Barney Circle - Southeast DC

 

A historic battlefield, of sorts

Failed bid for designation left some scars

Wander through eastern Capitol Hill and it’s not immediately apparent where Barney Circle begins. The neighborhood’s long strings of rowhouses are virtually interchangeable with those from the surrounding area, and there’s no sign to aid a visitor. The neighborhood’s most distinguishing feature is probably the arc of office buildings whose shape suggests the traffic circle that was once there.

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In Barney Circle, on the eastern edge of Capitol Hill, neighborhood activism has both united and divided.

But Barney Circle’s uniqueness never stemmed from its built environment. For decades, the area was known throughout the city for activism, its citizens successfully fighting crime and unwanted development to protect their neighborhood. But with an increase in new residents over the past few years, that tight community vibe has been on the wane, and cracks exposed by a grueling historic-preservation struggle a couple of years ago have not completely healed.

Perched at the southeastern edge of Capitol Hill, Barney Circle is a small, triangular neighborhood. Potomac and Kentucky Avenues serve as its western boundaries, and 17th Street and the adjacent Congressional Cemetery mark its eastern border.

Development there began in 1901, the result of a trolley-line extension down Pennsylvania Avenue SE; the traffic circle served as its terminus and turnaround point. By the 1930s, Barney Circle was populated by employees of the nearby Navy Yard and a smattering of white-collar workers. The rowhouses built to serve them were correspondingly modest; most have two stories, two or three bedrooms and a couple of bathrooms, small yards, and low porches.

When Eleanor Hill and her husband, Theodore, moved to Barney Circle in the late 1950s, the neighborhood was largely white and working-class. “We were the first African Americans on our block,” said Hill, now in her late 70s.

That changed after the 1968 riots: Barney Circle turned over completely and became almost 100 percent African American. But it remained a cohesive community. “We looked out for one another,” remembered Hill. “If it snowed, we’d call our neighbors and find out if they needed anything, and we’d have block parties once a year.”

And when drugs started moving into the area around 1989, residents formed an orange-hat patrol, the second in the city, to monitor suspicious activity on the streets. “We walked every single night except Sunday,” Hill said. The first walk of the year always occurred on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and was celebrated with a rally and refreshments. “It got bigger and bigger, and a lot of the political people would come,” Hill said — including the mayor and the city’s longtime congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton.

In 1996, neighborhood residents, joined by other concerned citizens, won a long-fought battle against the proposed Barney Circle Freeway, a 11 / 2-mile spur that would have connected the Southeast Freeway with East Capitol Street. Neighbors contended that the highway, an initiative led by federal, regional and local agencies, would have added pollution and traffic to the area while reducing nearby parkland.

“We were always known for our strength as neighborhood advocates,” Hill said.

Given those successes, it’s not surprising that when an unsightly apartment building went up on a formerly vacant lot in the late 1990s, residents mobilized to prevent other similar developments. It was several years before they learned about historic preservation as a potential tool to maintain the area’s wholly residential early-20th-century flavor, “but once we did, we jumped right on it,” Hill said. By 2004, community members were seeking to label the neighborhood a historic district and had begun forming committees and holding meetings.

But the process dragged out for years. It was 2010 when the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board finally scheduled a hearing on the topic. By then, the neighborhood was dotted with new residents who had been attracted by Barney Circle’s housing stock and location and didn’t simply take their neighbors’ word that a historic-district designation would be a big win for the area. Many were dismayed by its fine-print restrictions — including having to file for a permit to change a home’s facade — and were willing to fight the process.

Brian Flahaven, 34, who works for a higher-education organization and is now the community’s advisory neighborhood commissioner, was one of those newcomers. He and his wife arrived in 2007 and quickly began protesting the issue. “I felt strongly that residents didn’t have all the information they needed about what a historic designation was,” he said.

The disagreement eventually disintegrated into an all-out skirmish, with both groups going door to door and circulating anonymous incendiary fliers. In the end, during a packed meeting that took place in Congressional Cemetery’s chapel, members of the Historic Preservation Review Board sensed that the majority of the crowd opposed designation and chose not to call for a vote. And in November, Flahaven beat the pro-historic-district incumbent for the ANC seat.

Flahaven, it seems, was right: Even some longtime residents hadn’t initially realized how onerous historic-preservation rules can be. “For me, it was too much control, telling me what kind of fence I can put up,” said Ulysses Hoston, 58, whose family has lived on G Street for 70 years.

But the motive behind the process was never about restricting fence options; it was about halting major challenges, such as tear-downs or unattractive third-floor additions, to the community’s appearance. And members of the community — including Flahaven, who has become something of a mediator — are still seeking a compromise, in the form of a less limiting “historic preservation lite” option.

According to David Maloney of the District’s Historic Preservation Office, though, residents can’t agree on even the most basic policies at this point.

For Eleanor Hill, who misses old community events like block parties and cleanup days, the controversy forged a tragic divide between neighbors. “You don’t really get to know people anymore,” she said. “It’s just sad. People speak, but they don’t come together.”

But others, including Flahaven, say that the 2010 battle had an upside: It brought new and old residents, many of whom had never spoken, face to face.

“If you could take one positive thing from the historic-district battle, people definitely got into it and got to meet each other,” Flahaven said. “I think we’ve come a long way since that conversation.”

Amanda Abrams is a freelance writer.

BARNEY CIRCLE


BOUNDARIES: Potomac Avenue to the north, Kentucky Avenue to the south and west, and 17th Street SE to the east.

ZIP CODE: 20003.

HOME SALES: In the past 12 months, seven homes have sold, and one is currently under contract; sale prices range from $225,000 to $739,000. The majority spent less than 30 days on the market. According to Aaron Smith of Prudential PenFed Realty, housing inventory in Barney Circle is low; only a few properties tend to be on the market at any given time. No homes are currently for sale.

SCHOOLS: Watkins and Peabody elementary schools, Stuart-Hobson and Eliot-Hine middle schools, and Eastern High School.

WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE: Congressional Cemetery; RFK Stadium; two bars, Wisdom and Trusty’s; a Harris Teeter; Frager’s Hardware; Crepes on the Corner; Lincoln Park; Barracks Row; Eastern Market.

WITHIN 15 MINUTES BY CAR: H Street NE, Union Station, Nationals Park, the Mall, Gallaudet University, Catholic University, the U.S. Capitol.

TRANSIT: The Potomac Avenue Metro station, on the Orange and Blue lines, is within a five-minute walk of Barney Circle. A number of Metrobus lines, including the 32, 34 and 36, regularly run along Pennsylvania Avenue to downtown.

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