Maggie Evans, of the richest family on the block, can never go home. A clowder of feral cats roams the front yard. In the past two years, there have been five homicides within 1,500 feet of the house she once gave that name: Home, for her, no longer exists.
The trees are the same. “Trinidad Avenue was a really pretty avenue, because it had trees arched over it, like you were going through a tunnel,” Mrs. Evans said.
It’s been awhile — 72 rings on those trees — since her father made a whopping $2,394 a year working as a repairman for Pepco alongside her grandfather, who lived across the street. The sum was more than his brother, a Department of Veterans Affairs lawyer who rented half the house from him for $28 per month, made.
INTERACTIVE MAP: Find your home in 1940.
“Oh, I wouldn’t go near that neighborhood now,” Mrs. Evans, 89, said of the crime-riddled but improving section of Northeast where she lived in 1940. Now, on one side of her old now-vacant home, a single mother of four contributes $275 toward her row house’s $1,100 monthly rent, with government assistance covering the remainder.
If she were to visit, though, she might find less has changed than meets the eye. On the other side of the block, three homes are owned by branches of one family — just like the Evanses. Residents say that’s still common in this neighborhood.
Nancy McDowell wound up a mile away and worlds apart from where she was in the spring of 1940 when U.S. census takers visited her home in what was then the frontier of upper Northwest. In 1937, her gas station-owner father erected a house on 36th Street off of Connecticut Avenue, and Ms. McDowell stayed there until she moved to a retirement home on that same artery.
Just 17 at the time of the census, she was the youngest of three children, all of whom lived at home. Everyone on the surrounding blocks was white, except for three black women who lived as cooks and servants in exchange for $300 annually.
“It was a small town. It was just beginning to grow at that time,” she said. Upper Northwest “was considered country,” and relatives could be lured there for visits only with the promise of nice dinners.
As she stayed put, the city moved around her.
That $18,000 home is now worth more than $1 million. When the current residents, sales executive Michael Young, his lawyer wife and their three daughters purchased it from Ms. McDowell, they found that it came with a 400-pound cast iron “master cylinder” to a mill the McDowells ran before they got into gas stations. “Grain was the fuel of that time, for the horses,” Mr. Young noted.
This year, the actual 1940 U.S. Census forms, listing every American’s name, occupation, address and income on a handwritten ledger, were released after a 72-year privacy period — a law instituted at a time when no one was expected to live that long. It is the first time any year’s census forms have been posted online, allowing anyone to search for relatives or their homes’ histories.
The result is a vivid portrait of a seminal but long-extinguished moment in the history of the national capital region. The coming world war changed the United States, but in Washington, 1940 marked the tail end of a recession and the final moments before an influx of government and military personnel that forever transformed the region from a small town to what it is today.
“There were different neighborhoods: Petworth, Northeast, Chevy Chase. Everybody took care of one another within them. If someone in my family got sick, all the neighbors would come with Jell-O or chicken soup. What changed it all was when new people came in to work for the War Department. It lost its closeness,” said Mary Teresa Kane, who lived with her grandparents and mother in a $9,000 house in Petworth. Her father died from injuries sustained as a D.C. firefighter.
Others paint 1940 as a simpler, better time, but Richard F. Shontere’s father was a no-good drunk. That left him growing up in Southwest with his mother and grandparents on the dividing line between black and white neighborhoods, with an outhouse for a bathroom.
His block, census records show, was a mix of fishermen, the down-on-their-luck, and — in Washington fashion — one congressional staffer.
“On the waterfront, there was a row of restaurants, and for a quarter, I’d buy a whole bag of fried shrimp, scallops, french fries. The black cook would throw it all in a bag, and I’d go up on the railroad tracks where there was a plant that slaughtered cows. We’d sit up on the hill sharing these fries, watching them slaughter the cows,” Mr. Shontere said.
The records also were released at a time that, like 1940, is bringing sweeping demographic changes to the region, and in a city strong on history, architecture binds a forgotten past to a future.
Today, much of Southwest is covered by freeways, and like much of the quadrant, the Shontere home was razed in the 1950s in the nation’s first attempt at large-scale urban renewal. Across the street now resides a gay couple who bought their home for $535,000. One partner was born in Laos and makes $90,000 a year as a federal worker; the other holds two master’s degrees and works as a graphic designer. Next door is a Ph.D. meteorologist.
