Twenty years ago, Damian Ford would hear pimps beating up prostitutes in the alley behind his N Street NW townhouse. He’d grab a baseball bat and scare them off. He was 20 or 30 pounds bigger then—-an imposing guy in a neighborhood that was not defined, as it is now, by yoga studios and Whole Foods.
Ford saw himself as a protector of Logan Circle and the surrounding neighborhoods. He had insomnia, so he would walk the street at night with his dog, patrolling. He says he once caught a robber in the late ’80s trying to steal from a cabbie sleeping in his car near Thomas Circle.
He believed people appreciated him—-and that they would return his favors.
In 2004, his building was converted into four condominiums. Contrary to most gentrification tales, he was not pushed out. Ford became the proud owner of the first-floor unit-which he estimates to be 1,500 to 1,600 square feet with lofty 16-foot ceilings.
In the beginning, he and the other residents had cordial relations. Then last year, they descended into a battle about a missed payment for some construction work. The fight eventually turned into a $5,000 suit filed against Ford in the Small Claims and Conciliation Branch of D.C. Superior Court.
“I’ve never been treated this way in my entire life,” says the 47-year-old Ford.
Before his building went condo, Ford was listed as a partial owner on the deed. In the mid 1990s, friends of a friend had money to buy the building. They needed him to help them get a deal, and they gave him a deal in return. When he purchased his unit, he paid under market rate-$275,000-while the other condo-owners paid in the $400,000s and $500,000s.
When the board of directors was formed, Ford opted out, he says, because he figured his neighbors had a larger stake in the building. The board now consists of every condo-owner except Ford. The conflict about construction costs began when Ford, who did not attend meetings of his building’s board of directors, says he was blindsided by a request for roughly $2,260 between November and December 2007. At the time, he was trying to fix his furnace (he says he lived without heat the previous winter) and didn’t have the money at hand.
While David Copeland, the president of the condo board, contends Ford was invited to two meetings to discuss building repairs, Ford claims he had no opportunity for input, and no advance warning about the upcoming bills.
Ford went to the board asking for a flexible timetable, but he was rebuked.
The way Ford saw it, his fellow homeowners were not living by his neighborly code. “I said, ‘Guys, when did you decide you were going to do this? They said ‘We sent you a letter in August.’ I said ‘August?’ You guys have seen me since August.”
Ford has taken the rejection hard. When talking about the situation, he says the words “hopping mad” enough times to notice. He’s depressed and, he says, demoralized. He’s seriously considering leaving Logan Circle, where he’s lived most of his adult life. He says he’ll rent out his place first, and move back to his hometown of Mount Holly, N.J., for a year. Then he’ll see if he can stomach a return to Washington.
Regarding the lawsuit, Ford’s neighbors say they followed protocol outlined in the board’s bylaws. Second-floor resident Jennifer Trock says Ford was treated like any other tenant.
“It’s a hard time for everyone. And we understand that. We’re not insensitive to that at all,” she says. But Trock says Ford was invited to participate in meetings, and he didn’t come. Meanwhile, water leaks were damaging paint in Trock’s unit and that of third-floor resident Timothy Douglas. The board decided it needed to remedy the problems immediately-they didn’t want to wait until after the spring rains.
“The truth is these were not unreasonable fees, and we all decided this is what we needed to do,” she says.
Copeland says he empathizes with Ford, to an extent. He lives in the basement apartment, which doesn’t utilize some of the building’s common areas upstairs-yet he still has to pay for certain fixes that don’t affect him.
“I’ve had frustration, too,” he says. “But two-versus-three or three-versus-four-however it turns out-rules. And you just live with it.”
Copeland says he and his fellow board members felt they had no choice but to file the suit. The building has rules, and Ford wasn’t paying up.
“It’s just scary to think. A building a few doors down from us-apparently their condo association was mismanaged. So they had to replace the roof, and it was some [large] assessment to every person. And that was just poor planning. And it’s like, geez: I don’t want to have to come up with that. I don’t think that I can come up with that,” says Copeland.
In July, Ford showed up for a small claims hearing expecting to talk with the board’s lawyer and a judge. When he realized his three neighbors and a member of the management company had come to testify against him, he “lost it,” he says. His father had passed away that summer, and he says he was emotionally drained. He ended up ranting in the courtroom for a few minutes, and then agreed to settle with the lawyer.
Ultimately, Ford was required to pay $2,627 to the board. But his anger has not subsided. In the last year, Ford hung up a protest sign in his window that he has since taken down. It read: gentrification, right of entitlement and narcissism are alive and well at 1217 n street, n.w.
These days, he wonders aloud (repeatedly) if his neighbors are racists-if they’re acting this way because they’re all white, and he’s black. Trock says she finds it “offensive that he would even suggest that,” and contends her neighborhood and building is diverse.
In the last year, Ford has fought with two management companies hired by his building’s board. He asked them to assist him in dealing with his fellow condo-owners, but says his requests went unanswered. Chatel Real Estate, a property management outfit, dropped the building, claiming Ford threatened the company’s representative. Ford disavows having threatened anyone but confirms that’s the reason cited for Chatel dumping his building.
He also purposely vandalized the building at one point: After the board voted to paint his back door white to match the windowsills, Ford spray-painted a black streak on it. He says his dog scratches at the white door and a darker hue would have been more sensible.
Recalling these details, Ford starts to talk very fast. He knows he gets frazzled, and he apologizes constantly. He’s talked about “thrashing” his top-floor neighbor Douglas, who added a rooftop deck that Ford believes is causing water damage.
Back in the day, it used to be “hell” outside in Logan Circle, and heaven inside 1217 N Street, he says. Now he claims it’s the other way around.
Inside his sparsely decorated unit, he’s collected a few things he wants to share: a note from a former renter, a picture of his back taken for an ad that appeared in the City Paper in 1993. His arms are flexed-and they are humongous. The ad was for his services as a personal trainer, which is still his occupation. But he’s down to a few, irregular clients: When the economy sinks, people lose their high-end fitness gurus, he says.
“It used to be I walked the neighborhood, and people thought I was a cop,” Ford says. “Now I walk the neighborhood, and people think I’m selling drugs.”
Over and over again, he says he’s had enough. He’s getting out of here soon.
“I’m sorry to hear that Damian’s still going through this,” says Trock. “From our perspective, these issues have been resolved. It’s just a matter of complying with the payments that are due when they are due.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery. This article will appear in this week’s newspaper on the street Thursday January 8.