Crummell, which now hosts an auto auction. The building’s red brick has been sprayed with graffiti. It has broken windows and a sagging copper roof. “If you look at her, it’s almost like she has a face,” Brown says. “She looks very unhappy. Her teeth have been knocked out. She looks like a very sick and unhealthy person.”
Like most of Ivy City’s roughly 700 current residents, the Swansons arrived after the good old days that Brown remembers were long gone. James and Jeannette Swanson moved into Ivy City in 1974. He was working at the tire shop at Andrews Air Force Base—where, on occasion, he serviced the president’s plane—and got a decent loan from the Veterans Administration. The family settled on 1832 Providence because it had already been renovated and stood out from the rows of red-brick homes—it had aluminum siding. The house cost $21,000.
It didn’t take long for James Swanson to start tinkering with the neighborhood. Within a year, he was cultivating a garden in the vacant lot across from his house and had successfully petitioned to turn his two-way street into a one-way street. At 5-foot-11 and 270 pounds, he was known to neighbors as Big Man. Many thought of him as Ivy City’s unofficial mayor. There were few others worth nominating.
A veteran who had won a Purple Heart in Korea, Big Man had power and a reputation for taking no bullshit. Plenty of residents still remember him. Some refer to him as a local “legend.” Others just remember that he actually took the time to sweep their street. And lots of folks remember his moods, which swung from joy to fury in rapid succession.
In Big Man’s front yard, a sign still hangs from the fence. In big black letters, it reads: “MR. SWANSON, OASIS HOUSE.” In summer, the front yard served as a minigarden and the sidewalk became a dance floor for block parties. James Swanson had the loudest stereo in the neighborhood; he would prop its speakers in the front windows, his wife says.
“If we came [near] his apple tree, he’d kill us,” remembers a local teenager who goes by the name Foots. “If anything, he wanted us to respect his trees.” Today, though, Big Man’s is hardly the biggest name on the block. That honor would go to this muscular 19-year-old, whose tag can be spotted on every other vacant property: “Foots” is now Ivy City’s most recognizable moniker.
Jeannette Swanson calls those first few years in Ivy City her family’s heyday. Not because anything really clicked, but because it was a time when her five kids got along, the streets were quiet, the neighbors were friendly, and the Swanson name held a little wattage. “All I knew was that I had a close-knit neighborhood that I could trust,” Alicia Swanson adds. “Ivy City was trying to get into a transition….Doors were starting to open. My father tried.”
Still, Big Man thought it necessary to carry a .22-caliber pistol under his belt at all times.
And that gun—along with Big Man’s temper—eventually landed him in a world of trouble. In 1977, he found himself forcibly removed from the community: During a fight with a neighbor, he shot the man in the neck. He ended up with an assault-with-a-deadly-weapon conviction and four years at Lorton. He returned in 1981 and became involved with a local nonprofit, counseling youth against drugs.
James Swanson wasn’t the only one who tried to revive Ivy City during the ’70s. In November 1976, the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA), a nonprofit community development group, set up shop at Crummell. Its goal was to stabilize Ivy City with job-training programs, dependable day care, and an intangible sense of civic pride. Staffers called their efforts the Human Development Project.
“When you came to Ivy City, you would hear the sound of broken glass,” former ICA staffer Susan Craver says. “People would just throw bottles against brick walls. People just didn’t care.” She adds that her first assignment was to clear out the junk from abandoned lots.
By the next year, the ICA had turned the Crummell building into a preschool (Alicia Swanson attended), a library, and a community center. In an adjacent building, the agency had set up offices, a dining room and resident hall for staffers who lived on site, an auditorium, a community kitchen, and a print shop. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new facilities, Mayor Walter Washington and a representative from President Jimmy Carter’s staff made an appearance.
The ICA’s first task, though, was to win over Ivy City’s residents. And that meant winning over James Swanson. He could be tough, Craver remembers, adding that he could flash a look that made you feel as if “you were being audited.” But he worked with staffers. “He was looked upon as a leader, somebody that was hard to convince,” Craver says. “We felt if we had him back us, that was a very good thing.”
Within the next three years, the ICA set up a community garden and a day-care center, painted two murals, and built several parks. It held late-night basketball games and discos. In the process, the nonprofit was working on repackaging Ivy City, on selling it back to the community. The ICA gave Ivy City its own colors—green and white—and made T-shirts emblazoned with the neighborhood’s first motto: “Ivy City on the Move.”
