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From her hilltop home in Southeast’s Penn-Branch neighborhood, Geraldine Boykin has views of the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol that rival any in the District. For years, Fourth of July revelers took in the vista from her backyard patio, eating burgers from a barbecue grill built into the side of the house. Most of the time, though, the political strategist uses the perch to brainstorm about District politics. “I can see every ward in the city from here,” she says. “I would just sit in my office and take every precinct apart. That’s the way I learned this city, by its wards and precincts, not by its streets.”
In both her private capacity as possessor of a spectacular view and her public one as political consultant, Boykin finds herself examining D.C. from a panoramic distance. But it is a more immediate and—literally—down-to-earth slice of the District that has her on the bureaucracy’s radar screen these days.
Along with its neighbors, the Highwood House—the name of both Boykin’s consulting business and her residence—has been threatened for years by a gradual landslide inching toward
O Street SE below. Boykin’s home sits atop this disaster-in-progress, which has been held in check by a wall that is now crumbling. At long last, the city is getting ready to do something about it. The fix, however, will require three homes, including Boykin’s, to be evacuated for up to six months. And Boykin, though she’s been demanding a wall repair for years, isn’t going anywhere.
Boykin and her husband—an electronics engineer who died in 1980—moved into the 16-room split-level house on Highwood Avenue in 1972. The sprawling brick-and-stone rambler was designed by a Greek architect,
Eli Basada, who was the previous owner. Instead of a rocky perch above the Mediterranean, it sits on a 200-foot-high bluff not far from Pennsylvania Avenue SE. Boykin’s living room features cathedral ceilings, two sets of French doors,
and bay windows with baby-blue drapes to match the furniture.
As befits a veteran of the civil rights movement, Boykin has decorated with a large painting of Martin Luther King Jr., which dominates the spacious room. Today, she lives with her daughter and runs her firm from her office, a room off the front foyer that is crammed with framed photos of Boykin with black leaders through the years, from former Mayor Walter Washington to activist and comedian Dick Gregory.
Highwood House has been in danger for just about as long as Boykin has lived there. Back in the ’70s, the District constructed a 1,200-foot wall to contain the erosion under the house. But after the winter of 1996, the melting of heavy snows caused the ground to slide and the wall to buckle. Today, Boykin’s back yard is a sinkhole of red clay and bramble; a cherry tree she planted a few years ago has shifted some 10 feet and nearly been swallowed; a collapsed sidewalk juts like broken teeth at the precipice of a 7-foot drop not far from her patio. Her Fourth of July cookouts are now a thing of the past.
Since the breach of ’96, Boykin and her neighbors have endlessly petitioned the District for help. Until this year, she says, she received only the standard litany of excuses in return. Finally, in March, help arrived in the form of legislation spearheaded by Ward 7 D.C. Councilmember Kevin Chavous. Nearly $3.6 million has been tagged to repair the “O Street Wall,” as the barrier is known. Everything is ready, and construction is scheduled to begin next month.
There’s only one hitch: In June, Boykin received a letter from the District informing her that she would have to leave within 24 hours from the time the utilities are disconnected: “The house can again be occupied after the site has been certified, stable, damaged footing and foundation walls cease movement and [sic].” For Boykin, this typo—the sentence simply stops cold—is more than just another annoying D.C. government screw-up; it means that the unknowable could happen and she may not have a house when she returns: “We’re not going anywhere,” she says. “We don’t have any assurance that when we move they’re not going to knock these houses down. We don’t have confidence in the District government.”
Other neighbors say that Boykin really doesn’t have a choice in the matter—it’s now or never. “We’re not sure that the universe is going to align itself like this ever again,” says Rhoma Battle, president of the Penn Branch Citizens-Civic Association, a neighborhood group that lobbied for the renovation. “We would hate to see one or two or three people jeopardize the entire project that the entire community has worked on for five years.”
