I bought a house in Petworth in 2002. In the time between having our contract accepted by the seller and going to settlement, I went with my wife to visit our future home. A woman who is now our beloved neighbor saw us peeking in the windows and came over to welcome us. She went over all the characters on the block and told us how very old everybody was and how quiet and stable the neighborhood had been in her 20 years here.
Then she pointed to a house somewhat in the distance, past the alley and across 7th Street NW, and with an encouraging smile and in a fabulous Caribbean accent, she announced, “And over there, there is, how you say?…white people!”
Yeah, we were the only whites on our block, she was saying, but not the whole neighborhood. We got our home from the estate of a 90-something lady who’d lived here 50-plus years, and ever since we’ve moved in, probably for all sorts of economic and sociological and psychological reasons, whenever another old, black resident has died around us, a young white person or persons has moved in.
The place now teems with “how-you-says,” which has become the new family term for fellow paleskin gentrifiers.
It’s as if Whitey has invoked some sort of right-of-return clause in Petworth.
You can’t blame him, er, us. It’s a great place to live, visit, or even look at. The location is magnificent, within minutes of downtown or out-of-town. (The New Yorker placed Petworth on the “outskirts of Washington” in a 2007 article. That magazine is known for its fact-checking, but, “outskirts” doesn’t work literally or figuratively.) Every block has the same sort of sturdy, modest, and relatively affordable row houses that were almost all built in the mid-1920s, give or take a couple years, and pretty much every home has a front porch above street level. There are two great circles named not after foreigners (Dupont) or obscure domestics (Tenley, anyone?) but after Grant and Sherman, good ol’ American war heroes every third-grader knows. And—get this!—there’s parking! After 14 years in Mount Pleasant, discovering that not everybody drove around for 25 minutes each night—35 on Sundays—just looking for a space to park was as revelatory to me as my first frozen grape.
For visitors, there’s Lincoln’s summer home, on the grounds of the Old Soldiers’ Home, and St. Luke’s Church, the oldest church in all of D.C. And perhaps the most beautiful burial ground in town, Rock Creek Cemetery, which has been accepting bodies since 1719. (Among the dead VIPs here: Alice Longworth, Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter; Gil Grosvenor, former head of the National Geographic Foundation; and Charles Corby, one of the men responsible for giving the world Wonder Bread.)
But if you live and breathe in Petworth, you can’t escape the racial dynamics or avoid thinking about what’s taken place here and the surrounding neighborhoods over the last several years, and what took place about six decades ago.
Alan Flood grew up the son of a laundry truck driver on a block that his grandfather helped build at Illinois and Allison Streets NW. Flood, now 77, remembers Petworth as both “a Catholic ghetto,” and heaven on earth.
Flood, a Catholic brother who teaches at St. John’s College High School, his alma mater, still gets together every Friday with Petworth expats to talk about things like the Easter Egg rolls on the lawn of the Old Soldier’s Home each spring and sled-riding over the same grass each winter. And ignoring the no ballplaying! signs posted in Grant and Sherman Circles so blatantly that park officials came in and planted trees.
“I guess we’re responsible for all the beautiful trees in those circles, just to stop us from playing ball,” he says.
And they remember the walks up to the Kennedy Theater and other retail shops on Kennedy Street NW in Brightwood. And riding home from downtown on the Petworth bus on V-J Day, with the driver shouting “Nobody pays tonight!” and he and his buddies and everybody else onboard singing patriotic songs.
And they remember the front porches. Do they ever.
“The porches are a big part of growing up in Petworth,” he says. “On my block there had to be 15 or 20 kids, and you’d come home from school, get on the porch, and look down the block, and you could see this long row
of porches, and you’d see everybody
coming out of their house. The porches made you get to know your neighbors, they made it
Flood, like all of his weekly lunchmates, is white. They all moved away from Petworth decades ago. Their regular meeting place is in Wheaton.
So they also remember how segregated their neighborhood, like all the surrounding neighborhoods, was in their youth, and all the fear-mongering that inspired the sudden and massive white flight.
“The real-estate people flooded into the neighborhood, around 1950, telling everybody, ‘Hey, you see who moved into so-and-so’s house?’ meaning somebody black was moving in,” says Flood. “We called them ‘blockbusters.’”
The Realtors’ strategy worked. Integrated neighborhoods were for other cities. Flood’s family sold his boyhood home in the early 1950s, while he was attending Catholic University, and left the neighborhood that he loved as much as my current neighbor has loved it for the past 20 years. The way I love it now.
According to local historian Brian Kraft, U.S. Census data show that Petworth went from 1 percent “Negro” in 1930 to 77 percent “non-white” by 1960, and was an “exclusively African American” community by 1980.
The next census should show a cultural balance for the neighborhood that would indicate the human race is progressing. But how long will that hold up?
• In 1885, Henry Adams, historian and less heralded member of the Adams Family (John, John Quincy, et al.), commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who back then was memorial marker-maker to the stars, to construct a statue for the grave of his wife, Clover Hooper Adams. Somewhere along the way, the creepy statue in Rock Creek Cemetery became known as Grief. It’s been a tourist destination since it was erected. There’s also the restored and newly reopened Lincoln summer home across the street.
• America’s pretty much made its mind up about the merits of the Iraq invasion. But you’d still think the debate’s raging if you drive by Walter Reed on a Friday night and see the war protesters and cheerleaders on opposite sides both ideologically and logistically. From what I’ve seen, the two groups stay out of each other’s way and remain civil.
• Year after year, the Caribbean Festival makes for the greatest street festival in this city and maybe this time zone. The parade runs down Georgia Avenue from Missouri Avenue to Barry Place. The 2008 rendition is scheduled for June 28. Bring earplugs.
• Northern Soul prospectors, listen up: Estate sales in these neighborhoods might be the last, best place in the country to find old and obscure R&B 45s.