Talk to anyone returning to DC who’s been away for a few years, and you’ll get an earful about how much the city has changed. Even to residents, DC has been rendered unrecognizable by the changes, setbacks, blunders, and improvements of the past 50 years.
But there are those who have been around long enough to recall another time entirely. Leon Dews, 62, has been on-hand to witness multiple transformations in his own neighborhood of Barry Farm.
"It was like voodoo,” says Dews, recounting memories of his childhood in Barry Farm. “When the sun ducked down behind the trees, there was no kids in the street. Nowadays you see kids out at 11, 12, 2 o’clock in the morning. Kids talk back to the parents, cuss the parents out and all that (expletive).”
In the Barry Farm community there are two historic homes on the 2700 block of Wade Road, SE that are not included in the city’s thus-far unrealized redevelopment plans. Dews’ home at 2717 Wade Road, built in the early 1920s, is one of the two.
"When they do that redevelopment, it doesn’t matter to me. I plan on having my senior citizen’s apartment,” said Dews. “See, this is not part of the dwellings,” he says, referring to the neighboring public housing project of Barry Farm Dwellings.
Yet, Dews has noticed recent changes that have affected his family’s two-story home, one of the last remaining houses in the neighborhood with a basement. In recent years, a sidewalk was installed out front of the house. During his childhood and adolescence, Dews said it was a dirt road.
"I’ve watched them change the houses down there twice since I was coming up,” he remembers, citing an influx of refugees from the urban renewal efforts in Southwest Washington. “At first it wasn’t those big houses. It was little what we called shotgun houses. Open the front door and see through the back door. Back in the 40s & 50s.”
Born in 1949, Dews says, “Most of the neighbors I know died.”
Even with turnover in the area’s housing, there was always a tight community. “It really didn’t change the neighborhood that bad. See Barry Farm was always like a tribe,” he said. Then, referring to the nearby Garfield Heights neighborhood, he added “they had the Garfields on the other side of the bridge. They didn’t come over here and we didn’t go over there. It was no guns, it was sticks and baseball bats back then, and fists.”
During our conversation, along with local filmmaker and artist Tendani Mpulubusi, Dews shared some insights into his background. “I’m one of the original Teenorama dancers,” Dews says reticently of the popular local teenage dance show of the 1960s. “I got on the cameras a couple times.”
Dews and his extended family are well-known in southeast Washington. They were members of the Seafayers Yacht Club, founded in 1945 as the nation’s oldest black yacht club. At one time, Dews owned a 55 foot boat.
He credits his life’s success to his father. “My father had a third grade education. I thought he was the dumbest mother-(expletive) in the world, back then. But after I grew up I realized he was the smartest man in the world with a third grade education,” Dews recalls fondly. “He always lectured us and whooped our ass.”