"Transitioning neighborhood." I was introduced to that concept six years ago as I sat in my partner's rowhouse in the historic Mount Vernon Square section of Washington, DC. It was a gorgeous and peaceful spring day, so we had the front door open. The sounds of a nearby church's jazz band drifted in and out, in between dog barks and car horns. Then, a sudden loud and crackling rumble. Jerry jumped out of his chair.
"The crackhouse fell down," he said.
My response was simply: "What?" I'd heard his words, but--what?
We ran to the door and saw a rising pillow of dust rolling towards us from the end of the street. What had been an abandoned two-story brick rowhouse in an empty lot was gone. In its place, a pile of bricks and splintered wood at the base of a house seemingly cut in half. Neighbors slowly began to file into the street, calling the police or taking photos on their cellphones. It was so surreal.
"Wow," I said, "The crackhouse really...fell down."
This neighborhood and the areas surrounding it are no strangers to sudden changes. Wedged between Shaw to the north and Chinatown/Penn Quarter to the south, Mount Vernon Square transformed from a mixed working and merchant class commercial district to a solidly middle class African-American residential neighborhood by the middle of the 20th century. In April 1968, the riots that devastated large portions of Washington also severely crippled much of the neighborhood for much of the next 30 years. The crack epidemic of the 1980s did even more damage to the social and economic fabric of an already vulnerable part of the city. But long-time residents persevered, and newer residents moved in or opened businesses.
In my teens and twenties, I had no idea of the history of this place. I came to this part of DC to hang out in the underground punk and gay clubs. Much of the building stock was abandoned or empty, especially at night, and the streets weren't terribly safe. But the scene was unpredictable and cool. What else did a bored suburban kid like myself need?
Scenes, of course, cool down. We grow up. Neighborhoods keep changing. In Mount Vernon Square and Penn Quarter, new subway stops brought new development. The Verizon Center arena opened. A new convention center was built. Highrises and the chain stores popped up one after the other. And Gallery Place gradually became DC's "Times Square."
Honestly, I'm ambivalent about the path this part of DC has taken. It is ironic that I decided to settle down in the very place where I'd misspent so many of my formative years. And we live here now, so it seems a little silly to complain about the streets being too safe or the grocery store being too convenient.
Still, there's a part of me that misses the old 'hood. Ms. Tao, the Chinatown restaurant where I had a first date, is now a CVS. The 930 Club where I'd spent my youth losing my hearing to Fugazi or the Mekons is now a realtor's office. AV Restaurant is gone. The Warehouse Stage looks like it's gone. The DC Eagle may be next. Then what?
Two years after the crackhouse fell down, Jerry and I attended an open house on that exact spot for a row of five, brand new $1 million condominiums. They were beautiful. If we'd had a pile of money, we may have even bought one.
Obviously, neighborhoods aren't the only things that transition.
-- Warren Shaver
Warren Shaver is director of online communications at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This is our final post leading up to the inauguration from National Trust staffers telling their stories about the greater D.C. area. Coming to town for the historic event? Be sure to visit our new Preservationist’s Guide to Washington. And when you're done, share your photos with us.
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