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Ward 8 is in the midst of a remarkable and unexpected transformation that contradicts just about every stereotype that has come to define it.
Photographs by Charles Steck
If you had picked up the Washington Post this past January, you would have found a huge front-page story bearing this description of the sun rising over Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE: “In the east, a pale orange light breaks the horizon. It means that life, even on this forlorn side of Washington, soon will take its daily course.”
The story described Ward 8’s main drag just as it is always imagined by those who never go there: bleak, depressed, and violent. Beneath subheads like “Death and the Avenue,” the story had all the requisite Ward 8 touchstones: teddy-bear murder memorials, idle men, and empty storefronts. Reporter John Fountain wrote: “[MLK Avenue] is public housing, boarded abandoned buildings, winos and drug addicts who linger from dawn to dusk….Bulletproof partitions in small corner convenience stores and carry outs. Iron bars on schools and houses of God. Sirens blaring. Poverty. Conspicuous young men on corners.” The ward was described as a place where “poverty and peril sometimes gush like rainwater down a gutter.”
The Post’s Ward 8 is populated mostly by thugs, mixed with a few noble but powerless black folks who endure their hopeless condition with humor and an occasional Courvoisier at Players Lounge—to which the reporter inevitably returns to declare a “new” political watering hole, just as the last guy on the beat did.
The story once again seared the public psyche with the image of an isolated place stuck in time, where the familiar litany of staggering statistics never changes and social problems are always deemed intractable. How many times have you read that Ward 8 is the city’s poorest ward? That it has the city’s lowest median income, highest unemployment rate, and highest number of fatherless families? That it is a ward of renters, where 25 percent of all housing is subsidized? That blood runs like hoopdees on city streets? That this place, of all places in the city, is stuck to the bottom, immune to the rising tide around it? You can probably recite it all from memory by now.
The thing is, though, sometime in the past four or five years, Ward 8 became unstuck. In fact, while you might not realize it from reading the paper, Ward 8 is in the midst of a remarkable and unexpected transformation that contradicts just about every stereotype that has come to define it, starting with gritty old MLK Avenue.
Anyone who’s been in Ward 8 for more than a few years knows that the avenue has lost its menacing edge. It’s still no Rodeo Drive, but it’s not nearly as deadly as it used to be. Its mortal tendencies started to evaporate two years ago as Ward 8’s crime rate began to slide. In 1996, Ward 8 had 112 homicides. Last year, there were 54. And this year, in the month of June, there wasn’t a single killing—for the first time in nearly a decade.
“Conspicuous young men” may still linger on MLK Avenue’s corners, but there are far, far fewer of them. According to the D.C. Department of Employment Services, Ward 8’s unemployment rate, although still higher than the rest of the city’s, is down 25 percent since last year.
While the media (this paper included) have been busy writing the same tired stories about Ward 8’s landscape of blighted and abandoned buildings, hundreds of those buildings have been leveled to make way for new construction. Since 1994, more buildings have been torn down there than anywhere else in the city, according to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
The landmarks that have so dominated the modern landscape of Ward 8—decrepit subsidized housing complexes like Ridgecrest Heights, Skytower, Sheridan Terrace, and Valley Green—are all gone, gone, gone, and more are just waiting for the wrecking ball. Stripped of the acres of cinder-block public housing, the hilly Ward 8 topography looks almost as appealing as it must have when Pierre L’Enfant envisioned it as the future home of D.C.’s mansions.
Something else has disappeared along with all those buildings: the people who lived in them. Since 1990, some 12,000 of Ward 8’s former residents have left. And, although outmigration usually signals the death of an inner-city area, in this instance, the population loss has allowed an area stifled by overconcentrated poverty to finally spread its wings. “Just ride around Ward 8 and you will see all the changes that have happened,” says 20-year resident Mary Ann Edelin, one of the ward’s brand-new homeowners.
Indeed, take a drive along Wheeler Road, Barnaby Road, or Mississippi Avenue SE, and you’ll see hundreds of new suburban-style town houses mushrooming on the corpses of failed projects or vacant lots. Two thousand new housing units are on line for Ward 8—more new housing than in the rest of the city combined—and they are filling up. It’s no small feat for an area that, until 1994, hadn’t seen a single new house built in nearly 40 years.
