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Sunday, June 16, 2024

A Living History in River Terrace

On a summer evening in late June, our dog went missing. Like a hairy Harry Houdini, he slipped out of his leash on a nighttime walk, and hightailed it down 34th Street NE, one of the main roads in our neighborhood of River Terrace. This little cul de sac community of around 2000 residents, nestled against the banks of the Anacostia River in Ward 7, is as close-knit as family, and within minutes someone had found our dog and returned him to us. That’s why I love living here.

A Place for Families
I moved to River Terrace with my partner in September of 2022. Our house is one of the original planned unit developments settled in the late 1930s and designed by George Thomas Santmyers Jr. Small but cozy, these solid brick homes were built for families looking for a place to settle after the Second World War. Exclusionary covenants written into house deeds meant at the time that Black DC residents couldn’t own property in River Terrace, but as soon as these were declared unconstitutional in 1948, the neighborhood witnessed a slow but steady transformation to the vibrantly textured community that it is today.

Anacostia Ave. NE in the early 1950s. The E. Capitol St. Bridge had not yet been built. Photo courtesy of M. Grimstead.
Posing for the camera in the alley off of Anacostia Ave. in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of K. Anderson.

It’s easy to see why River Terrace (also called Lilly Ponds due to its proximity to the nearby Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens) was and still is so attractive to first time homeowners like us. It’s close to the Orange Metro Line and buses are always on time, meaning downtown is at most 20 minutes away. House prices have stayed affordable, hovering in the mid $300,000 to upper $400,000 range, and there are acres of lush green park space right on your doorstep. Deer roam through the River Terrace Park at the end of our block and the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail passes right by our house.

A Proud History
We’re part of a new wave of residents looking for more space post the Covid-19 pandemic, but some of our neighbors have been here for years, like Michelle Hall. She’s preparing for a big birthday celebration, so I manage to meet with her while she’s cooking up a storm for her family in the kitchen of her home on 34th Street. “We moved here in 1973. I was 14,” Hall remembers. “My uncle and cousin already lived in the neighborhood so we were the third part of our family to move here.”

For the River Terrace 70th Anniversary celebrations, Hall paid homage to the first African American family to move into the neighborhood by writing and performing a small theatre production. She’s managed to find the script and reads a few excerpts to me. “It was 1949. His name was Odis von Blasingame. He had a wife, Georgetta, and a little baby. They lived on Ames Street.” Hall played the role of Georgetta Childress von Blasingame who, in the play, told the story of how her family were targeted with stones, trash fires and offensive language by a group of white men within 30 minutes of moving in. Not to be deterred, Odis von Blasingame became the first president of the River Terrace Community Organization and a role model for the neighborhood.

Solid Investments
Dolores Winter moved to River Terrace from Capitol Hill in November of 2000, and lives with her husband Reggie on a corner lot right next to the house that Odis and Georgetta called home almost 75 years ago. “I wasn’t married. No kids. So I thought, you know, I need my own house. I bought the house with the HPAP Program,” Winter tells me over a glass of iced water on her porch, where we’re chatting and escaping the heat during a hot and humid summer afternoon. At that time, through HPAP (the Home Purchase Assistance Program), Winter received $20,000 towards the purchase of her property. “I paid $83,000 for this house. Can you imagine?” she laughs.

Members of the Lawn Rangers Gardening Club working on the Community Flower Garden at Clay St. and Anacostia Ave. in the 1960s. The old PEPCO power plant can be seen in the background. Photo courtesy of E. Lewis.

Reggie Winter’s history in River Terrace goes back to 1960, when he was a member of the American Legion Royal Sabres Drum and Bugle Corps that was based in the neighborhood. “We used to march all over River Terrace,” he reminisces. “We went to competitions in Washington, Philadelphia, New York. If we didn’t win first place, we knew something was wrong. We came first or second every time.” Mrs. Winter shows me an 11-inch piece of concrete, bored out of her basement wall when she moved her gas line to build a new porch. Houses in River Terrace are solid. Not even the 2011 quake could put a crack in her wall. “These houses are built twice as strong as they needed to be,” says Mr Winter. “These bricks are quality. Washington DC bricks were so good, other cities were outbidding DC to buy them. Next to the Arboretum on Bladensburg Road there are still big kilns where they used to fire these bricks. River Terrace houses are built with those Washington bricks.”

Michelle Hall, a local amateur historian, is currently working on a publication focused on the history of River Terrace.

Community Activism
The River Terrace Community Organization (RTCO) has roots in the neighborhood as deep as the ones beneath the old oak and elm trees lining its streets. It was formed in 1950 by Black residents like Odis von Blasingame and is the longest running continually active community organization in the country. It celebrates 75 years in 2025. Malissa Freese was president of the RTCO from 2017 to 2021 when she handed the reins over to Sharon Culver, the current president. “Folks don’t realize how big of a job it is,” Freese confides to me. I’m interviewing her while we take a stroll through the River Terrace Park, where she’s currently trying to get a non-profit volunteer group started that can assist the chronically understaffed National Parks Service with maintenance and upkeep.

Malissa Freese in the historic River Terrace community rose garden across from Anacostia Ave. and Clay Street NE.

Freese knows that there is a deep and active history carried by the community and residents who have spent their whole lives in the houses bordering the park and beyond. “Those people will share their stories with you. They used to have garden tours and parades during River Terrace Day. George Gurley lived here and he’s the one that fought with PEPCO. We were a cancer cluster at one point.” Freese is referring to the old PEPCO Benning Road plant, just across from River Terrace, where in 1990 the plan to install two new electrical generators was mooted due to pressure from River Terrace residents and Gurley in particular, who were suffering from the noxious gases drifting into their neighborhood. Thankfully, the toxic plant was demolished in 2014.

Stories Worth Telling
On early evening walks through River Terrace, we’re greeted by neighbors who’ve spent their whole lives in this small patch of the city. It’s bittersweet to realize that these lifelong residents are now in their twilight years and so many of their stories have yet to be shared. In many big and small ways, the quiet history of America’s civil rights movement has played out within the brick walls of these homes. And of course, now every neighbor that greets us also knows our dog.

Learn more about the rich history of River Terrace by visiting riverterracehistoryscapbookdc.org or visit the River Terrace Community Organization (RTCO) Facebook page. You can also stop by over the Labor Day weekend to participate in the 15th Annual River Terrace Reunion Committee Picnic and meet local residents.

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