2228 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE. Photo by Old Anacostia on Flickr.

For the past two decades Hannah Hawkins has watched a 120-year-old house gradually deteriorate behind the community center she runs in historic Anacostia. The crumbling home at 2228 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE will be demolished this spring.

The Department of Housing and Community Development has owned the home and several adjacent properties since July 2010. DHCD filed for the raze because, as a historic preservation official noted, “all the exterior walls seemed to be leaning and not necessarily in the same direction.”

Losing this building will create yet another hole in a historic district which has more than its share of empty lots thanks to demolition by neglect. Developers say it will likely take years before anything is built here, meaning Anacostia residents will have to live with this damaged urban fabric for quite some time.

The Historic Preservation Review Board worried that allowing the raze would encourage other property owners to just let buildings deteriorate and then apply to tear them down rather than spend the money to fix the historic structures. HPRB allowed the process to continue once DHCD created a plan to preserve the other 3 adjacent properties on the “Big K site,” 2234, 2238 and 2252 MLK.

DHCD’s neighborhood holdings


Anacostia’s Historic District has been endangered for decades. Photo by the author.

DHCD currently owns more than a half dozen properties, not including the Big K site, within the Anacostia Historic District, incorporated in the 1970s. It is looking for developers for 4 properties (1201 and 1203 Good Hope Road SE, 1615 V Street SE, and 1326 Valley Place SE).

A 3-story red brick apartment complex at 1700 to 1720 W Street SE is in the process of being sold, and 1648 U Street SE is moving through the Residential Turnkey Initiative, where the District retains ownership of properties during development.

With pressure from residents and the Historic Preservation Review Board, DHCD has “develop[ed] a more strategic approach to acquiring properties in the historic district, which would include a pre-acquisition analysis to determine the scope of work to stabilize a building,” according to materials the agency submitted to the HPRB.

In other words, DHCD agrees that it shouldn’t buy a building if it can’t care for it.

DHCD also announced plans to work with the Historic Preservation Office to create a “pattern book” that “would suggest basic architectural styles that are representative of Anacostia’s Historic District.” This pattern book would guide developers of vacant lots to “ensure that DHCD-owned property is compatible with the historic district, while still providing opportunities for affordable housing,” said Denise Johnson, a former HPRB member hired by DHCD to work on historic preservation issues.

The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, which owns vacant properties in Anacostia, Deanwood, Trinidad/Ivy City, and other neighborhoods should also be guided by a similar preservation plan, HPRB members agreed.

Absent from both the community meeting earlier last week and Thursday’s hearing was DHCD’s Director John Hall. Catherine Buell, Chair of HPRB and a resident of the Anacostia Historic District, asked about Hall’s whereabouts. The answer: Hall has to prepare for February budget hearings.

With Councilmembers Jim Graham and Michael Brown calling for an investigation into DHCD, Hall should make a conscientious effort to be as accessible and transparent as possible. However, his recent absence hints at problems for an organization that looks to be coming under newfound and needed scrutiny.

Memories


Big K lot on the 2200 block of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue in Historic Anacostia. Photo by Old Anacostia on Flickr.

When Rosalind Wheeler Styles was growing up at 2228 Nichols Avenue SE in the 1960s she often sat on the front porch watching the activity of the street below.

"You could watch people going into the Safeway, going to the drug store to get an ice cream float, or going to the Curtis Brothers furniture store,” said Styles, who remembers an Anacostia long since changed.

Hawkins, whose community center at 2263 Mount View Place SE is across the alley behind the wood frame home, has more immediate memories of the home and its deterioration. The Kushner family, notorious owners of the Big K Liquor store, woefully neglected the property, which was last occupied in the 1970s.

"There was trash everywhere. Homeless men were sleeping on the back porch,” said Hawkins, who recalls repeatedly chasing off squatters until a fence was erected around the lot some years ago.

Although not required to notify the lot’s conterminous neighbors, the city government has failed to make a good faith effort to contact Hawkins or Dale Richardson, the owner of Astro Motors at 2226 MLK Avenue, about the city’s pending plans to demolish 2228.

Until a recent visit from Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry’s staff, Hawkins had not heard from city officials and subsequently decried the city’s handling of the property as “criminal” at a meeting at DHCD’s headquarters, a short walk from the community center.

Hawkins chastised city officials as “interlopers” who antagonize residents by imposing their plans on communities not before the fact, but after. “And I don’t plan to try to play catch up. If you’re not going to knock on my door or call me on the telly then so be it,” finished Hawkins.

"That house means a lot to me because it was a refuge for me,” said Bill Jackson, who first crept into 2228 MLK in November of 2010 to seek shelter from the streets. Jackson, now in an apartment off Southern Avenue, says the home’s demolition “will be a sad day for a lot of people in the neighborhood.”