1980 was the final year of the agency’s stay; it final goal was to transfer to residents the staffers’ jobs as teachers, day-care providers, and print-shop managers. But that spring, the preschool was robbed clean, down to the furniture. One day after the ICA gave the office keys to neighborhood residents, the school’s annex building was set on fire and burned to the ground, Craver says, in an arson that remains unsolved.
The day of the fire, Craver left Ivy City for good. She hasn’t been back since. “It was just too painful,” she says. “They bulldozed the building. I couldn’t bear to look at it. The thing that was so distressing is that the community went back to hopelessness so quickly.”
On any warm weekend, neighborhoods throughout the District play host to one of the great American pastimes, the yard sale. Residents shed old couches, clothes, Kerouac paperbacks, and beaded curtains. Parting with the old stuff means the sellers get new stuff. It means upward mobility.
But in Ivy City, where evictions and hasty moves are regular events, the whole neighborhood seems to have become a yard sale. Hawking old junk isn’t just for sunny weekends anymore. It’s a 24-hour,
rain-or-shine operation. Abandoned buildings get picked over like Thanksgiving turkeys. Sidewalks become instant storefronts. Car trunks open up into merchandise racks.
The nonstop sale makes perfect sense. Millions of dollars of copper lie under western Montana; people mine it. And ever since Ivy City’s landscape became dominated by neighbors’ leftovers, people have been selling them. Dopeheads push shopping carts full of radiators, chairs, and old clothes. Families sell off old furniture. Spare change collects. Bills get paid. Habits are supported.
On a cold April night just past 11:30, a tall, skinny guy strutting down Capitol Avenue NE wants residents to think of springtime. He pushes a lawnmower down the middle of the street. He offers to sell the mower for $15, promising that it works. OK, $10. Good as new. Maybe he can sell it to the guy at the corner of Capitol and Providence, the one with five mowers chained together in his front yard.
A few feet away, three young men work under the hood of a white Oldsmobile Cierra, patching a busted radiator. They’re trying to unload another vehicle parked nearby. “You need a car?” one asks, pointing to the white 1987 Grand Marquis. That baby’s going for $1,500.
A few houses down from the Swansons, a middle-aged man sits in the driver’s seat of his taxicab offering candy in exchange for motor oil. He’s got a fully stocked trunk—a dozen bags of Sweet Factory sour-apple chewy balls, assorted jelly beans, and chocolates. He’ll even take pocket change for a handful of gummy whales.
But Candy Man has competition. Several prostitutes are out in their too-short skirts. In Ivy City, where there are no busy intersections, they take to standing in front of fenced-in yards. Tonight, one makes the Browns’ mailbox her private spot.
A man who wants to be called Face works on his hands and knees along Providence, combing for spare change. He fans his hands out, picking up anything shiny, checking it, and then moving on. Eventually, he walks up the street taking nips from a small bottle of Odessa gin from his shirt pocket.
Face says he normally works as a “freelance” car washer. He says he’s an expert hand-washer who can rake in $10 per car, $800 a month. “We use plain water,” he explains. “Soap takes off the wax, and it dulls the paint.”
Face moved to Ivy City in 1988, got busted for possession with intent to distribute cocaine, and returned from Lorton in 1993. He says he has been trying to stay clean. But crack still makes it into his budget. If the neighborhood has gotten worse, Face says, he barely notices it. “You have been here so long,” he explains, “it’s part of life.”
In a 1985 Washington Post story, James Swanson described his neighborhood eloquently: “Yuk,” he said. “That about sums it up.”
The paper used statistics to say essentially the same thing. Census data revealed that 50 percent of the neighborhood’s families were headed by women, that one out of five households received public assistance, and that only 12.4 percent of its residents owned their own homes. Ivy City’s infant mortality rate was 38.3 deaths per 1,000, more than twice the District’s average of 18.2 per 1,000, during the ’80s, according to the Post. Ivy City’s population had fallen from 1,800 in 1976 to about 1,200 in 1985.
A year later, then-Mayor Marion Barry told the Post: “It is probably the Anacostia of Northeast.”
It was about then that Big Man started to succumb to Ivy City’s newest problem. Crack hit D.C. just when James Swanson was suffering from a series of work-related knee and ankle injuries and heart problems. It had been years since he had worked. Eventually, he started both smoking and selling, his daughter says.
Jeannette Swanson says her husband began disappearing at night. “He never did [crack] around me,” she says. “He had a lot of spots he’d hang out at.” His not-so-secret addiction led to fights, physical blows, and three separations. She doesn’t know if he ever stopped smoking crack.
