Cynthia Eaglin remembers her old neighborhood – on Robinson Place in Washington, D.C.’s hardscrabble and beleaguered Ward 8 – as a glorious community.
In 1991, when she moved in to Parkway Overlook Apartments, she was a 21-year-old single mother with three children. For the next 16 years, the red-brick, multi-family complex of subsidized housing in the city’s most impoverished quadrant, was her family’s home.
Like all of her neighbors, they moved in because it was all they could afford. “Rent was $65 a month,” she told me during a recent conversation. “I was on public assistance and even that was sometimes a struggle to pay.”
Over the years, the area devolved into an often deadly place to be, with shootings, robberies, and even murders challenging all but the most hearty — or desperate — residents. But that’s not the entire story; Eaglin remembers a warm and embracing community.
“We loved one another,” Eaglin said, dreamily recalling how mothers disciplined all the community’s children whether it was a neighbors’ kid or their own. “I could leave my door open because we didn’t fear anything. It was a joy to see the kids run in and out of our homes, eat our food and play together. It was a big deal to us, to be a family in a place that was our home. It was our community.”
That rosy, nostalgic image of home nearly ended permanently more than a decade ago. In 2006, the property managers at Parkway Overlook sent notices to some 266 families, informing them they had to move. The city was shuttering their housing project, turning Eaglin’s family-friendly community into yet another of Ward 8’s boarded-up “abandominiums,” the term given to this impoverished area’s glut of empty and depopulated housing.
More often than not, when poor people are pushed out of their communities to make way for gentrified properties, the people who once lived in those suddenly empty spaces are forgotten. It’s as if their homes morph into ghost buildings that never contained life – no mothers tending children, no men on the hunt for poor-paying jobs, no kitchens bulging with shared meals — no families laughing and living their lives as best they could.
Eaglin told me she and her neighbors loved their community so much that they refused to be erased as if the joy they experienced had never existed. So they banded together, against seemingly impossible odds, to prevent Parkway Overlook from becoming yet one more abandominium.
And they won.
After a decade of standing lifeless and empty, the Parkway Overlook complex is coming back to life. Last year, the city yielded to the pleas of community activists, committing $20.1 million to redevelop 220 units for low-income residents. Earlier this week, having reached a point of assured success through their coordinated and organized activism, Eaglin and dozens of former residents came together to celebrate at the groundbreaking ceremony for the redevelopment of the property.
The celebration marked culmination of the persistent efforts by former public housing tenants and their community organizing allies to preserve 220 units of affordable housing. Plans call for bringing back former residents and their children to the site, possibly by the end of the year, reuniting many of those that first made Parkway Overlook their home. With leaders from City Hall and neighborhood activists looking on, the ceremony also served as a signal to low-income housing advocates that success can be won when low-income residents push back against the typically unstoppable and unseen forces of commercial developers, governmental red tape and more affluent NIMBY activists.
Indeed, gentrification can make living in cities nearly impossible for people without money or political connections. But every so often, advocates for affordable housing score an important victory, empowering the working poor to remain in their changing communities. When that happens, it’s considered a major victory. This is a story of one such victory in southeast DC.
What happened in Parkway Overlook is a successful example of community working to solve a problem not of their own making. Almost immediately after residents learned they would be displaced, organizers — primarily from the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN), a group that helps low-income citizens advocate for community-based concerns — assisted in assembling a tenant’s rights group. WIN, which has made the fight for affordable housing part of its mission, seeks to set aside at least 1,000 units of affordable housing either for preservation or development in DC — and Parkway Overlook is currently WIN’s biggest success story.
Eaglin and Rufaro Jenkins, who became the president of the Parkway Overlook Tenants Association which formed soon after word of the complex’s closure came out, led former residents in pressing city leaders to restore housing for the people being pushed out. The tenants association described the kinds of housing they wanted at Parkway Overlook, including accommodations for families with children which tend to be the most expensive and least available of public housing. They attended city council meetings and organized hundreds of church, community, and civic leaders to attend public gatherings, at which they demanded candidates for city office to sign pledges of support for funding the revitalization of Parkway Overlook.
Such constant pressure drew attention of city leaders such as then-city council member Muriel Bowser, who attended Monday’s groundbreaking ceremony as Washington’s mayor. Bowser told the crowd how the tenant’s association impressed her to support their cause and to push the city’s housing agencies to do so as well. Bowser continued:
“The revitalization of Parkway Overlook has been in the making for over a decade, and we are proud to finally get this project moving forward…with these investments, we are making it possible for residents to return to Parkway Overlook and for more families to secure the housing and community services they need to get their fair shot.”
Merrick Malone, director of the District’s housing authority’s Office of Capital Programs, acknowledged in remarks at the groundbreaking he had little choice but to support the project. “They held us accountable,” he said in this introduction of Eaglin and Jenkins.
Jenkins, who speaks freely of her Christian faith, stood at a podium for the groundbreaking with tears welling in her eyes and told the crowd that even though she’s now a homeowner in the same neighborhood, her unwavering belief is that low-income residents deserved to live in decent housing.
“I know affordable housing works,” she said in her speech. “It worked for me and my family. That’s why we need more of it and why we fought for 10 years to get Parkway Overlook renovated and reopened.”
In an interview with me several days later, Jenkins said living in Parkway Overlook wasn’t always comfortable. There were times when the property was supervised by the city housing authority and receiving federal grants, during which it failed health inspections for five consecutive years. Tenants endured rats, rodents, and on some occasions, raccoons that took up residence in the courtyard.
She said the struggle to renovate the apartment building included demands for improvements that included more space for families, playgrounds for children, and amenities such as continuing education programs for residents. “If [residents] were a part of the poverty, they have a right to be a part of the prosperity,” she said.
Jenkins laughed as she described how her group of neophyte activists found themselves in meetings, across the table from buttoned-down, up-tight bureaucrats, negotiating over construction details. Often, they insisted on beginning negotiations with a prayer.
At one memorable meeting, she recalled asking a city housing executive to be specific about what the tenants needed to do to get their demands resolved. She remembers how the official laughed at her, apparently amused by the apparent naivety of someone like her pressing him for answers.
“I told him, ‘You must not know the God I serve,'” she said, noting that the official was immediately flummoxed and had never experienced someone invoking their religious faith during a business negotiation. “We were a different group and we got results.”