All told, nearly half a billion dollars in new development is being plowed into the area—much of it from the private sector. Chris LoPiano, senior vice president at Bank of America, which has invested nearly $35 million in Ward 8 in the past three years, says, “The smart money is in Anacostia. I think a lot more of it is going to be running out there. The next decade, it’s going to be the fastest-growing area
of the city.”
No one can look hard at this place and not say that a quiet revolution is under way. But Ward 8’s metamorphosis goes beyond bricks and mortar. Years of hard work by neighborhood activists have created a genuine civic infrastructure. Newly empowered residents—both poor and middle-class—have organized and demanded significant influence on the redevelopment of their neighborhoods. That’s why, despite the ward’s historic paranoia about gentrification, you won’t hear many people squawking about it. The midwives of Ward 8’s rebirth are largely its own residents.
As Ward 8’s civic life has revived, so, too, has the political character of the place. Whereas it once seemed energized only by the polarizing, race-baiting bard, former Mayor Marion Barry, the ward’s most up-and-coming activist today is a bona fide, coalition-building buppie. A likely candidate for the D.C. Council next year, Eugene Dewitt Kinlow successfully encouraged Ward 8 residents to write a new history this year by fending off a private prison. No one, especially the prison company, expected the ward to demand something better. The win over the prison is an event that will be viewed as a harbinger for many years to come. Public housing activist Brenda Graham says, “I think people feel a peculiar ambience in the air. Change is here. Who would’ve ever imagined?”
Back in the days when he carried a gun in his pants and prowled the halls of the Park Southern apartment complex looking for deadbeat renters, former Ward 7 D.C. Councilmember Hazle Reid “H.R.” Crawford used to talk about “the Plan.” Well-versed in Washington’s oldest conspiracy theory, he once warned that a secret cabal of white men was conspiring to deport Washington’s black community to Prince George’s County so they could build ritzy condos on Ward 8’s glorious green hills.
Well, in many ways, the Plan is now in effect. Crawford and his fellow conspiratorialists had it right except for one small detail: The Man with the Plan is black. Crawford, who as much as anybody is dismantling the Ward 8 ghetto, is not sheepish about his objectives: “For too long, the District of Columbia had more than its share of poor people. The suburban community needs to take their share.”
You would think a city like D.C., which has prided itself on its sympathy for the poor, would write off Crawford’s cold calculus as heresy. But in fact, the long-controversial Crawford has become something of a local celebrity for doing what millions of dollars and decades of good intentions have been unable to do: making Ward 8 a place that people would actually choose to live in.
On a brisk Thursday morning in October, the former assistant Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary—and frequently-investigated-but-never-charged-with-anything low-income housing guru—is standing on a tour bus idling in front of the wrought-iron gate that marks the entrance to H.R. Drive SE. The bus is full of do-gooder conventioneers from the Enterprise Foundation who have come to marvel over Ward 8’s newest tourist attraction: the Walter Washington Estates, a brand-new gated community developed by Crawford, where houses sell for up to $130,000.
Crawford calls his development “a little piece of Gaithersburg plopped down in Southeast Washington.” On first glance, Walter Washington is nothing special. Colored flags fly off lampposts in front of houses with varied brick facades and perfectly manicured patches of lawn—basically the same town houses you’d find in any generic Washington suburb. But whereas most suburban town houses went up on farmland, Walter Washington was built on the grave of the old Ridgecrest Heights apartments.
A 335-unit subsidized housing complex built in the ’60s by Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin, Ridgecrest was the kind of place that defined Ward 8 in the public eye. In 1990, the 20-building hillside apartment complex laid claim to six murders, which marked it as the single bloodiest piece of D.C. real estate that year. Tenants fled ambient drug violence sponsored by the Blackwell and Mathis gangs, whose members slaughtered each other over turf in a fight for dominance over the city’s biggest heroin market. When HUD foreclosed on the complex in 1995, a third of the units were vacant, Crawford tells his bus audience, adding, “The government was spending a million dollars a year on security.”
In 1996, HUD awarded Crawford $24 million to demolish Ridgecrest and build 141 town houses on the site—complete with the wrought-iron gate. Back then, says Crawford, no one believed a gated community would fly in Southeast. Today, he says, “We’ve disproved the naysayers.” Of 94 town houses completed, 80 are sold and 34 are occupied.