Big Man finally left Ivy City for good, succumbing to heart failure at Greater Southeast Community Hospital on Dec. 20, 1992, at the age of 60. By then, according to the 1990 census, Ivy City’s population had sunk to roughly 700 residents. In the years since, James Swanson’s old garden across from 1832 Providence St. has evolved into a dock for rusted pickups surrounded by tall, dry weeds. No one can remember when his apple trees last flowered. In his living room, his Purple Heart tilts in its frame a little to the right.
Despite the fact that Andria Swanson was only 3 years old when Big Man died, she still thinks of her neighborhood through his eyes, still believes his presence can be felt inside 1832. “No.1 is God,” she says of her current top best friends. “No. 2 is Mom. And No. 3 is my grandfather.”
If Ivy City were a business, then Alicia Swanson would be its secretary. She has a hard time managing her three kids, her job, and the neighborhood problems that constantly wash onto her front step. But so far, her kids are straight arrows: They do their chores without too much prompting, they can maneuver their dirt bikes around potholes, and they generally stick together. Still, Alicia feels compelled to keep herself up to date on Ivy City’s dirty laundry.
Alicia likes to profile as a larger-than-life character. Whereas her father lost his fight against the neighborhood’s low-level ills, she accepts them simply as part of Ivy City life. You won’t see her tilling the earth or hosting a block party. But she will sit on her stoop and offer tax advice to hustlers, drop a few bucks to a pipehead for washing her car, and give out medical advice to the stroller patrol of single moms from a few houses up her block.
In lighter moods, Alicia debates with friends the respective merits of the neighborhood’s prostitutes. When they talk about Precious and Country, two omnipresent sex workers, they dissect them like kids arguing the merits of Pedro Martinez vs. Randy Johnson. Alicia has a thing for Precious. “That girl, you know, she always gets her coins,” she says.
Alicia sees herself as the neighborhood savior, “one of the last Musketeers.” “If we move,” she says, “I know the neighborhood in general will be wasted, totally wasted. It’s almost the last good thing left#. We got to stand our ground. It’s a battle.”
Jeannette Swanson, on the other hand, still wants to play the deserter. Three weeks after the family meeting, she says she’s tired of Ivy City, tired of the trash and dealers, tired of putting up with a dirty house. The meeting has produced few results. The piles of clothes still languish in the dining room, and St. James still whizzes on the carpets.
“I really don’t need it,” Jeannette says of her community. “All I need is a one-bedroom apartment. When my husband died, the house was on the market for a year.” The house didn’t get a single bid.
It’s mid-April, and 1832’s future is up in the air. Alicia is convinced that her mother will never move out. Jeannette is convinced that her daughter can’t handle the place alone. She wants Alicia to find another Oasis House. Within the end of the month, Alicia says she has all but given up on buying the family home.
But Jeannette has started packing. In the living room against a wall, she has stacked five paper-towel boxes and filled them with her most precious possessions: a shell clock, dishes, silverware, and glasses. “I can’t do better by staying here moping,” she says. “I’d like to try and move on. To tell you the truth, if I left Ivy City, I wouldn’t miss it. It still didn’t change even when we were involved with things. It’s still up and down, up and down.”
Jeannette thinks Alicia won’t be able to deal with the house’s termite-infested floor, cracked ceiling, and broken neighborhood. Jeannette has watched her own debts pile up fighting those very things; she says she has spent far too long living from paycheck to paycheck.
Jeannette makes a pretty good case for Alicia’s inability to balance a checkbook. Craving status on her run-down block, Alicia bought a 1992 four-door Mercedes with heated seats this past year. She says she borrowed money from a friend to help with the down payment. But she concedes that her $25,000 salary makes clearing her monthly $450 car payments and $285 insurance tab tough.
As if the bills weren’t enough, sometimes Alicia just seems pulled in every direction. On a warm weeknight in late April, she leaves 1832 to hang with some girlfriends a few houses down, juggle calls from her cell, and make sure St. James doesn’t bite anyone. It’s 9 p.m., and her kids still haven’t been given dinner. When his grandmother returns from an errand—selling socks—Marquise begs her for a piece of her cornbread.
At 9:30 p.m., Alicia brushes past her house, past the kids playing in the yard, to another stoop. She has just returned from a short trip to a nearby convenience store for a dinner of white-cheddar popcorn and a soda. An hour later, she gives me some money to pick up hot wings and fries for Marquise.
