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‘Why would I leave? It’s my home.’

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 26/11/2016 Paul Duggan
The Douglas Street home of Eduardo Laguerre is next door to the Kenilworth Courts housing projects, in the background at left. © Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post The Douglas Street home of Eduardo Laguerre is next door to the Kenilworth Courts housing projects, in the background at left.

Hardly a month goes by, Frank Matthews says, that he doesn’t step onto the narrow porch of his modest, century-old house, open his mailbox and find yet another letter from a real estate speculator.

Or they call or knock at his door.

“They all want to buy the place,” says Matthews, a retired federal worker. “And the reason is, they know this whole area’s getting ready to pick up big time.”

His property, just above the District’s eastern tip, is on Douglas Street NE, a tumbledown block these days, but once a tidy enclave of middle-class African Americans. Here, for almost 100 years, three generations of the Matthews clan, including Frank, witnessed the sweep of D.C. history from the same wood-frame, farmhouse-style abode.

In the new Washington that emerged from 1990s fiscal chaos, an influx of affluent professionals, mainly white, has altered the character of neighborhoods close to downtown. Now, as the tide of gentrification rolls toward outlying sections of the city, Matthews sees it lapping at his doorstep in the long-forsaken Kenilworth-Parkside area.

What’s occurring on Douglas Street, among the prosperous and the poor, is the story of gentrification in the nation’s capital — a saga of huge change writ small along a third of a mile of cracked and patched pavement. As in many parts of the District that are undergoing transformation, anxiety and tension are rife.

And it’s a tale of one man’s perseverance, his hope for renewal.

Frank Matthews has lived in his home on Douglas Street since he was born. © Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post Frank Matthews has lived in his home on Douglas Street since he was born.

“Oh, they’ll do a cash deal,” says Matthews, 66, who scoffs at the notion of selling his boyhood home. He waves a hand dismissively. “Same thing every time. . . . ‘Oh, I can give you $250,000 for it. . . . I don’t even have to look inside.’ ”

If all goes as planned, the city next year will begin razing the blighted Kenilworth Courts public housing complex, across the road from Matthews, and replacing it with a larger, upscale project of stylish design, including not only public housing but nicer apartments for middle-class renters and townhomes for sale at market prices.

Gone will be 26 low-slung blockhouses separated by shadowy labyrinths of courtyards and alleys. Although the city has vowed that the impoverished tenants will be allowed back in when the work is done, many of them are skeptical. And even if the promise holds true, the residents, who depend on one another daily for help, dread the loss of their mini-communities, their vital support networks within the buildings.

“A lot of times, I can’t get up to go to the store,” says Delories Williams, 61, who is slowed by chronic back pain. “I’ll give the money to Miss Kim,” meaning a longtime friend in an adjacent apartment. “Miss Kim will go get the things we need.”

Meanwhile, the first gentrifiers have arrived, a German-born white woman and her husband, a native New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent. Krya Szanto and Eduardo Laguerre, both college educated and profitably employed, bought a remodeled century-old house directly opposite Matthews and next to Kenilworth Courts.

The couple, who have befriended Williams and other nearby tenants, are burdened by angst. On Douglas Street, living at the intersection of the city’s future and past, they worry that their neighbors quietly resent them for the looming disruption. “We are the poster children of gentrification,” Szanto, 42, says uneasily.

As for Matthews, he is cheered by the thought of a neighborhood resurrection, and he passes his days untroubled, alone in the house where he was raised, where his father grew up and where his paternal granddaddy rooted the family ages back.

“It’s been awhile since things were looking up around here,” he says.

Humble beginnings

Before he died in 1947 at age 75, Granddaddy Frank Matthews could gaze out at Douglas Street from that narrow porch and ponder the measure of dignity he had achieved despite the bedrock racism of his times.

Born a decade after Emancipation, he was sworn in as a civil servant, an Interior Department laborer, in 1909. His pay, $480 a year, was paltry even then. By 1920, he was an elevator conductor in the grand Old Post Office building, four blocks from the White House, and his wages, still meager, had nearly doubled.

On May 14, 1919, with a $1,900 loan, he and his wife, Sadie, bought their piece of the dream: a little house on a quarter-acre in a countrified corner of the capital.