And with new housing has come a new kind of resident. Whereas Ridgecrest residents were disproportionately unemployed welfare moms, Walter Washington Estates hosts a doctor, police officers, and a handful of teachers. The project is now hosting busloads of tourists and potential investors who come to see the urban miracle under way in a neighborhood that isn’t even on the tourist maps.
Nonetheless, Crawford is convinced that unless he can overhaul the entire neighborhood, Walter Washington is doomed to fail. He points across the street to a ramshackle apartment building with men hanging out of windows and old chairs parked out front. You won’t find that in Gaithersburg. Nor will you find 125 abandoned apartments like the ones next door. To protect his—and HUD’s—investment, Crawford is snatching up every vacant lot, crappy apartment complex, and abandoned house within striking distance of Walter Washington. Those that he can’t rehabilitate, he is tearing down.
Later, on a tour of the neighborhood, Crawford cases the block from the leather seat of his Mercedes, mapping out his expansive plans for the neighborhood. Soon, he says, there will be a tot lot, day-care center, jogging track, tennis courts, and a community center—”for baby showers” and other things. Behind the new town houses is Crawford’s veterans’ center, an old apartment complex he bought in a foreclosure sale and gave to a nonprofit housing group. When all is said and done, the project will have cost well in excess of $30 million.
On the bus tour, people snap photos and clap, but then a few bleeding-heart skeptics ask Crawford, “What about the poor people?” It’s not the first time Crawford has been greeted with suspicion about what he has done with all the poor people who lived here before their homes became H.R. Drive. “When the bulldozers came to Ridgecrest, most people cheered,” he says. “Nobody pushed nobody nowhere.”
He claims many former Ridgecrest residents just disappeared, either because they weren’t interested in the new project or because they hadn’t been legal residents to begin with. The rest, he says, were either moved into public housing or given Section 8 vouchers to use elsewhere—like Maryland, where many chose to move. All the former residents can come back, he says. The only catch is that they have to be creditworthy. So far, only two former Ridgecrest tenants have returned, but Crawford doesn’t see a tragedy there. “I’ve never believed that you should concentrate the poor all in one area,” he says.
Crawford isn’t the only one who believes it. D.C.’s very own public housing authority has leveled—or will soon—more than a hundred acres and 1,000 units of public housing in Ward 8. In its place, the housing authority will invest well over $150 million to build mixed-income town-house-type projects that don’t look much different from what Crawford is constructing. “That whole notion of warehousing poor people in the same old boxes just doesn’t work anymore,” says Arthur Jones, spokesperson for the D.C. Housing Authority.
Before hopping on another tour bus that has pulled up, Crawford points out a little brick house next to H.R. Drive. Since Ridgecrest was torn down, the owners have built a new back deck and decorated it with flowers. They have started coming outside again. “This looks a thousand times better than it used to. These homeowners are glad to see things changing,” he says.
Barely two miles from H.R. Drive, off Southern Avenue, are leafy, serene streets lined with a mix of grand colonials, family ramblers, and other roomy, single-family homes that together make up the neighborhood of Hillcrest. It’s swanky enough to be mistaken for Foxhall in some places—except that it’s in Ward 7.
Like its east-of-the-river neighbor, Ward 7 has suffered from white and middle-class flight. It has nearly as much public and subsidized housing as Ward 8, and it rivals the neighboring ward in welfare cases, teen pregnancies, murders, and other indicators of urban stress. But Ward 7 has never reached the depths of despair that Ward 8 has, in large part because of the houses of Hillcrest.
Last year, it was Hillcrest residents who launched the Anthony Williams-for-Mayor movement, and the neighborhood has produced the kind of politicians that Ward 8 never has. Hillcrest is home to suave downtown lawyer and D.C. Councilmember Kevin Chavous, who came to power in 1992 by questioning whether local government was really delivering. By contrast, Ward 8 had Barry, who managed to use the same old bromides and government-as-sugar-daddy rhetoric to win election to the council after getting out of prison.