When Alicia returns home at 11:15, her three kids crowd around her, draping their arms over her neck and shoulders. They practically bounce off the walls from the attention. Then the cell phone rings. It’s Marquise’s father on the line. He’s not supposed to call—Alicia received a civil protection order against him—but they’re trying to work out a small peace.
Alicia hangs up the phone and asks Marquise if he wants to call his dad back. He says yes. The last time the 6-year-old called, his dad’s girlfriend hung up on him.
“What’s up?” Marquise asks his father. “What you doing?” They talk for 10 minutes. Marquise says he made the honor roll in his first-grade class. The father tells him he’s going to buy him a motorcycle as a reward. “OK. I love you, too,” Marquise says. “All right….All right.”
Marquise gets off the phone with a big-time grin. “He told me to call him back tomorrow,” he says. His father still hasn’t come up with all the child-support money for the month, according to Alicia.
Within minutes, Alicia closes her eyes and drifts into sleep on the couch. Andria, Kiara, and Marquise hardly notice. They’re just happy that their mom is home. They continue to bounce and pounce and make fart jokes. Within a few seconds, Alicia snaps awake to Marquise’s giggling mug. She orders the boy out of the living room.
“Mom, how did you know I had to fart?” Marquise asks, blushing just a bit.
With that news, Alicia Swanson stumbles off to bed.
On April 22, Derrick McLendon is thinking that he may soon be contributing to the permanent yard sale. One of four final holdouts on Gallaudet Street, McLendon lives in a small apartment at the corner of Providence. Last Wednesday, housing and fire inspectors deemed his apartment’s gaping holes in the kitchen and cardboard ceiling in the bathroom worthy of condemnation.
Inspectors said they would be back the following Wednesday—April 26. It’s four days away. Four days, he says, until he will have to move or be evicted by U.S. marshals. In Ivy City, that’s as common a way to leave as any other.
McLendon has lived on Gallaudet for three years, putting up with the termite-eaten doors, the bathroom with its makeshift ceiling and Swiss-cheese floor, and the chipping paint. He says his landlord, William Knight, refuses to fix the place.
Knight, 86, says he took over the four-unit apartment building after his brother, the original owner, died. He admits that he used McLendon’s apartment as a storage facility: After receiving a fine for storing a rat-infested furnace, mattress, and bed frame outside, he piled them into McLendon’s kitchen. But as for the other problems, such as the lack of a bathroom ceiling, they’re not his responsibility.
“Why should I furnish a grown man’s apartment?” Knight asks, adding that McLendon hasn’t paid his rent in full. (McLendon claims that Knight stopped accepting his checks after McLendon called the police on him for entering his apartment without permission.) In January, Knight put the building on the market; he hopes to sell the place by the end of the summer.
Tonight, on what may be his last Saturday night in the apartment, McLendon sifts through trash bags, piecing together his life. Ironically, he is one of the few father figures Ivy City has to offer. Although this Ohio State University graduate (film and photography) is unemployed, he spends time baby-sitting for area kids, taking them fishing, teaching them to turn the local snakes into house pets and to shoot hoops.
McLendon slowly works on a six-pack of Milwaukee’s Best Ice as he tries to decide what goes with him and what goes in the dump. He doesn’t so much make decisions as wade into his piles of stuff. He’s a bit overwhelmed at the thought of letting go of old love letters and photos snapped 20 years ago.
The important stuff definitely stays with him: the film-theory texts from college, a saxophone needing a reed, a recorder, a weight bench, a computer with a busted hard drive, and his seven finches. Later, McLendon will find a stack of old birthday cards from years ago. He says he just had a birthday, that he would have liked to have decorated his apartment with them. He keeps the cards.
“I’m so depressed, man,” McLendon says. “This shit, I don’t feel like fucking with it.”
“There’s a separation between my environment and who I am,” McLendon insists. It’s a familiar refrain.
Sitting on his porch sipping a Budweiser on a rare day off from his job as a limo driver, Charles Brown tells me about a recent dream: “I owned Ivy City,” he says. “I was in control of everything in the neighborhood. Everything was mine.” In his dream, he won the lottery and used the money to put everything back where it used to be—the school, the barbershop, the grocery store. “Somebody woke me up,” he says, laughing. As he waits for his numbers to come up, he calls sanitation inspectors and police officers on a regular basis to report problems on his block. Sometimes he thinks about leaving.
