Anacostia Holds Public Flogging For Stonewalling Nonprofit
After holding off Anacostia residents for five months—and keeping them in the dark for another six months before that—Calvary Women's Services had to know it was in for a drubbing when it finally showed up for a public meeting about the transitional housing facility it's building on Good Hope Road SE. And a drubbing they got, as person after incensed person rose to berate executive director Kris Thompson for not coming to talk to them sooner.
"I don't care what happened, it didn't happen. You didn't reach out," said local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Greta Fuller, in the middle of a long tirade. "Councilmember [Marion] Barry is here today, he says put it behind us, but I don't see how that's gonna happen. I don't think so."
Although some residents don't want the facility at all, it was really Calvary's astonishing lack of transparency that seems to have permanently damaged relations, even among those who might have been sympathetic to the non-profit's good intentions. Because in Anacostia, it's more than discourtesy—it's disrespect for a community that's felt dumped on for too long, and it stings.
"You saw our black faces, and you thought we were all black, we were in this together," accused local blogger Nikki Peele, speaking to Calvary's blithe assumption that Anacostia's middle class would welcome low-income women with open arms. (Peele has posted videos of the meeting). "We're going to send a message to people tiptoeing behind the scenes: You can try and come here, and we're going to rip you apart."
Not coming to talk to the community was Calvary's second mistake. Its first mistake was buying on Anacostia's main street in the first place. Half the people who don't want the facility wouldn't care if it were an apartment building somewhere off in the neighborhoods, but the storefronts on Good Hope Road are seen as public property, with great potential hasn't yet been realized. "It's our gateway," as one resident put it.
Thompson doesn't seem to understand this. When audience members asked what the facility would look like on the outside, she assured them they wouldn't even realize it was there. "You'll see nothing," she said. "It will be like you're standing in front of an apartment building." Not only that, but security guards would be pushing people along; those who've loitered on that street won't be allowed to anymore.
But you don't want blank storefronts in a commercial area. You want something that passersby can interact with.
Nonetheless, Calvary claims it plays a part in neighborhood revitalization. They're leaving their 25-bed space on 6th Street in Chinatown because they've been leasing there since 1983, and it's now an expensive neighborhood. When I asked her after the meeting, Thompson wouldn't say whether their lease was up and their rent was increasing, but obviously buying in a cheap neighborhood gives them some long-term stability.
Why that building on Good Hope Road? Neighborhood folks in the know suspect some connection between Independence Federal Savings Bank's move to foreclose on the property and its relatively quick sale to Calvary, which is well-connected in politics and financial services (for example, immediate past board director Ann M. Hilpert is the chief financial officer of powerhouse local law firm Wiley Rein). I don't have any proof of those connections. But Thompson doesn't seem to have seriously considered any alternatives.
"I guess I don't know," she said, when I asked where else Calvary had looked. "We could have looked at a number of different things."
Calvary had enough media and political savvy to give Mayor Vince Gray an award at its gala last May, to send out press releases about its fundraising campaign, and to ask me personally back in July to write an article about the project (Thompson refused to talk after the neighborhood exploded in anger). How were they so boneheaded as to not contact the neighborhood first?
Local activist Phil Pannell may have hit upon the answer when he asked Thompson—who says she lives in Ward 6–whether any members of her board live in Ward 8. She couldn't answer definitively, but didn't think so. If any had, though, they might have clued her in before the organization made a permanent enemy out of the neighbors.