People like Crawford believe that the roots of those political differences lie in Ward 8’s dearth of homeowners—those hearty, vested souls who will defend their doorsteps and knit together the social fabric in ways renters never will. While 35 percent of Ward 7’s residents owned their own homes at the time of the last census, only 13 percent of Ward 8 residents did.
Of course, more of Ward 8’s residents live below the poverty line, but in many ways, its homeownership rate has less to do with the poverty of its residents as it does with the poverty of its housing stock. Quite simply, Ward 8 has had so few homeowners mostly because it has had so few houses to buy.
According to James Banks, the founder of the Anacostia Congress Heights Partnership, after World War II, the government actually prohibited the construction of anything but those dense, blocky garden apartments that make up so much of the Ward 8 panorama. Banks says the reason so many of the apartment buildings there look as if they were built sideways in alleys is that they were squashed onto lots originally platted for houses.
The zoning, says Banks, was intended to spur developers to quickly build lots of new housing for returning GIs—and create some jobs in the process. “People made a lot of money here after the war,” he says. The military residents intended for the apartments didn’t stay long, though, especially after the 1968 riots. The government replaced them with poor black families it relocated during the Southwest slum clearance and freeway construction of the ’50s and early ’60s.
The forced relocation planted a malignant seed that blossomed into Ward 8’s famously dangerous public housing projects, like Valley Green. Built in 1961, Valley Green once housed 1,500 people, 1,000 of them children. With hundreds of poor moms and their kids piled on top of each other, the project became a pot of pathology, earning the nickname “Death Valley.”
The District government didn’t help matters. Hopelessly corrupt and incompetent, the old D.C. Department of Public and Assisted Housing let millions in federal money sit in the bank rather than fix crumbling dwellings. Hundreds of units became completely uninhabitable and boarded up, landing the organization at the top of HUD’s list of the country’s most troubled housing agencies.
As crime and other problems from Valley Green and its counterparts filtered out across the neighborhoods, adjacent private housing began to lose its stable residents. The remaining pockets of concentrated poverty created a massive disincentive to commercial investment in the area, leaving residents to travel far and wide just to do something as simple as grocery shopping.
In March 1995, urban-policy consultant and former Albuquerque Mayor David Rusk came to Ward 8 with a radical prescription for the area’s economic crisis. At a candidates forum during the Ward 8 special election that year, Rusk insisted that the ward would recover only if some of the poor people moved out to the more affluent suburbs, with their better schools and safer neighborhoods, and some middle-class folks moved in.
The comment sent former Nation of Islam rabble-rouser and council candidate Malik Zulu Shabazz into a fury. “I am at war with David Rusk and those who think like him!” he shouted. Garnering cheers from the audience, Shabazz raised the specter of the Plan and all the latent fears among residents that they would be displaced from their homes.
However inflammatory the idea may have been four years ago, it’s clear today that Rusk was dead-on. Nearly everyone has conceded that the main reason so much of Ward 8 has been developed in such a short period of time is it has lost nearly 20 percent of its population since 1990. “There’s a massive exodus, and it’s still going on,” says Crawford, who suspects the final tally may go as high as 25 percent. “You’ve got a whole population shift. Any fool can see that.”
The demographic change was wrought in a less revolutionary way than might be expected. The elderly died. Children grew up and moved, as children will do. Many, many people went to prison. And, although the government didn’t forcibly relocate the poor the way it did in the ’50s, its failure to maintain public housing provided the impetus for people to leave on their own. At Sheridan Terrace, leaks turned to waterfalls and ceiling plaster fell on the heads of small children until the complex was completely abandoned, in 1995. By 1997, only eight families were left in Valley Green.
The exodus only accelerated when the housing authority landed in receivership, and its new head, David Gilmore, started handing out hundreds of Section 8 vouchers to residents of projects he planned to rehab or demolish. Given Ward 8’s violence-torn neighborhoods and failing schools, no one should have been surprised to see lots of people using those vouchers as their tickets out of the neighborhood. Several hundred skipped town entirely, according to the housing authority. Graham, one of more than 500 people who recently moved out of the Frederick Douglass Dwellings, says, “Now that they’re out, they don’t want to come back.”