‘Just a hint’
The changes occurring in 1940 began to provoke racial tensions.
When black schoolteacher Edna Holland moved in near Columbia Heights in 1940 — which, like now, included many densely packed boarding houses — her home was bombed with a blast of dynamite so strong it shattered 200 windows on surrounding homes. A note read: “Negroes shall not live among us white people and destroy the value of our property. Better move quick. Not safe to wait for a second warning. Remember you are a Negro. Keep your place. Just a hint.”
By 1990, the neighborhood was 80 percent black. But in a reversal, the white population has since grown to one-third, with an additional heavy contingent of a group that was nonexistent in 1940 District of Columbia: Hispanics.
“It was separate living. Whites west of 16th Street, blacks east, unless they came to help,” said Betty Bond, who spent her days at the Academy of the Holy Names and said that by night, “we danced our way through Washington.”
“But it wasn’t just race. The nuns told us that we were special because we were Catholic, and the Protestants in public school — well, they were not.”
She married her husband after meeting him at a dance, but her new family glimpsed a changing Washington: “His father, Frank Kelly, was murdered, one of the first murders in Washington.” (Mrs. Bond, like other women in this article, is being referred to by her maiden name, as she appeared in U.S. census records.)
Only 72 years ago, many lived without amenities that were widely available far earlier. Even as radio programs crackled through the airwaves, huge chunks of the city had no electricity with which to receive them.
That’s to say nothing of the surrounding counties and beyond.
Herbert Atwell grew up as a waterman on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, one of 11 children in a town in which a branch of the Atwell family occupied nearly every street. “Hell no, we didn’t have water or electricity,” he said. His family’s toilet was situated above the Bay — an improvement over nearby farmers, who had to clean their waste out.
Maryland politics were controlled by people in his neck of the woods, which were remote until shortly after 1940, when “the government started doing things, and you had people who worked for it coming down and building cottages as summer homes.”
But the lack of technology was most striking in the rates it was present in the nation’s capital, even as others lived well just blocks away.
Raspberries and apples
R. Barbara Adams grew up on a no longer existing path in the Takoma section of the District, then a suburban area where raspberries and apples could be picked, just across the street from the Maryland line.
In 1940, as a 13-year old, she lived in a double house with her brother and sister-in-law on one side and her mother and sisters on the other. Her father had died three years earlier.
“We didn’t have a lot of modern facilities like the white folks up the street did. We were almost back in the Stone Age. We did not have running water” or electricity. Her mother had a sixth-grade education, compared with eighth-grade educations the parents of most of the others in this article.
“But when everybody’s poor, nobody knows they’re poor,” she said. “Our community was a nucleus where everybody knew everybody. It was just a nice place where children could grow up.” Behind the next house was “what we called the park, and those of us with more initiative would perform plays there.”
Though they lived in proximity to whites, certain jobs were off-limits to blacks, and to get to their school on Military Road, they had to walk past two white schools.
“We didn’t have any toys, so we invented a lot of stuff. The little white kids seemed to have noticed that we enjoyed ourselves, and they’d come and romp with us. Kids are kids, regardless,” she said.
The plight of those who crowded into shacks in the District’s alleys was so bad that it became a primary cause of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
“Everyone gets nostalgic, and 20 years later, people who are villains become heroes,” said Sherwood Smith, who was 16 in 1940 and living in a Bethesda that was “little more than a crossroads.”
“People who had been solid middle class were finding they couldn’t get enough to eat. There was this constant fear that the recession will return. The communists — who were fairly well tolerated at that time — were saying that’s the evil of the capitalist system, and it’s usually only saved by a war,” he said, adding that indeed, “we were rescued by the war.”
Mrs. Adams recalled cooking and bathing with bucket after bucket of water hauled from the street and heated over a wood-burning stove. “There were city hydrants, these green pumps, and in the winter, it’d freeze so you’d light a paper underneath to thaw it out,” she said.
“So much has changed. You look back, and I’m so grateful for the experience. But I’m more grateful I don’t have to carry those buckets of water anymore.”
• Luke Rosiak can be reached at email@example.com.
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