- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 15, 2006

It’s not the kind of historic structure you might expect on a street in the nation’s capital: With no marble sheathing or classic columns, the house at 3130 16th St. NW is not just modest; it’s plain. But, says historian Brian Kraft during a recent walking tour of the Mount Pleasant neighborhood in Northwest, this home to longtime White House chauffeur John Ernest White — who drove presidents Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt — tells a story of its community just by its orientation.

“You can see it conforms to the angle of 15th Street — it’s actually older than the extension of 16th,” says Mr. Kraft, who frequently leads tours into District neighborhoods and sees in the house a confirmation: 16th Street didn’t run this far north until 1903.

Such is the nature of community research.

And if history, like politics, is ultimately local, then Washington may be at a disadvantage: National monuments and federal buildings put its neighborhoods in shadow. Who knew, for example, that some of the District’s oldest houses can be found in Southwest, or that the church where Arena Stage got started is located in Shaw?

But the landscape is changing, thanks in part to an ever-growing collection of heritage trails that feature the unusual and unexpected in District neighborhoods. The newest, the Mount Pleasant Heritage Trail, will be unveiled Dec. 9 in a ceremony complete with music, a speech or two and a merchants’ open house.

“It’s the end of a very long process,” says Jane Freundel Levey, lead historian for the Heritage Trail program, which was initiated by Cultural Tourism DC, an organization that seeks to boost economic development in District neighborhoods by promoting their historic and cultural riches.

“But it’s been a real collaboration with the community. We’ve talked about everything from what stories they want to see told to the color scheme on the signs.”

Bringing history home

From the Whitelaw Hotel near U Street, where Duke Ellington played, to the streets John Philip Sousa walked on Barracks Row, neighborhood heritage trails bring history home, with poster-size signage that spells out much of the tale.

“I’m always telling people that they should get off the Mall and learn more about our city,” says Mayor Anthony A. Williams, one of the bigger fans of the Heritage Trail network, which now boasts six completed trails in neighborhoods throughout the city.

“The heritage trails — in many cases they are just as compelling as our finest galleries. It’s a great way to teach kids about history while at the same time getting fresh air and staying active.”

The Mount Pleasant trail in this neighborhood just north and east of the National Zoo features 17 stops along a loop, with signage commemorating everything from Sacred Heart Church on Park Road Northwest to Heller’s Bakery on Mount Pleasant Street, still drawing neighborhood residents for pies, cookies and coffee.

In the pipeline is the Deanwood Heritage Trail, celebrating the historic community east of the Anacostia River whose residents got together in July to begin the enterprise.

How to build a trail

Like other heritage trails, the Mount Pleasant trail has been long aborning. It began back in March 2003, when several Mount Pleasant residents went to Cultural Tourism for help in developing it.

That’s typical of the first step in developing a trail, though in the case of Deanwood it worked the other way around.

“We approached them,” Ms. Levey says of the Deanwood neighbors. “It’s a very historically significant neighborhood.”

In every case, organizers call a community meeting where neighbors can share photos and stories in a variation on “old home week” that, for Cultural Tourism, serves a distinct purpose.

“It’s a chance for us to identify interested individuals and potential volunteers,” says Ms. Levey. “They are the ones that form the working group, which is at the core of the whole process.”

A trail’s working group will follow the project from inception to unveiling, hammering out the details of what matters and why in a process that can take from 18 months to — in Mount Pleasant’s case — more than three years.

Art Wong, who spent his boyhood in Mount Pleasant in the early 1960s and learned about the Heritage Trail program at the annual Mount Pleasant Festival, was a member of the Mount Pleasant working group along with several friends, also onetime residents of the neighborhood.

They and 12 to 15 other members of the Mount Pleasant group met regularly to share memories with community historian Mara Cherkasky and to draft the initial route. They also prepared the application for the Washington District Neighborhood Trails Advisory Committee, convened by the District Department of Transportation (DDOT).

“This was a great place to run around in,” says Mr. Wong, who is even featured on one of the trail’s signs, No. 7 at Newton and 18th streets NW.

That’s a departure for the program, which tends to feature the stories of those who have already passed on. But the focus is always on stories.

“We want ‘people’ stories as much as possible,” Ms. Levey says. “We’re not going to do a long dissertation on architecture, although we of course will take note if a building is architecturally significant.”

The Mount Pleasant heritage

Noted today for its ethnic variety, with small businesses in many languages providing a special zip along the Mount Pleasant Street commercial district, Mount Pleasant was once a whites-only enclave, a policy sustained by restrictive housing covenants until the Supreme Court struck down their use in 1948.

Before the Civil War, according to Mr. Kraft, the area was known for its “gentleman’s estates,” large imposing houses with sweeping grounds and many acres, which functioned as retreats from the heat and bustle of downtown.

After the war, the estates were subdivided into housing developments that attracted the new crop of workers needed by an expanding federal bureaucracy.

Many of these came from New England, and for years, the area was nicknamed “Clerksville.” Residents even formed a neighborhood civic association modeled after a New England town meeting.

The area was isolated from downtown, particularly in winter, when the steep climb up 15th and 16th streets was difficult for carriages and pedestrians alike. Once the streetcar arrived in the late 19th century, development boomed, centered on the streetcar line that could take federal workers downtown and back with ease.

By the 1920s, Mount Pleasant was thriving and very accessible, complete with its own neighborhood institutions, like the Mount Pleasant Library, an important stop on the Heritage Trail. Opened in 1925, the library, only the third neighborhood branch in the entire District, was built by funds donated by the Carnegie Foundation.

Meanwhile, churches of many denominations provided the Mount Pleasant stretch of 16th Street with its own nickname: Church Hill.

Deanwood’s flavor

Deanwood, by contrast, was considered rural as late as the 1930s, lacking many of the amenities associated with urban living, like running water and paved streets.