It was a perfectly logical decision. After all, Section 8 was designed to salt the poor into richer neighborhoods, where schools and social services are less strained and better equipped to help them. “For many residents of Anacostia, the route to a better life is through Annandale,” says Rusk today.
Because of the ward’s geographic isolation and uniracial reputation, when the poor started to leave, they weren’t replaced with immigrants—a pattern that has played out elsewhere. At one point, says Banks, Ward 8 had 10,000 vacant apartments. The end result is that: “We have the chance to fix some of our mistakes,” he says.
That fix is on display at places like Wheeler Creek, the new mixed-income development going up in place of the old Valley Green, which was demolished last year. Wheeler Creek will feature a mix of modest single-family homes for sale, and town houses and apartments for rent; one-third of the properties will sell or rent at market rates. In this way, the housing authority and private developers such as Crawford are giving people in Ward 8 new doorsteps to defend. The new homes hold out the promise, too, that just as the poor might find a better life in new neighborhoods, the middle class might bring a better life back to old ones.
If you drive up Stanton Road SE toward Alabama Avenue, you’ll be treated to vistas of stark, barren 1940s-era public housing projects. The squat, red-brick buildings of the Frederick Douglass Dwellings go on for some 30 acres of one of Ward 8’s main streets. Windows and doors have been bricked closed to keep out the vagrants and local drug dealers.
Cross Alabama Avenue, though, and the scenery starts to improve. The brick turns from schoolhouse red to baby-shower pink trimmed with blue. Groomed lawns appear, dotted with patches of flowers and old deciduous trees. Hang a left and climb Savannah toward Ridgecrest Court, though, and the local flora takes a distinctly unusual turn: Palm trees appear on the horizon.
The sight of palm trees smack in the middle of Anacostia is a little unnerving, until you get closer and realize that these palm trees are plastic, and they are on plastic islands populated by plastic crocodiles in a 7,950-square-foot tropical splash park. The splash park is part of a $60 million investment by William C. Smith & Co. in the Village of Parklands, a 54-acre, 1,000-unit apartment complex off Alabama Avenue.
Smith has made the biggest gamble on Ward 8 of any private developer this decade. The company bought Parklands in 1991 from the Cafritz family for a scant $9 million. Sixty percent vacant, the project was grim and crime-infested. But with some private construction loans and a little tax forgiveness from the city, Smith renovated most of the units, which now have a 2 percent vacancy rate, and bulldozed 400 others to make way for 210 town houses along Mississippi Avenue SE.
Like the apartments, the $100,000 to $140,000 homes are a hot commodity. Since the sales office opened in mid-May, 90 units have come under contract. Two new Metro stops will be opening in the area within the next year, which should make the development even more desirable. And once the huge public housing complex at Stanton and Alabama gets its planned face lift, the neighborhood will become more resplendent still.
Smith is also retrofitting Halley Gardens, another 200-unit renovation, off South Capitol Street. And the company has recently taken over Livingston Manor from a failed nonprofit developer and will be renovating those 400 units off 4th Street SE, to the tune of $15 million.
Although Smith has taken the lead, it’s starting to get some competition. Off Suitland Parkway, the Bank of America Community Development Corp. recently tore down 100 apartments and is building a 56-town-house development called Hillsdale Heights—an $8 million investment. The bank is also responsible for plowing about $10 million into Washington View, a formerly blighted apartment complex off Douglas Road with the most spectacular view of the city anywhere. That project, too, was half-vacant when the bank bought it; today, it is 96 percent occupied.
The city has contributed some block grant money and tax credits, but the new housing going up in Ward 8 is not the same old subsidized junk of the ’50s. Private money is in abundance, mostly because the neighborhoods are becoming profitable. “We’re making money at this,” says Bank of America’s LoPiano. “This isn’t charity.”
Still, some of these projects seem like charity because of all the programs that have accompanied them. There’s not a new housing development out there that hasn’t come with “homebuyers’ clubs,” day-care centers, and resident-enrichment programs. Just as developers have sought to protect their investments by altering the landscape around them, they’ve created amenities to help ensure that their new customers stay put. The developers can afford to do so because land in Ward 8 is still dirt-cheap.
