Friday, June 11, 2010

Trinidad...The One in DC

Trinidad is bound by Gallaudet University, Mount Olivet Road, Florida Avenue and Bladensburg Avenue. The community consists of 700 two-story, brick row houses with porches, including about 350 government-subsidized houses and apartments located in the eastern section of the neighborhood.[1] Trinidad is located in Ward 5, and is represented by Harry Thomas, Jr. The neighborhood was primarily a residential community until the mid 1970s, when a commercial development boom created a hodgepodge of retail stores, used car lots and waste facilities.


Trinidad got its name from James Barry, a nineteenth century land speculator who had once lived on the Caribbean island.[2] Barry sold his land to the banker William W. Corcoran. The land was bought in 1888 by the Washington Machine Brick Company, which hoped to use the 65 acres of clay rich soil for brick making. They subdivided 100 acres of the area into homes. An 1888 advertisement proclaimed that the “The natural grade of Trinidad is very beautiful," and that "in the centre is a high knoll.”[3] The builders constructed homes that are still standing today, porch-front rowhouses that drew mostly working and middle-class residents.[4]
In a 1997 Post article Flava Conley, 89, explained what it was like growing up in Trinidad. When the article was written she had lived in Trinidad for 47 years. She explained that the neighborhood had “green lawns and beautiful rose bushes and clean streets. I was very active in the community. We had different types of activities that brought the community together. We used to have Christmas parties, block parities…In the early days people enjoyed living here and they kept up their property.”[5]

Trinidad was once a vital part of the cablecar system. The Trinidad car house, located at 15th and H Streets NE, housed a cable car power plant. It was erected in 1895 to replace a horse-car barn. The mechanism consisted of a stationary steam engine that continuously propelled a steel cable beneath the streets for the full length of the line, pulling the cars at about 6 miles per hour. A huge wheel-like drum moved the cable. The cars attached to the cables with a fist-like grip, which was released by the operator when he wanted the car to top. The Trinidad car house was part of Washington’s cable system, which carried 170,000 riders a day. However, beginning in 1889 cable cars began to be replaced by electric street cars. The Trinidad barn was used by electric streetcars until 1942, when it was converted to use by buses. It was abandoned by D.C. Transit in the late sixties and was then sold to a redevelopment agency, which razed the building. D.C. Transit used the money to pay off some its debts.[6] Below is an image of the car barn-

Trinidad has suffered from its fair share of problems. Like the rest of D.C., the neighborhood suffered when many families chose to move to the suburbs. The 1968 riots further propelled the decline of the neighborhood. Trinidad suffered from a real estate scandal in the mid-80’s. In hopes of benefiting from a wave of gentrification, real estate speculators bought up about 90 rent-controlled properties in the neighborhood. To lower their risk, the investors got Federal Housing Administration loan guarantees, and qualified for the program by submitting phony information about the stability of the buyers and the homes. Once they got the properties, investors were able to dodge rent-control ceilings and jacked up the rents, driving out longtime residents of the neighborhood. But even then the owners could not make the payments of their government-backed mortgages. By 1989 almost half of the homes had gone into foreclosure, becoming vacant. These vacant properties devolved into crack houses.[7]

The crack epidemic of the mid-1980s was devastating to Trinidad.[8] The drug kingpin Rayful Edmond III operated nearby, and Trinidad became a battleground for warring gangs. Due to Trinidad’s prime location and slow deterioration, it provided a prime environment for dope dealing.[9] In a five-month stretch in 1988, police estimate that the drug gangs of Trinidad and an adjoining area were responsible for twenty homicides. Dorthea Richardson, a 27 year resident and the owner of Montello Avenue day-care center, explained in a 2008 Post article how in the 1990s she often had to order kids to lie on the floor when they heard daytime gunshots. She placed a steel grate on the center’s front doors and metal bars on the windows.[10] Rayful Edmond was convicted in 1989, but Trinidad still went on to become one of the biggest crack markets in the city.[11]

Wilhelmina Lawson moved to Trinidad at the height of the crack boom, in 1990. She described it saying, “It was as if I’d moved into the devil’s bowels.” Lawson explains that on an average day 75 to 80 people would be drinking, smoking pot, and playing cards the embankment across from her house. When her family visited her, they would complain of having to wait in their car for 15 minutes to get down her street while dealers and buyers completed transactions through car windows. [12]

In 1988 Mayor Marion Barry began a 30 day crackdown, part of Operation Clean Sweep, in order to fight the massive sales of drugs. The crackdown included police roadblocks and increased patrols. Police aggressively monitored vehicles from Maryland and Virginia, where many of the drug customers lived. The police also teamed with neighborhood organize crime watch teams to report suspicious activity. Sadly innocent bystanders often suffered from the drug violence. For example, in 1988 a ten year old named Tiece Ruffin was shot and wounded in her left leg as she played outside her home.[13]

