The fastest change in the District isn’t around the MCI Center or in the West End. It’s invisible to commuters who know only downtown , but one area is going through a transformation almost as radical as the bulldozing of “Old Southwest” during the Eisenhower years.
To see a neighborhood in the throes of rebirth, look “East of the River” and south of the Suitland Parkway. Here hundreds of acres of public housing are being demolished, and blocks that were lined with apartment buildings a few years ago are grassy fields or orangish clay tilled by bulldozers. As the demolition wave sweeps south, it is trailed by a second swell of mixed income townhouse projects, which presumably will absorb the displaced project residents.
It’s misleading to talk about Anacostia's “public housing projects” as if they were a single type of building. The projects that are being demolished range from dark red brick 1930s garden apartments with concrete wreathes on their cornices to the gray-green military barrack styles of the 1940s through Great Society beige and white brick. Although they will always symbolize “home” to the thousands who grew up in them, it’s difficult to imagine who’ll mourn their passing.
But the few traces of the “Old Anacostia” that public housing replaced are rapidly vanishing as well. Take Stanton Road SE for an example.
Today Stanton Road seems to trace a random course across Anacostia, but it probably began as a farmers’ lane that connected now forgotten points. It begins beside the Suitland Parkway where a demolished housing project is memorialized by a half-block long retaining wall mural, loops northeast, and suddenly swings south, crossing the Parkway again on its way to a dead-end into Alabama Avenue SE.
Over the past few months, Stanton Road has lost at least half its original houses. Many of these were slightly-post Victorian, like the partially-flayed and now-demolished bungalow pictured above. It is easy to believe that the original owner built this house on weekends, here at the edge of the city where land was cheap enough to surround the house with a huge vegetable garden and perhaps a chicken run. Today, large lots are a death warrant for such small houses, many of which spout “For Sale-Land-Townhouses” signs.
The bungalow's near-neighbor in the 3100 block of Stanton Road was the gable-roofed house with add-on prairie-style porch pictured at the left. Whoever kicked out the window frame lying on the porch roof was an unwitting archeologist. He or she exposed a patch of the original frame siding, later slathered in stucco, the 1920's competitor to the asbestos faux brick on the bungalow.
3023 Stanton, the boxy, flat-roofed house we featured as one of our “Victorians of the Week #2”, was the last true Victorian-style house on Stanton Road. Over the years, it had lost almost all its detail, save an odd cornice ornament that resembled the nose of a 1950 Studebaker, and gained aluminum siding strips that were several times wider than the original clapboards.
The final decline of 3023 Stanton had the inevitability of watching a drunk teeter on a stair landing. When I first photographed it in February, 2002, its yard was a storage lot for derelict heavy trucks. Before the spring weeds sprouted as high as the front porch, I noticed that a man-sized hole had been smashed through the side wall.
During the summer, 3023 Stanton appeared on the DC Government’s “pending raze” list and suddenly lost its front porch, along with the trucks and the weeds. When I took the photograph below just before Labor Day weekend, a passer-by stopped to ask why I was wasting film on such a wreck and mentioned that he had been part of the yard's cleanup crew. He said that there was interest in selling the house to anyone who would fix it up. But there was already a "demolition pending" notice on the front door.
Just before noon on September 24, 2002, I noticed a frontend loader being chained to a flatbed trailer in front of 3023. A crew member told me that it had taken about 30 minutes to crush the house, and that he had torn down 200-300 houses in the District that year. I thought of a guy I met outside an abandoned house who told me he'd once done demolition work himself. The old wooden ones go down easiest, he told me. There just aren't many good jobs like that around anymore.