Desa Sealy Ruffin, Smith’s senior vice president for corporate communications, says the company invested $1 million of its own money in the splash park because “kids in the suburbs have things like that.” Essentially, the company is proving that the market is willing to give Ward 8 the amenities that the government has been unable—or unwilling—to provide. And, unlike when the government puts something nice into a troubled place, the pool is just as pretty as it was the day it opened three years ago.
The company has also made hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of capital improvements in local Garfield Elementary School. It spent
$1.5 million renovating the adjacent Parklands Shopping Center, where Bank of America lent $150,000 to a guy who opened a new Athlete’s Foot. Four years ago, Smith created a nonprofit group to raise $10 million to build a 76,000-square-foot community center across the street from its new town houses on Mississippi Avenue. “There was a need for a community center, a place for kids to go,” says Ruffin.
Expected to break ground next year, the center will have a 350-fixed-seat auditorium, space for music lessons, a gym, basketball courts, playing fields, a computer learning center, and a wellness center. The Levine School of Music will run cultural programs there while the YMCA attends to athletics, and Covenant House, a nonprofit youth service group, will provide other enrichment programs.
And, unlike Cora Masters Barry’s much ballyhooed youth tennis center, the Smith nonprofit already has $5 million in donations. Ruffin says the company wouldn’t be investing so much in the community if it didn’t expect to see it pay off. “It has tremendous potential. There’s a lot on the brink, and it’s very exciting.”
It’s 7:30 a.m. on a chilly October morning when Eugene Dewitt Kinlow and a small band of followers arrive on the corner of South Capitol and 1st Streets SE. Armed with makeshift signs that say “Free Ward 8” and “Good Food for All,” the group attempts to attract the attention of rush-hour drivers. Their cause this morning is an unusual one for Kinlow. He’s dragged his friends and family out in the cold to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the closing of Ward 8’s only major supermarket. The protesters hold a short prayer session and eke out a few chants for the benefit of News Channel 8, but it’s not much of an event.
The demonstration, though, does highlight one of the paradoxes of the Ward 8 renaissance: Even as the ward was seeing an influx of millions of dollars for new housing development, its only Safeway closed up shop last year. The lack of commercial development in Ward 8 is what keeps residents’ enthusiasm for redevelopment in check. They’re skeptical that all the new housing won’t amount to much, and that if it does, it won’t benefit the people who have suffered through the lean years to see it.
Ward 8 activist Sandra Seegars says, “Lots of stuff is going on, but nothing’s happening. They’re putting all these people here, and what you got for them? Just [Cora Barry’s proposed] tennis and learning center. Can’t get sick here,” she says, referring to the recent bankruptcy of Greater Southeast General Hospital, which is also Ward 8’s largest employer.
Ward 8 has very little retail development—no hardware stores, no sporting goods shops, no bookstores, no family sit-down restaurants, no movie theaters, and, now, no major grocery store. “Retailers have not gotten the inner city,” says Ruffin.
There are government plans for stimulating development—but, of course, Ward 8 has never suffered from a lack of plans. But if ever there were going to be some real action, this is the time. Scott Sorg, whose firm is conducting a planning study of Anacostia for the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, says, “The timing is right. This is the first time in a long, long time that new housing has gone up. That area of the city is really benefiting from the economy.”
One big factor keeping commercial development at bay is that Ward 8 is still losing population, but everyone seems to expect that trend to reverse in a year or two, given all the new housing in the works. LoPiano says, “Stores will follow the rooftops as you get population growth and income growth.” Bernard Tetreault, real estate development adviser to the housing authority, says the improvement of public housing will encourage the development of Ward 8’s biggest potential shopping site: Camp Simms, the former D.C. National Guard outpost off Mississippi Avenue.
Kevin Williams, an architect with Bryant & Bryant, which has the development rights to Camp Simms along with Dominion Development, has been working for five years to create a commercial development on the city-owned site, and he confirms that the project is finally moving ahead. He hopes to be able to make an announcement by the end of the year of a new tenant for the site. As Banks says, “If it’s a place they can make money, they’ll come. I think in the next five or 10 years, you’re going to see a big surge of commercial development here.”
