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Welcome to a new occasional feature on Housing Complex, in which we take a walk with someone who has a very distinct perspective on their neighborhood—could be a developer, a beat cop, or a precocious 12-year-old. If you’ve got an idea for someone who might make an interesting subject, send ‘em along: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For someone who follows Twitter fairly closely, Sylvia Brown—@ANC7c04—is an outsized presence. She nudges councilmembers and narrates press conferences, corrects journalists and vents about the latest political outrage.
Turns out Brown is a large presence in real life, too. She’s tall, basketball player tall, though the resemblance might also have been due to the track pants and sneakers. Brown pulled up in a compact silver SUV at our meeting place, 48th Street and Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE, and immediately pointed out something I’d never noticed before: The Lederer Youth Garden, which has dozens of small plots for children, complete with a beehive.
“It’s a hidden gem,” she says. Brown walks, and speaks, at a measured pace, slightly inflected with an Arkansas drawl—she came to D.C. to work on the Hill in 1999 as a legislative assistant for her member of Congress. After six years in government, she jumped to lobbying, taking a position with the American Physical Therapy Association. Now, she’s an independent “community engagement consultant,” taking clients from public utilities to the Michael A. Brown campaign.
Job One for a community engagement consultant: Know everybody. Beyond the garden, we run into Deanwood Heights Main Street’s First Saturday event, which this month is a mini farmers market. It’s hard getting people to come out to these kinds of programs, explains executive director Deborah Jones—there’s not a lot of foot traffic, so turnout depends entirely on advertising. “It wasn’t like people came out, it was just people who happened to be there,” Jones said of last month’s event.
We leave behind the small gathering and continue up Deanwood’s empty-feeling main drag. Off to the left is the former site of Suburban Gardens, Deanwood’s answer to the then-all-white Glen Echo Park in Maryland. Merritt Elementary now stands there, but a jog in the road remains to remind residents of the amusement park that opened there in the 1921 and closed in 1940.
Brown couldn’t have ridden the park’s Deep Dipper—she’s 36—but some of the neighborhood’s longer term residents could’ve. While advocating for developers to invest in Deanwood, Brown has to walk a fine line with people who’ve lived in the neighborhood their entire lives, and like it the way it is: Tranquil and low-density (the most activity we passed on Nannie Helen Burroughs was a funeral). Unlike other gentrifying areas of D.C., Brown notes, it’s not white people and gay people leading change, but the younger black professionals like herself.
“With that comes the necessity of learning to balance new ideas with deference to the older generation,” she says. “You have to pay your dues.”
Elderly conservatism isn’t the only challenge to bringing dollars down to Ward 7. There’s also political will: At Division Avenue, we ran into the decrepit Strand Theater, which the city awarded to ill-starred Banneker Ventures to rehab as offices and retail, slowing the process. Across the street, there’s another phantom development, Lincoln Heights/Richardson Dwellings, which the Council cleared to become a mixed-income New Communities development back in 2006.
“That vision has kind of fallen off track,” Brown says. She’s looking forward to having Ward 7 residents in control of both branches of government, but thinks the ward’s own D.C. Council member—Yvette Alexander—leaves something to be desired. (Is she thinking of challenging Alexander in 2012? “People tell me I should,” Brown says, chuckling.)
The biggest obstacle to development in Deanwood, though, might be pure distance. There’s a big mixed-use development in progress down at the Benning Road bridge, but it’s hard to get developers to look further. Brown is reminded of the differences between the communities when she participates in the citywide Federation of Citizens Associations, which tends to be focused on preserving the city’s monumental core with venerable laws like the Height Act (the historically black Federation of Civic Associations, she explains, hews more to neighborhood improvement projects.).
“Who cares about the Height Act when I’m trying to take care of stuff out here?” she asks.
We cut over to Sherriff Avenue, Deanwood’s other main thoroughfare, which is even more packed with churches—not as strong as they used to be, but still the center of neighborhood cultural life. In between, there are a quite a few vacant lots. On one such grassy plot, staff from Words, Beats and Life are overseeing the final touches of a mural on the blank side of an adjacent building. It’s designed by Juan Pineda, and painted with the help of a local group of young people who call themselves the Double Down Kingdom. That’s why the price on the painted stamp is 22 cents—it’s a signal to other taggers, who won’t touch the mural.
Coming back down 46th Street, the neighborhood is quiet and still, with maybe a few people working in well-kept yards. The conversation turns back to development and retail; Brown is frustrated that Safeway took out the self-checkout stands because a few people used them to steal groceries. They should talk to community advocates first, before taking drastic steps. It’s a theme that runs through all her interactions with companies that have money to spend.
“What they see in black and white is not really what’s in the neighborhood,” she says.