Washington City Paper by Andrew Giambrone
Nathan Brown gazes across the surface parking lot where his home once stood as his son and daughter play with their two cousins on an adjacent patch of grass. Brown grew up in Temple Courts, a low-income community on the west side of North Capitol between K and L streets that the District razed in late 2008 to make way for a new mixed-income development.
Brown and the other residents of Temple Courts’ original 211 apartments were guaranteed a right to return to the site, which was to be redeveloped into a denser project with a third of all units priced at market rate. That promise has yet to materialize. The redevelopment plans were drawn up under Mayor Anthony Williams’ New Communities Initiative, an ambitious but ineffective urban renewal policy resulting in little actual development for years on end. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration says each site is now progressing, either with groundbreakings, zoning approvals, or land dispositions. But those who left Temple Courts have largely been in the dark about their site’s future since the wrecking balls hit the complex.
“We done waited eight years,” says Brown, who is now unemployed and living in an affordable one-bedroom at the Severna on K building, home to several Temple Courts expats. “We don’t have eight more.”
Stand there as the sun sets, and the parking lot can feel like a crossroads between Chocolate City and the modern District. Surrounding the property to the north and east are the historic Mount Airy Baptist Church (“a monument to Jesus,” the sign above its doors reads), a recently opened modular building for homeless veterans and very low-income residents, and NPR’s spaceship-like headquarters, where the day’s news runs ticker-style on the facade.
The parking lot is in the middle of NoMa, one of the top three D.C. neighborhoods for residential development in 2016. At a gathering last May for former Temple Courts tenants, a student who goes to the public school around the corner called the area “NoMore” in a spoken word poem reflecting tensions between the neighborhood’s young professionals and longtime residents.
It’s an assessment that resonates with Brown and his peers—older and younger—who dream of seeing their erstwhile community return in some form for their own kids. Those who used to live at Temple Courts (or “Temple Court,” as some former residents say) recount a family atmosphere not limited to blood ties, a place where residents looked out for one another. This despite the ailing conditions of the complex leading up to its demolition and a harrowing 2004 incident in which a hired hand shot and killed a 14-year-old girl, Jahkema “Princess” Hansen, in the Sursum Corda apartments after she had witnessed a killing at Temple Courts. The execution-style murder catalyzed a response from officials to improve the site.
“If you had one bad moment, you had about 10 good moments,” Brown says, recalling regular fish fries, sports games, and the go-go bands that performed outside. “It was so family-oriented. To see something like that—something so pure, something so beautiful—get torn apart like that … it’s a disgrace.”
With help from the Washington Interfaith Network, former Temple Courts residents have been organizing for a seat at the table as the Bowser administration selects a development team for the site. The tenants have asked for a mix of unit sizes to accommodate families, the elimination of barriers to returning to the apartments like unreasonable criminal background and credit checks, and rents that will be affordable to households making under 30 percent of the area median income— $108,600 for a family of four as of 2016. These priorities were worked into D.C.’s developer solicitation for the Ward 6 site. After months of community input, the city plans to choose a team this spring.
“It’s like building a house,” says Sabrena Turner, who grew up at Temple Courts with her parents and grandmother. “If you went and had a house built, you’re going to be with that builder from beginning to end. We’re not asking to take over the process, just to be part of it.”
Those who once lived at Temple Courts are now scattered across the region, though several dozen were placed in apartments near the site with vouchers from the D.C. Housing Authority. Some have shuffled between public housing projects in the District, while many are at risk of homelessness, staying temporarily with relatives or friends. (“They moving post to post,” Brown says. “They don’t have stability.”) Others have died—“crossed over” like Turner’s grandmother.
Just last week, a handful of the 300 or so former Temple Courts residents who are still around met amicably with Bowser and city planning officials to discuss their needs. An organizer who attended says residents were told that the administration is currently considering nine separate development proposals for the site. Turner, who also went to the meeting, recalls hearing a projected completion date of 2019 or 2020 (District officials declined to confirm specifics). Tenants say they don’t know the details of these proposals but were glad Bowser committed to directly including them later in the process.
“A step in the right direction,”Brown says of the sit-down.
District officials say tenant input about the site will be a priority. “The goal is to push as quickly as we can, but doing so with neighborhoods and residents in mind,” says Joaquin McPeek, a spokesman for Brian Kenner, D.C.’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development.
Given the significant number of families displaced from Temple Courts, stakes are high for the District in choosing a redevelopment plan that former tenants will support. As Tiffany Mitchell explains, “We watched y’all take our community from us and promise us all these promises.” She says she’s “comfortable” where she is at the Severna on K, but that doesn’t erase the memories.
Snapping her fingers, Mitchell recalls how quickly residents had to move before the complex was razed. “It was terrible,” she says, adding that police were swarming the property. How the site ended up—a parking lot—has bred distrust of the government.
Natalie Williams, who also grew up at Temple Courts, says she worries about her two children having a permanent place to live. She’s staying at a relative’s apartment while her kids go to Walker-Jones Education Campus, the neighborhood elementary and middle school she once attended. “I can’t displace my babies right now,” she says. If she can’t find housing with a case manager’s help, her next best option is Baltimore.
Brown says the passage of time since Temple Courts came down and the deaths of some former tenants hang heavy on his heart. He hugs his kids and says, “We lived around this parking lot all our life.”