Bright and early last Saturday morning, residents of the Stanton Dwellings and Frederick Douglass Dwellings assembled on the parking lot of Stanton Elementary School and anointed themselves kings and queens for the day. In the glorious fall sun, they donned crowns, fancy African hats and dresses, and scepters before marching off down Stanton Road along some of the ward’s worst public housing complexes. They didn’t have a band, but they made up for it by turning all their car radios to the same station. Appropriately, construction trucks and backhoes joined in the procession, which kicked off a multi-million-dollar effort to rebuild that public housing from the ground up.
The parade, organized by the public housing residents themselves, was one visible sign that the changes taking place in Ward 8 go beyond physical. Banks, who has spent the last 10 years organizing Ward 8 residents, believes firmly that none of the current redevelopment could have happened without a wholesale change in the mind-set of the people who live here. “What’s going on now couldn’t have been done 10 years ago. There was too much disorder, too much chaos,” says Banks.
Indeed, 10 years ago, the social fabric of Ward 8 was in tatters. The murder rate had skyrocketed, the middle class had long ago fled, and the remaining residents were beaten down by years of failed attempts to get the government’s attention. Banks has no doubt that developers trying to work in the ward 10 years ago would have been greeted with suspicion and outright hostility, making new development almost impossible. But today, Ward 8’s longtime residents are an integral part of the ward’s redevelopment. And oddly enough, the origins of their engagement came from public housing residents, who have played a key role in making Ward 8 a place the town-house set might want to return to.
When Graham first moved to the Frederick Douglass Dwellings in 1991, the residents council was not operational. It took four years, but Graham and some of her neighbors revived the ailing council and started demanding attention from the housing authority that had long treated them with indifference. With some assistance from groups like the Anacostia Congress Heights Partnership, the residents council began to create new civic institutions. They organized Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous groups, GED classes, and after-school enrichment programs for kids. “We have got residents who got clean and sober and are driving Metrobuses,” Graham says.
And, rather than wait for the police to come and save them from the criminal element, she says, “We changed the crime rate in Frederick Douglass ourselves. Somebody had to do it, by golly. You either could sit back and wait for someone to help you or do it yourself.”
While lots of public housing residents have left the scene, the ones who have chosen to remain have decided to take a stand in more ways than one. And they have found a reliable ally in court-appointed receiver Gilmore, who took over the housing authority in 1995. Today, Graham meets regularly with the new developers who will be designing the $60 million overhaul of the Frederick Douglass and Stanton Dwellings. She throws around words like “networking,” “partnering,” and “sustainability” as she talks about the work residents are doing as part of the reshaping of Ward 8.
“The impact that it has had on people’s lives, to be part of the decision-making process…” says Graham wistfully. “I tell you, we are becoming more vocal and more visible. We have to—otherwise we’ll just get pushed into some other place where we’ll have bad conditions.”
If there’s any doubt that Ward 8’s transformation has been substantial and deep, all you have to do is look at what happened earlier this year when the Corrections Corporation of America sought to build a new prison there. The city and the prison company naturally assumed that, poor as it is, Ward 8 would roll over and embrace the prison for its “economic development” potential. Despite heavy spending by the deep-pocketed private prison company, though, the residents of Ward 8—buppies and public housing residents alike—stood up and said, “No thanks.”
“This is the best thing that could have happened in this ward. It got people active, issue-oriented,” says Kinlow. “I’m so glad that people in the ward woke up. People feel as though change is coming—and change is coming fast—and they’re going to have to become relevant now.” Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen concurs, saying, “They’ve learned that their voices have to be collectively heard.”
That victory and the political engagement that went with it—on both sides of the issue—will be in ample evidence next year during the Ward 8 council race, which promises to be far more engaging than the one four years ago. In 1995, 20 people ran in the special election to fill Marion Barry’s council seat after he made his miraculous comeback as mayor. Two of the candidates didn’t even live in the District, and another had lived there only nine months. The election put the leadership vacuum that existed without Barry in sharp relief. His hand-picked successor, Eydie Whittington, won by a single vote.
Next year, Ward 8 voters will have real choices for people to represent them, including Kinlow, fresh off his prison victory, and Allen, who is increasingly popular. And, of course, there’s always the possibility of a Barry run. But if he should decide to throw his hat in the ring, he will be running for the privilege of representing a changed Ward 8. “It’s like you’re in a whole different place,” says Graham. “We’re going to be just fine.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.