Residents of Stanton Park no longer see the volume of crime they lived with a decade ago. But the occasional pop of gunfire can still be heard, as on Aug. 7, when a Prince George’s County man was shot dead at 10th Street and Maryland Avenue NE. And each week, more homeowners have been bidding farewell to their jewelry and electronics with the spike in burglaries this summer.
But for residents near 10th and G Streets NE, the grievance that seems to trump even the more violent crimes is purely aesthetic: the battleship-gray brick school building on the corner.
“It looks so institutional,” says Paulette Page, property manager of the Capitol Hill Towers at 9th and G Streets. Longtime G Street resident Don Johnson is more blunt: “It looks like a prison. It lowers the value of your home.”
Residents like Johnson haven’t had much luck convincing their neighbor to splurge on a renovation of the brick façade, probably because the tenants don’t have much of a stake in neighborhood beautification or rising property values: The 1889 building, which was Madison Elementary until the mid-’70s, serves as a 64-bed shelter for homeless and battered women run by the House of Ruth, a nonprofit that operates a dozen shelters in Washington. The city still owns the building and informally leases it to the shelter.
Two years ago, in response to residents’ suggestions that the building could use a touch-up, the city had the red bricks swathed in a somber gray that Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Joe Fengler says came out of the city’s back stock of paint. As more and more vacant, run-down row houses in the area have been converted into tidy family homes, the block’s frustration over the shelter’s appearance has hit an all-time high: Community members have called three meetings with House of Ruth management since the spring, most recently on July 27, to address loitering and noise at the shelter and to request a new paint job.
According to Fengler, a group of neighbors is investigating the tenuous agreement between the shelter and the city—there is no written lease—to see whether they can force the shelter into adopting a formal lease with the city or else move out of the residential area.
“It’s a big piece of property that doesn’t care what’s going on in the neighborhood,” says Mike Showalter, who moved in next to the shelter’s fenced-in rear lot in 2001. He worries that his outspoken criticism of the shelter will unfairly tarnish him as “anti-homeless,” and argues that the aesthetics aren’t hard only on him: “Homeless people have pride, too. How good can you feel when you’re walking into the ugliest building on the block each night?”
“They don’t like the color of the building, but that’s not a valid criticism,” says House of Ruth President Christel Nichols, adding that she has little say in the building’s appearance. “It’s all just so far afield from what the issues are and what these [homeless] women’s needs are.” Earlier this year, neighbors also pushed Nichols to adjust the shelter’s doorbell, which they described as unnecessarily loud.
Nichols took care of the doorbell, but she says the paint job is out of her hands. And even if she were to remodel the exterior, Nichols doesn’t think the shelter’s neighbors would be satisfied. Newcomers, she says, are trying to displace an established emergency service. “Their agenda is, ‘We gotta find a reason for the city not to have shelters, because this is an up-and-coming neighborhood.’”CP