LeDroit Park: a D.C. oasis

by Prerna Rao

On an uncharacteristically warm Thursday afternoon last week, LeDroit Park resident David Corry could be found outside tending to his garden. Corry, who has lived in LeDroit Park for the last 30 years, said it's the serenity of the area that has kept him there for so long; and he hopes it can stay that way.

LeDroit Park is an anomaly in the District.

Surrounded by the busy Florida and Rhode Island avenues, 2nd Street and Howard University in Northwest, the neighborhood is a peaceful oasis in the middle of a bustling city. Pastel-painted row houses hug each other along the quiet streets where residents can hear birds chirping and neighborhood dogs barking in the distance. But issues affecting most neighborhoods in the District, such as affordable housing and modern economic development, are threatening to change LeDroit Park's character as well.

"I love this place, it's beautiful, and the architecture and the history are fascinating, and the neighborhood is so friendly," Corry said.

LeDroit Park Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Myla Moss said some of the biggest issues facing the group that makes zoning recommendations to the city are keeping multi-million dollar developments out of the neighborhood and, most importantly, creating more affordable housing as real estate prices continue to rise in a once moderately-priced area.

"It's a nationwide problem that is definitely not isolated to LeDroit Park, so we are trying to keep housing affordable in a really nice area," she said. "It's a tragedy that this is happening in (an area) with such a rich history for blacks."

Ironically, LeDroit Park was originally meant to be marketed as a "romantic" neighborhood for whites. Developed in 1873 by Amzi Barber, a member of Howard's Board of Trustees, it was one of the first suburbs of Washington. The narrow, tree-lined streets, Victorian mansions and row houses, and landscaping were meant to attract high-profile Washingtonians, and the community was surrounded by gates for security and to keep it a segregated society.

While the romantic aura of LeDroit Park may still remain, the demographics of the area have changed drastically. The neighborhood became integrated in 1888 after students from Howard tore down part of the fence in protest of its discriminatory policies.

By the 1940s, LeDroit Park was a haven for prominent African blacks, including the first black senator, Edward Brooke, and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson.

Moss said that today LeDroit Park is comprised of a variety of racial and social groups and that these different groups encounter few impediments to getting along.

"We have everything. We have good race relations, we have students, families with 2.5 kids, professionals, a gay community and a small group of elderly people," she said.

But over the past 10 years LeDroit Park has become increasingly more developed.

"LeDroit Park has drastically changed, aesthetically and physically," Moss said. "The Department of Transportation is responsible for most of this; they replaced the roads and sidewalks while 'streetscaping,' in compliance with (city legislation) and also to make it prettier."

Moss added that two large development projects in the neighborhood are also in the works. The plans include constructing "mixed-use" properties such as condominiums, shops, restaurants and other businesses in the near future.

For now, though, the neighborhood still emanates some of its history; the architecture of the town that took shape in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by James McGill, who designed homes to resemble Italian villas and Gothic cottages, is still as visible as ever. Out of the original 64 homes McGill designed in LeDroit Park, 50 remain.

"I believe the architecture is the coolest in D.C. We're in a great location and all the houses have yards," resident Kristen Oland said, adding that she, like many of its residents, hopes that LeDroit Park will be able to fight off overdevelopment and remain a small, romantic and historic neighborhood.

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