Trinidad is slowly but surely recovering from this devastating period. Rising home prices across the city and low interest rates attracted a group of middle and upper-income buyers into the neighborhood. Ralph Lee, an agent with Murrell Realtors explained, “The property values in the past two years have tripled. But two friends coming out of school can still buy a house in Trinidad for $275,000 or $300,000, and that’s far less than what they can get a downtown condo for.”[14] Mark Thorp, 38, a bar owner, saw Trinidad as a shrewd investment. He recognized that developers were pushing east across the city, and that real estate was comparatively inexpensive. In 2003 Thorp sold his rowhouse in Shaw and used the profit he made to buy four properties in Trinidad, including a rowhouse where he now lives. Montgomery Gray, a 25 year old real-estate agent, last year paid $620,000 for Trinidad’s only detached house. It was once owned by a physician who treated neighborhood patients for decades, but who is now deceased. Gray plans on razing the house the building duplex condos. [15] Elise Bernard, a 27 year old George Washington University law student, bought a 1,600 square foot house on Florida Avenue for $150,000 in 2003. She keeps a blog about the neighborhood called “Frozen Tropics”, where she discusses tough issues of race, class, and gentrification. Alex Hasting grew up in McLean but left the Washington area for college at the University of San Diego. Hastings took a job with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and began looking for housing in D.C. He searched in Capitol Hill, but prices were sky high. Last August he found a $330,000, three bedroom home on a corner lot In Trinidad and bought it.[16] Four years ago Tony Golden, 30, moved into a house his “great-grandaddy Hawkins” once owned. The house had long been vacant. Golden explained, “it was completely dilapidated. There were three holes in the roof and old furniture piled up inside. No flowers, no trees. There was nothing in nobody’s yards.” However, Golden worked to restore the house. An artist and a hairstylist, Golden created a showcase house with two kitchens, antique claw-foot tubs in the bathrooms, and two bay windows in his bedroom.[17]

Long time residents have also banded together to improve the neighborhood. For example, a group of neighbors formed a gardening club. The club has revitalized Trinidad’s tree boxes, the green space between curbs and sidewalks, and cleaned out alleys. The organization GrowDC gave the group a grant of spring-blooming bulbs. Resident Aaron Cox, whose family owns Cox Farms in Virginia, brought two truckloads of planting supplies.[18] Children are encouraged to get involved as well. Yamilee Dambreville explains, “we keep them busy. Finally, they see that their hands are into something, and it’s beautiful. One little boy always knocks on my door and asks ‘Can I water? Can I plant?’”[19]

The Trinidad Neighborhood Association (TNA) is another community based, volunteer-driven organization that is working to improve the neighborhood. Founded in 2009, the Association “works to identify and address community concerns, and to promote opportunities for economic development by engaging community stakeholders.”[20] TNA aims to build community and promote harmony, improve the use of public and private properties in the neighborhood, reduce crime, and to help neighbors voice their interests to DC government agencies.
Trinidad Concerned Citizens For Reform, Inc. (TCCR) is a Washington, D.C.-based private, nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization established in 1994. TCCR works to create a sustainable life for residents of Ward 5 neighborhoods of Trinidad and Ivy City. The organization provides out-of-school time tutorial, mentoring, and recreational programs for area youth and their families as well as employment resources. TCCR facilitates neighborhood clean up and landscaping programs and works to inspire and improve the education, economy, and environment of Trinidad. Their mission is to change Trinidad from a drug community to a garden community. One of TCCR’s most successful projects was the Youth Investment Project, an after-school tutoring and mentorship program that ran during the school year and summer. More than 110 of the area’s youngest residents aged 5 to 21 participated. The program was so successful that it was in part absorbed by D.C. Public Schools. TCCR has also solidified funding that helped place “Welcome to a Garden Community” banners along the perimeter of Trinidad. [21]
Despite these improvements, Trinidad still struggles to overcome its legacy of violence. In 2008 police again implemented police blockades in response to a crime wave. D.C. police choked off access to several streets, forcing drivers to pass through an anti-crime checkpoint. Motorists were questioned about their reasons for being there and were asked to provide identification.[22] Most residents were perturbed by the check points. Some complained that city officials had not given residents advance notice, others said the checkpoints gave Trinidad a bad name and inconvenienced the working-class community.[23] As Trinidad struggles to rebuild, we can only hope that it will once again become a thriving community.

[1] Chris Nguyen. “In Trinidad, Memories of Glory Days Mix with Efforts at Renewal in DC.” Washington Post (May 10, 1997).
[2] Paul Schwartzman. “Reality Checkpoint.” Washington Post, July 8, 2008.
[3] Marianne Kyriakos, “Gardened and Glowing in Trinidad: Residents Turn Around Their Front-Porch NE Neighborhood” Washington Post, June 17th, 2006
[4] Schwartzman. “Reality Checkpoint.”
[5] Chris Nguyen. “In Trinidad, Memories of Glory Days Mix with Efforts at Renewal in DC.”
[6] Jack Eisen. “Last Vestige of Cable Car Era Soon to Disappear from City.” The Washington Post, Times Herald: June 1, 1970.
[7] Amanda Ripley. “ChronicTown: Profitable, stable, and impossible to sop, marijuana dealing would be the perfect industry for Trinidad-as long as no one had to live there.” Washington City Paper, October 30, 1998.
[8] Schwartzman. “Reality Checkpoint.”
[9] Ripley, “ChronicTown.”
[10] Schwartzman, “Reality Checkpoint.”
[11] Ripley, “ChronicTown.”
[12] Ripley, “ChronicTown.”
[13] Tom Sherwood. “Mayor Targets Trinidad Area for Drug Crackdown.” Washington Post: December 3, 1988.
[14] Marianne Kyriakos, “Gardened and Glowing in Trinidad.”
[15] Schwartzman, “Reality Checkpoint.”
[16] Marianne Kyriakos, “Gardened and Glowing in Trinidad.”
[17] Marianne Kyriakos, “Gardened and Glowing in Trinidad.”
[18] Marianne Kyriakos. “Gardened and Glowing in Trinidad.” Washington Post: June 17, 2006.
[19] Kyriakos, “Gardened and Glowing in Trinidad.”
[20] Trinidad Neighborhood Association-
[21] Trinidad Concerned Citizens For Reform, Inc.-
[22] Allison Klein and Elissa Silverman. “Police Close Streets In Trinidad to Steer Drivers to Checkpoint.” Washington Post: June 10, 2008.
[23] Sarah Abruzzese. “After Capital’s Checkpoints, Gratitude that Police Acted, but Deep Skepticism.” New York Times: June 16, 2008.

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