Today’s Kenilworth-Parkside area, two miles long and a half-mile across at its widest, includes five neighborhoods between Benning Road NE and the Maryland border, flanked by the Anacostia River and the Anacostia Freeway. When the first community was built there, a tiny suburb-within-the-city dubbed Kenilworth, blacks could buy property on one block in an otherwise whites-only subdivision.

Although the road was labeled “Douglass Avenue,” as in Frederick Douglass, on a 1903 planning map, it was Douglas Street when Matthews moved in, and he could ride a trolley six miles to downtown, where he stayed on the federal payroll into the Depression years.

His son, Thomas, joined Interior as a laborer in 1934. After military service in World War II, he returned to the workforce as a lithographer in the Navy’s map-making Hydrographic Office with a salary that afforded his growing family a middle-class lifestyle.

He and his wife took over the Douglas Street house, and the youngest of their three kids, born in 1951, was named Frank after his late granddaddy.

Thomas and Beatrice Matthews, Frank Matthews’s parents, take a stroll in the 1950s. © Family photo Thomas and Beatrice Matthews, Frank Matthews’s parents, take a stroll in the 1950s.

Frank Matthews recalls an idyllic ’50s boyhood on a tranquil block, the homes a mix of farmhouse styles and stout brick Colonials. There were African American businessmen and civil servants; there was a dean of the D.C. Teachers College; there was a dapper nightclub owner whom Frank addressed as “Mr. Collins,” always with a Cadillac and a roll of cash, who’d peel off a five and tip a kid for wiping his windshield.

But a great social upheaval, vaguely noticed by young Frank, had already begun.

Nationwide in the 1950s, postwar-era government housing programs and the lure of open space spurred white flight to suburbia. Racist real estate practices prevented most African Americans from joining the exodus. Black families, many of them middle class, gradually filled up formerly all-white D.C. neighborhoods, including Kenilworth. By decade’s end, the city’s African American population, 35 percent in 1950, had climbed to 54 percent.

Whites in Kenilworth were especially apprehensive about the growth of a community just to their south: Eastland Gardens, developed by and for blacks in the late 1930s, was the second of the five neighborhoods built in Kenilworth-Parkside.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools, causing more white families to flee urban America. As for Douglas Street, its middle-class African American character endured — until the late ’50s, when Frank, standing on the porch one day, saw earth-moving machines clearing the woods across from his home.

That tree-filled acreage had been his playground. But Frank overheard some unhappy grown-ups saying that the city needed the land. “Public housing,” they grumbled.

The rise of public housing

Kenilworth Courts, opened in 1959, was a larger complex then. Today, it is 290 apartments in 26 squat brick buildings spread across 14 acres on the north side of Douglas Street, right outside Frank’s front door.

Conceived in the New Deal era, public housing was meant to create construction jobs and provide decent living quarters for people who were bruised by the Depression yet still able to pay modest rents.

The District erected its first complex in 1938 and built about 50 more in the next quarter-century. There were plenty of working-class white tenants in the early years. But after Congress lowered the income ceiling in the late 1940s, America’s public housing population turned steadily poorer and overwhelmingly black.

Along Douglas Street, the moneyless newcomers came face-to-face with a long-settled community of working- and middle-class African Americans. Although Frank found playmates in the complex, he also encountered class resentment. More than once, he says, he was waylaid by “project kids” he barely knew.

“I realize now it was because I lived over here and they lived over there, and we had a house and they didn’t,” he says. “It’s still that way to a certain degree. ... People feel like you’re upping them in some kind of way.”

Like other homeowners on the block, his father, Thomas, was leery of the tenants, especially after the battery vanished from his Oldsmobile.

Clad in a suit and fedora, Thomas Matthews, a hard-nosed man who wouldn’t tolerate laziness, marched to the complex and canvassed the courtyards. “They thought he was a cop,” Frank recalls. “He’d ask them who was doing what. Asked guys what their names were. Because if there was any problem, he wanted to know who the problem people were.”

In the 1960s, urban riots across America fueled more white flight. Violent unrest after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 left vast swaths of the District in ruins. While his father stood guard over his property, Frank, then 17, watched from the porch as looters streamed out of Kenilworth Courts, bound for a nearby Safeway, and hurried back with all the groceries they could steal in overflowing carts.