According to Ruth Ann Overbeck, writing the chapter on Deanwood in “Washington at Home,” edited by Kathryn S. Smith, the now predominantly black neighborhood reflected a solidly southern residential pattern well into the ‘30s, with black and white residents living together in the larger neighborhood, although at times clustering from street to street.

It was a magnet for black architects, including Howard D. Woodson, for whom the local high school is named, and brothers Jacob and Randolph Dodd, who built more than 50 houses in the area beginning in 1921.

And what it did have, say residents of this community bounded by Eastern and Kenilworth avenues and East Capitol Street, were neighborhood stores where youngsters could buy candy on credit and neighborhood elders who kept a tight rein on everyone, whether or not they were related to them.

“My father raised two sons with the help of the ladies in the neighborhood,” recalled Edward Gants at July’s story-telling gathering of new and longtime Deanwood residents.

“It was a wonderful place to grow up. I remember vividly being in the first grade at Carver Elementary in 1956, buying model airplanes at the corner store, and the famous baseball players who would come in from time to time. The thing I can’t remember is something called crime.”

Three hours into this meeting at the old Carver school (now IDEA Charter School), residents were still sharing stories, photographs and memories.

Vetting the stories

Of course, not every story can make it onto a heritage trail sign. Oral histories, which may be taken by nonprofessionals — volunteers or graduate students, for example — are always vetted by credentialed and paid historians once the trail’s route is approved by the Neighborhood Trails Advisory Committee and DDOT (which also look for evidence of community support.)

That’s not the finish, either.

“Then we enter the second phase of the process,” Ms. Levey says. “That’s when we do a lot more research, in both history and in the practical aspects of where to place the signs and how large they should be.”

Memories to keep

In the case of Mount Pleasant, a concerted effort also was made to include some of the neighborhood’s more recent history, thanks in part to the efforts of Carmen Marrero, a lifetime resident.

“I wanted people to recognize the Hispanic influence here,” says Ms. Marrero, whose family business, the Casa Dilone, which opened in 1963, was only the third business in Washington that catered primarily to Latinos.

The site, at 3161 Mount Pleasant St., is a stop on the Heritage Trail. Until the Casa Dilone closed in 1998, it was a community hub, with neighborhood musicians often gathering to play out front.

In Deanwood, only time and the deliberations of its working group will tell what ends up on its trail signs, but the residents who gathered in July know what’s in their hearts:

The iceman, a kindergarten teacher, old telephone exchanges. Local landmarks still in business, like the Henry S. Washington and Sons funeral home, which began in the late 1800s. “Mr. King,” who used to take neighborhood youngsters on hayrides to Rock Creek Park. Murray’s Meat Market, which got its start at 45th Street and Sheriff Road. The time Hans Kindler brought the National Symphony Orchestra to Deanwood. A Deanwood resident, one of the Tuskegee Airmen, maneuvering his plane around the neighborhood to drop a package for his mother.

A heritage trail, residents say, will bring them closer together, the way it used to be.

“I wouldn’t [exchange] anything in this world for the raising and upbringing I received right here in Deanwood,” said Marie Lewis. “I want to see it restored to its proper place in Washington history.”

Will she get her wish? No doubt: Just ask the people of Mount Pleasant.

17 stops to Mount Pleasant

The Mount Pleasant Heritage Trail, the seventh in a series that invites walkers to experience the city beyond its federal facade, opens to fanfare on Dec. 9 at 11:30 a.m. in Lamont Park at 17th and Lamont streets Northwest.

Expect music and speeches by local dignitaries, including Mayor-elect Adrian M. Fenty. Afterward, from 12:30 to 4 p.m., merchants along the trail will open their doors and offer refreshments to participants.

While you’re there, you can pick up a copy of “Village in the City: Mount Pleasant Heritage Trail,” an illustrated brochure produced by Cultural Tourism DC in collaboration with the Mount Pleasant Working Group and Historic Mount Pleasant. It summarizes the neighborhood’s story and keys it to 17 trail markers.

The brochure and guides to the District’s six other heritage trails — those covering U Street, downtown, Shaw, Southwest, Adams Morgan and Barracks Row — also are available from Cultural Tourism DC at 1250 H St. NW, Suite 1000, or at the Martin Luther King Library at 9th and G streets Northwest.

For more details, see www.culturaltourismdc.org, where you can download files of the trail booklets. Just click on “Tours and Trails,” and then navigate directly toward the neighborhood of interest.

Here are the stops on the Mount Pleasant trail:

1. Fashionable 16th Street: 16th and Mount Pleasant streets Northwest

2. Upheaval and Activism: 16th Street between Irving and Lamont streets Northwest

3. Mount Pleasant Library: 16th and Lamont streets Northwest

4. Sacred Heart Academy: 16th Street and Park Road Northwest

5. Avenue of Churches: 16th and Newton streets Northwest

6. Village Life: 17th Street and Oakwood Terrace Northwest

7.Twenty-seven Little Flags: Newton and 18th streets Northwest

8. The Oldest House: Newton Street between 18th and 19th streets Northwest

9. Czech Row: Park and Klingle roads Northwest

10. Voices at Vespers: Rosemount Avenue and Klingle Road Northwest

11. Defying the Restrictive Covenants: Park Road between 18th and 19th streets Northwest

12. Changing Fashions: 18th Street and Park Road Northwest

13. War and Peace: Park Road Triangle Park Northwest

14. Main Street: North end of Lamont Park Northwest

15. Streetcar Suburb: Lamont and Mount Pleasant streets Northwest

16. The First Bodega: Mount Pleasant Street at Kilbourne Place Northwest

17. The Urban Village: Mount Pleasant and Kenyon streets Northwest

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