Over the years, Ivy City has occasionally attracted attention as a symbol of civic decline, a target for promises of improvement. Lately, however, the realms of D.C. that usually deliver those promises are strangely silent. The city government has more or less given up hope that Ivy City can again be a residential neighborhood the way Brown remembers it.
Othello Mahone, interim director of D.C.’s Department of Housing and Community Development, says that there just isn’t enough good housing stock—or enough residents—to maintain the neighborhood. Although he allows for the building up of “residential pockets,” he thinks that neighboring Trinidad has better prospects for stabilizing.
“We want to maintain some of the residential character, but Ivy City could represent a good commercial use/industrial use zone for the District, where a lot of jobs are created,” Mahone says. “Ivy City is not pretty. It’s not pretty, OK? In that sense, the housing is difficult to market.”
And people who own housing that’s not marketable tend to let it get worse. According to Department of Public Works and Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs figures, 1822 Providence St.—five doors down from the Swansons—has earned more than $4,000 worth of trash and housing violations in the last year alone.
Mayor Anthony Williams’ administration has designated Ivy City one of six “Capital Communities,” in a program whereby city agencies coordinate efforts to stabilize the poorest neighborhoods. Still residents have become so used to the boarded up-housing, they’ve repainted two of them, boards and all.
A 3-year-old civic association has done a little more work grappling with Ivy City’s future. The Ivy City Patriots have even enlisted the aid of a volunteer neighborhood-planning consultant, Jim Schulman, to shape a neighborhood-saving agenda. Schulman has helped train 10 residents in deconstructing boarded-up homes to sell their parts.
Some of Schulman’s trainees have formed a corporation called the ICT Dream Team Deconstruction Cooperative. They have a grandiose set of proposals: They say they want office space and a world-class theater on the Crummell School site.
With the ongoing redevelopment of New York Avenue, many city officials also say they are hoping to spur new projects in Ivy City. Their ambitions, though, are a little more modest. Officials talk of reopening the old juvenile detention center off New York Avenue, of bringing in a police fleet management shop. Crummell is currently up for sale; prospective buyers have entered into the final stage of the bidding process. But despite the Dream Team’s dreams, none of them—including the site’s current occupant, the auto auction—plan on adopting any of the group’s ideas.
Maybe this is how it ought to be. Alicia Swanson’s and Charles Brown’s best intentions notwithstanding, Ivy City isn’t on the way to anything. Turning their real estate into office space might be better
for the city in general. It might even be better for the Swansons.
Whereas housing projects in Ward 8 have been wrecked and reincarnated as pristine town-home developments, Ivy City lacks the space to make rehabbing a viable option. With only about 700 residents left, it may be best to rethink the neighborhood as a fully commercial zone. Although Chevy Chase Bank has started a $40 million loan program for both Ivy City and Trinidad, its focus is on Trinidad for good reason. That neighboring community has stable housing, a large population, schools, and playgrounds. Ivy City has illegal dumps.
As officials debate the merits of a mixed-use community, Ivy City continues to disappear. In early May, McLendon finds a job as a census-taker. He’s still waiting for his eviction. His landlord promises that the building will be boarded up by the summer. Ivy City will lose its baby sitter.
By the end of the year, the Swansons might be gone, too.
It’s a Friday night in early May, and the Problem Box is full. Andria Swanson has ordered up another family meeting; they haven’t had one since the first, a month ago. But the pail is loaded: “Grandma fusses too much,” reads one complaint. Everyone fusses too much.
At 7:30 p.m., Andria, Marquise, and Kiara have assembled on the porch to wait for Grandma. She’s a no-show. And Mom is sitting in her Mercedes, talking on her cell phone. So Andria waits. And waits.
Finally, a half-hour late, Alicia Swanson comes to the porch and takes a seat. She says she was talking to Marquise’s father. He was supposed to pick up Marquise tonight, but now he can’t.
“I really don’t care anymore,” Alicia fumes. “I keep making excuses for him. I give up.” The meeting is off.
Within minutes, a neighborhood addict shows up. He wants to wax the Mercedes. Alicia tells him to forget it. He gets pissed off enough to threaten her. “I’m going to go up there and wipe your ass,” he shouts.
Alicia is having none of it—not tonight. “You can suck my dick, you can suck my ass,” she screams. “I don’t fucking care anymore.” She says she hates this fucking place.
Andria says they will probably move; they’ve started looking at places. Alicia drove the kids around, and they even found one Andria likes. “It was a big blue house next to a burnt house,” Andria says. “But it sounded like it was in a good neighborhood. It was pretty. It just needed some fixing up on the inside.” CP