“It was like a parade of people,” he remembers. “Some people didn’t have carts. Some just had stuff all up to their armpits, carrying them and running.”

The Kenilworth Courts populace, once just mostly black, was virtually all African American by then, and desperately impoverished.

Thomas Matthews, on the other hand, was making the equivalent of $68,000 a year in today’s money before he retired in 1966 from the U.S. Naval Oceanographic Office. If he hadn’t been busy protecting his home during the rioting, his son says, he almost certainly would have been off playing golf.

As they sat together out front, taking in the mayhem that April night in 1968, Frank recalls, his father turned to him, quietly seething: “You don’t ever get caught up in nonsense like this, you understand? It’s disgusting.”

A year later, Frank would finish high school, join the Marines and go off to war. For the time being, though, in a city in flames, he could only pace and idle at home.

For three days, his father wouldn’t allow him beyond the porch.

‘Hell on Earth’

The view across Douglas Street got uglier while Frank was overseas.

When he came home in 1973, he was 22 and restless, freighted by the memories of what he had seen in the jungles of Vietnam. After moving to Maryland, to a place of his own, he joined the federal workforce as a mail clerk with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

He dropped in regularly to check on his parents. And from their porch, looking at Kenilworth Courts, he saw a perilous wasteland, a crimescape of guns and heroin with few ways out: by handcuffs, by gurney. In 1971, the city’s chief of housing programs had publicly declared the complex “hell on Earth.”

“The guys I used to know over there,” Frank says, “they just got older and crazier.”

In the 1970s, black Washingtonians, then numbering 7 in 10 residents, enjoyed a new sense of self-determination. Empowered by Congress, which granted the city partial home rule, voters elected an African American mayor and a predominantly black city council. But a fault line ran beneath the buoyant mood.

Fair housing laws and liberalizing racial attitudes had opened suburbia to middle-class blacks, who followed whites in abandoning cities. From 1978 to 1998, the District’s population would fall by 100,000, to fewer than 600,000 people, a dire percentage of them poor. The eroding tax base, combined with official mismanagement and a staggering demand for costly social services, would eventually cripple the D.C. government.

During his visits, Frank noticed Douglas Street sliding downhill. One by one, the old families left, and several of the houses, sold cheap, fell into disrepair. Some were razed, and the lots turned to grassy fields.

Alone after his wife, Beatrice, died in 1975, Thomas Matthews refused to quit the neighborhood, his son says. “This was his house, period.” Thomas was 72 when he died of a heart attack in 1984, and he wasn’t long buried before Frank moved back in. He has lived there by himself ever since.

The corner of the District he returned to was a hardscrabble patch of an ailing city tumbling toward the brink of bankruptcy.

The lucrative crack trade and the feverish homicide rates it spawned, starting in the mid-1980s, stamped Washington as “America’s murder capital.” In the neighborhoods of Kenilworth-Parkside, gunshots and sirens pierced the nights.

On Douglas Street, Kenilworth Courts was a hive of violent dopers.

To the south, below the aging enclave of Eastland Gardens, police made thousands of drug arrests in the side-by-side neighborhoods of Mayfair and Paradise, comprised entirely of sprawling, privately owned apartment complexes for low-income tenants.

And south of there, in the Parkside neighborhood, a small public housing building stood in a treacherous no man’s land, surrounded by weed-choked empty lots and desolate streets swirling with litter.

As his father had done, Frank kept a vigilant eye on his property, through the 1980s and into the ’90s, confronting any crack slinger or pipehead who encroached.

“I remember the police used to come around, putting all these guys down on the ground,” he recalls. “I’d be standing on the porch, and the cops would look at me, they’d be like: ‘How can you live here, man? Why do you stay?’ ”

“And I’d be like: ‘Why would I leave? It’s my home.’­ ”

‘The people were nice’

Delories Williams was 10 miles from Douglas Street in 1997, sharing a $475-a-month apartment with her boyfriend, Bobby Riles. They worked as janitors, and three of Williams’s grandchildren, the oldest in middle school, lived with them.

Then one night their roof collapsed.