When the District built the O Street Wall in 1975, Boykin watched its progress from her house. She has a photo scrapbook chronicling the $1 million, federally funded effort. She recalls a friend of her husband’s—a fellow Howard alumnus—visiting during the construction. He remained unimpressed with the vast array of earth-moving equipment. “I don’t believe it’s going to hold,” he said.
The erosion problem dates back nearly a half-century, but it didn’t become an actual threat until 1972, when Hurricane Agnes’ torrential rains caused a mudslide down onto O Street. The real culprit, the red clay, was never removed.
Boykin says she knows why the problem was allowed to reach epidemic proportions. “Look where we are,” she says, gesturing toward the bay window to Ward 7 outside. “Nobody gives a damn about Southeast. If we were in Northwest, this would have never happened. We would not be in this predicament. Up on Foxhall Road [NW] they had a dam problem, and they fixed it right away. But we’re in the wrong part of town.” And now that the solution has finally arrived, she’s still convinced that the District will find a way to blow it.
Before she goes anywhere, Boykin says she wants to know who will be liable for any damage to her house during repairs. So far, District officials have not assumed liability for any potential damages. She is also irked by the way the city contacted her—with an ultimatum in the mail, no less—the first correspondence she had received from city officials in more than a year.
“That letter is so irresponsible, so insensitive,” she says. “I could have understood if they had come out here and said, ‘Mrs. Boykin, we want to talk about some safety concerns that we have.’ I just don’t understand.”
Likewise, the forced evacuation makes no sense to Boykin. After all, she was in her home when they built the damn thing; why does she have to leave now?
“When the wall went up, nobody had to move, but the situation is different now,” says Battle, who has lived in the neighborhood five years. “The District government needs to cut off the utilities, and there is also the issue of whether the contractor could do the project if there were people in those homes.”
District officials say it is a clear-cut issue: The homeowners are in harm’s way during the project. “When that wall was built, conditions were set up to stop the soil from moving,” says Vincent Ford, chief of building inspectors for the District. “At this point, the soil is moving under its own conditions, and we have no control over it.” Ford adds that the District cannot give any guarantee, only reassurances: “We feel that from what we know, that she will not lose her house. But there are too many unknowns.”
That’s exactly what worries Boykin, and she’s not ready to let the District off the hook that easily. There’s already a 2-inch-wide crack in the foundation of her home, and she wants to talk about insurance and other legal issues in case the unthinkable happens and her house is indeed lost: “The District is responsible,” she says. “They created the situation, and they’re not going to be released from liabilities. It’s not going to happen.”
As for the legalities of forced removal, the legislation asserts that the mayor has the authority “to preserve public health and safety, including the temporary relocation of any persons legally occupying property affected by the repair work, if such temporary relocation is necessary for the Mayor to proceed with the design and reconstruction.” Construction—and dislocation of utilities—is slated to begin in mid-August, which doesn’t leave much time for negotiations.
Boykin, though, is clear in her demands: She wants her house stabilized, and she doesn’t want to be dragged out by the police. She wants a detailed timetable of the project; she wants information on the approval process for the design of the new wall. The old one didn’t work so well, she says. Are they going to flub it again? Boykin says she is merely asking questions that any concerned citizen would, and she says she deserves answers before the first clod of that red clay is moved.
The neighborhood group says it sympathizes with the embattled homeowners, but only up to a point. “They have some legitimate concerns,” says Battle. ‘We just want the District government to address those concerns. But at the end of the day, the wall needs to be repaired. We’re down to the wire now. That breach is threatening to collapse, and that would be a catastrophe. Those houses could come down and affect the surrounding homes as well.”
Boykin is well aware of the danger; she lives with it every day. She says the District is responsible for the impending “catastrophe” and needs to take responsibility. Meanwhile, she says the lack of rainfall this spring and fall has provided an answer to her prayers: “I think we’re causing the drought. I think the Lord has said, ‘Well, we’ve got to protect the people over here that nobody cares about.’” CP