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New Residents Vow to Restore D.C. Neighborhood


There was something quite amazing about a weekend art show we attended. It was called "No Scratchers," dedicated to the art of tattooing. All right, one can debate what is art - to tattoo or not to tattoo? It was fun. There were young people with pink hair and piercings, and one young man, Pian James(ph), had tattooed eyes on his foot.

Mr. PIAN JAMES: I have (unintelligible) I have a large, large portrait of my grandparents on my ribs. And I have a little monster on the side of my foot that my three-year-old brother drew with a Sharpee and I got it tattooed so it's permanent.

LYDEN: But in the who, what, where and why of this story, it's the where that's really compelling. The Honfleur Gallery is on Good Hope Road in Anacostia. And the hills of Anacostia, while they offer breathtaking views of the U.S. capital and other landmarks, are separated from the rest of Washington, D.C. by a physical and psychological divide, the Anacostia River.

The buildings here cave in on themselves, burned and abandoned. Not long ago, Anacostia had one of the highest murder rates in the nation. It began as a port, as Rapam(ph) lived at St. Elizabeth's Mental Hospital here and Frederick Douglass had a home that is now a museum. Downtown Anacostia is on the National Register of Historic Places. You can sometimes catch a glimpse of the past. Dwayne Gauthier(ph) has been working here since the 1960s. He's the CEO of ARCH, a non-profit which owns the Honfleur Gallery.

So is there a grocery store here?

Mr. DWAYNE GAUTHIER (CEO, ARCH): About three miles away.

LYDEN: Three miles away.

Mr. GAUTHIER: Right.

LYDEN: Is there a restaurant?

Mr. GAUTHIER: No, there is not a sit-down restaurant. There's a carryout place that also has small tables that are around the corner, but it's not open in the evening.

LYDEN: How about a place to go see films, a theater?

Mr. GAUTHIER: No. You have to go across the river to do that.

LYDEN: And schools?

Mr. GAUTHIER: Well, the - as we all know, the school system in Washington, D.C. is broken.

LYDEN: So this area of Washington D.C. is facing formidable problems?

Mr. GAUTHIER: Yes, it is.

LYDEN: One can reasonably ask whether an art gallery is what Anacostia needs, but it will bring in visitors and some may stay. Anacostia is almost 100 percent African-American and now it's beginning to attract black-middle class professionals.

Ms. DESSAU SEESUNK(ph) (Public Relations for Anacostia): Welcome to our historic charmer in Anacostia. The area here is our living room.

LYDEN: Dessau Seesunk works in PR for the city. One of the many things suppressing the revitalization of Anacostia is the perception of high crime. A mile away from her new home, crime statistics are among the city's highest. In the old part of the village of Anacostia, they're actually quite low.

Ms. SEESUNK: Something that I adopted immediately upon moving to the area was that I won't be afraid of my own people.

LYDEN: But who are the people whose heritage is here? Dianne Dale(ph) is a self-described fourth generation Anacostian.

Ms. DIANE DALE (Resident, Anacostia): As my father put it, everybody knew everybody. You had descendents of the original settlers. You have at least five churches that were developed within 10 years of the settlement, first settlement of the community.

LYDEN: Dale's mother still leaves here but she now leaves 18 miles away. Still, she's involved. She's preserving a river front park and she's writing a book about the community she fears is disappearing.

Ms. DALE: The reason that I'm doing this, and I guess the reason that I'm so passionate about this is we owe it to our ancestors. What has happened here has happened all across the country in our communities. They have disappeared for the same reasons. But what is not gone are the memories, and if we don't tell the stories, then somebody else will be writing our history, and I've seen that and it's ugly.

LYDEN: So Dale returns on Sundays to the Calvin A.M.E. Church to keep up her ties, and that's where we met Lydia Johns(ph), age 74, who talked about the changes going on in Anacostia.

Ms. LYDIA JOHNS (Resident, Anacostia): Well, there's not as much pride in the community itself. A lot of the founders of the community or older members of the community has moved or died. So we have newer people in the community now. But I have seen some changes. I believe we're regaining some of that pride that we used to have over here.

LYDEN: It's not just pride coming back, so are homeowners, real-estate speculators, and the national NAACP headquarters is scheduled to go in across the streets from the Honfleur Gallery. But who will sell and who will leave? Activists Diane Dale wants people who are still here to realize they have a unique piece of African-American history and not sell out.

Ms. DALE: The views are what have kept a lot of people here, the sense of expansion and open space and just a vista. I mean you can see from National Airport all the way up to the cathedral on Wisconsin Avenue from most of these hills and the Capitol just walking down the street and the monument. Just walking down the street. And all that's going to be obliterated. And most of the people probably don't realize that it's the views that helped them make it through the night, so to speak. And they're not going to realize it until they wake up and don't see them anymore, and that they're going to say something is wrong, what is it?

LYDEN: Diane Dale fears that new development will destroy those views, along with the old sense of intimacy. But new resident Dessau Seesunk says some development is vital to the newcomers.

Ms. SEESUNK: And there's enough of us here. There's enough of us who are young and black, who have that disposable income, that we'll spend. We'll spend on, you know, a good restaurant, and we'll spend on, you know, a great boutique. I mean that's what -

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SEESUNK: You know, when you work hard for your money, you want to, you know, you want to enjoy where you live, and that's what brought me here.

LYDEN: The Honfleur Gallery has opened another show called "East of the River." One of the artists is giving cameras to children to document Anacostia, so this time they can preserve the neighborhood, even as it inexorably changes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Longtime listeners recognize Jacki Lyden's voice from her frequent work as a substitute host on NPR. As a journalist who has been with NPR since 1979, Lyden regards herself first and foremost as a storyteller and looks for the distinctive human voice in a huge range of national and international stories.
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