After years on the public-housing waiting list, Williams was bumped to the top, and she and Riles got a place: four bedrooms in Kenilworth Courts for the standard public-housing rent, roughly 30 percent of their incomes.

Williams, who grew up poor, had a daughter in prison then. “It was a whole lot of things got her into drugs,” is pretty much all she’ll say about it. “I took the kids.” And so there she was at age 42, a low-wage worker with three young mouths to feed. Their names were Adrian, Tyree and Marquell.

Compared with the “slum” they had been living in, she recalls, the Kenilworth apartment felt deluxe. And “by me being a friendly person, you know, the people were nice.”

Meanwhile, the D.C government had bottomed out.

With the city facing bankruptcy, unable to pay its bills, Congress in 1995 created a financial control board to manage the municipal purse strings, empowered to veto decisions by the mayor and city council.

Six years later, the board chairman, economist Alice Rivlin, declared that the city was back from the dead, its revenue adequate, its budget balanced. As D.C. officials reassumed the reins of government, she wrote in 2001, they should focus on growing the tax base by attracting 100,000 additional residents. The more money they had, the better.

For this reason, and many others, gentrification took hold in the nation’s capital.

Following a strategy laid out by Rivlin to entice new city dwellers, the District adopted policies favoring entertainment, restaurant and high-rise apartment and condo development in the downtown area. At the same time, it helped immensely that the local job market stayed relatively strong through the post-2007 recession.

The results were remarkable.

In the 2000s, for the first time since World War II, the District’s population grew, topping 600,000, an increase of 30,000 people. It has since gone up again, by 70,000, amid a forest of construction cranes near the city’s core. About 40 percent of newcomers in the late 2000s settled in the Shaw, Dupont Circle, Penn Quarter and Chinatown areas, according to a study in the Journal of Urban Affairs.

As a consequence, though, many longtime residents of modest means are anxious about rising rents and escalating property values that lead to heftier tax bills.

There is cultural disruption, too, as newcomers of all races, but largely affluent whites, settle in communities where deeply rooted neighbors have lived in rhythm for years, relying on one another when times are hard. After 60 years in the majority, blacks now account for 49 percent of the D.C. population.

Among those who tipped the balance were Kyra Szanto and her husband.

Szanto was studying at Hotelschool The Hague in 2000 when she traveled to Washington as a Ritz-Carlton intern. She chose to stay, working as a purchasing director at the Mandarin Oriental, where she met Eddie Laguerre, an IT specialist.

“I have never lived outside the city, never once,” says Szanto, who moved several times in her early years in the District. It was a point of pride for her to alight in decidedly unhot neighborhoods before other young professionals discovered them.

She and Laguerre, now parents of a 4-year-old girl, were renters until 2012, when Szanto was pregnant and the two started shopping for a house.

“Oh, my God, she makes a spreadsheet for everything,” her husband says. “Literally, it had crime statistics, neighborhoods, prices, schools in the area, park space — I mean, there were flow charts, PowerPoint presentations.”

One place stood out: a small three-bedroom with a big back yard, built in 1915 and handed down through generations of the original owner’s family, then fully remodeled in 2011 after a speculator bought it. The couple would pay $230,000 to live in the shadow of public housing, but so what? Szanto never shied from an authentic urban experience.

“We are the reason gentrification happens,” she says with mixed emotions. “We are the poster children of gentrification.”

Newly ensconced on Douglas Street, they met Delories Williams (Miss D, as she’s known), whose Kenilworth Courts apartment is steps from their front door. Chatting over the black iron fence at the border of their separate worlds, Szanto and Williams, the neighborhood’s future and its past, got to be friends.

“We bonded,” says Williams. “You can feel the love coming from her.”

Delories was a widow by then, having married Bobby Riles in 2009, two months before he died of stomach cancer. Of the grandkids she had parented, only Tyree Williams still lived with her as an adult, because he had little choice.

On an autumn night in 2003, when Tyree was 13, he was riding in a car in a neighborhood that he had been warned to stay out of. When gunfire went off, a bullet caught him in the spine, paralyzing him below the waist.

And his grandmother became his nurse.

Through the generations

In 2016, the view of Douglas Street from Frank Matthews’s front porch isn’t much different than it was 20 years ago — not yet. But lately, when he looks out a rear window, south toward Kenilworth Avenue, he takes in a landscape undergoing rebirth.

Where once there were loiterers and felons, he sees moms pushing strollers; he sees joggers and bicyclists; he sees millennials in officewear hurrying to the Deanwood Metro.

He knows change is headed his way, again, spreading outward along H Street and Benning Road from downtown, gentrification’s ground zero.

At the bottom of Kenilworth-Parkside, the once-forlorn Parkside neighborhood is a model of mixed-income redevelopment, filled with moderate-rent apartments and market-priced townhomes. In Mayfair and Paradise, the subsidized housing complexes have been overhauled and rebranded.

And in Eastland Gardens, Siraaj Hasan, 38, typifies a new generation of homeowners in his neighborhood. He’s a cybersecurity consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton, married to the D.C. government’s acting director of health-care reform.

“The older people are passing on and their houses are being sold or their children or grandchildren are moving in,” Hasan says. “My best friend around the corner is chief of staff for one of the council members. There’s an IT professional across the street. There’s an Asian couple. There are several white families.”

Adrianne Todman, director of the D.C. Housing Authority, says she knows what’s happening in Kenilworth-Parkside. That’s why the authority and two developers intend to demolish the 290 apartments of Kenilworth Courts and build a 530-unit mixed-income complex. In her office downtown, with a map spread before her, Todman, who is African American, circles the five neighborhoods with a finger.

“This entire footprint is going to be different in the future,” she says. “Years from now, the affordable housing we build today might be the only affordable housing that’s there.”

As for the market-priced townhomes included in the redevelopment, the revenue from those, and from the moderate-rent apartments, will help pay for the upkeep of the 290 replacement public-housing units, Todman says.

So late next year, as when Matthews was a boy, earth-movers will roll into Kenilworth.

Kyra Szanto runs her own business now, decluttering and organizing her clients’ homes and offices, and Laguerre works for a defense contractor. The two were already settled on Douglas Street when they heard about the plan for Kenilworth Courts. By then, they had hosted barbecues for the neighbors, befriending Williams and others (Miss Kim, Miss Mildred) from the blockhouse abutting their property.

“There’s a happy dance involved from an equity standpoint,” Szanto says of the project. “And that was followed by: What about Miss D? What about Miss Mildred?”

These days, when the gentrifiers and the tenants chat over the fence, no one mentions the future. “I haven’t touched the subject,” says Szanto, frowning. “Because I don’t even know how to touch it. Because . . . how?”

Williams, who hurt her back in a car crash and survives on disability payments, says she harbors no resentment toward the couple next door.

Yet she’s distraught over the looming break up of her community.

“With Miss Mildred, I rely on her clothesline, because my dryer’s broke,” she says. “Me being a missionary at my church, I get a whole lot of food, and I’ll put it out around the neighborhood. . . . Or Miss Kim, she has that car, she’ll take me to the doctor’s.”

One morning last month, Williams woke up depressed, so Kim Wallace suggested that they go for a drive, to take her mind off things. Hours later, when Williams returned to her apartment, she found Tyree, 26, slumped in his wheelchair, dead from what a police detective told her was an apparent drug overdose.

Sweeping out her grandson’s bedroom the next day, she says in a tired voice: “These are the things that happen. He’s a product of Kenilworth, you know.”

And Frank Matthews:

There’s a lilt in his voice as he strolls the length of Douglas Street, pointing to this lot and that lot, sharing tales of neighbors long gone.

By the time he retired last year from the Department of Homeland Security — a third-generation career civil servant — he was a budget analyst with a bachelor’s degree and a salary in the low six figures. Now he speaks of better days for his block.

Back home, upbeat, he climbs the steps to the porch.

In granddaddy’s house, settled on its century-old cinder-block foundation, dust from ancient coal still lines the basement bins. But solar panels cover the roof now, the vinyl siding is pale green, and there’s a 20-foot motorboat in the side yard.

He checks his mail and heads inside.

Letters from speculators “go in the trash,” he says. And those phone calls and visits: “They’ll all be like, ‘Oh, Mr. Matthews, we’ve been trying to get in touch with you!’ And this and that.” He smiles.

“No, sir. Not now, not ever. The place ain’t for sale.”

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