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Scenes From A Changing City--Part One

What changes a city? What makes the difference between a dangerous and anonymous block and one that makes you want to stroll about and linger?

Can physical transformation produce community?

This week, change--or the prospect of it--came to three pieces of the District. I took a walk in each neighborhood to see how it felt. Coming up throughout the day, three reports, one every two hours until midday.

First visit: A place that has changed only in theory. National Public Radio announced Wednesday that it will move its headquarters from a cramped office building on Massachusetts Avenue NW to a new 10-story home on N. Capitol Street NE, immediately across from one of the city's most troubled and violent housing projects. NPR's decision was a bold move to turn down a sweet deal offered by downtown Silver Spring, which Montgomery County is working hard to turn into a media business cluster, and act once again as an urban pioneer.

NPR's last move, in 1994, from a comfy spot on M Street in the West End to the then-desolate northern edge of Chinatown, had a powerful impact on bringing life to a generally deserted edge of downtown. By no means can everything that has happened since that move--the new convention center, erection of a large new residential corridor along Mass Ave, and a steady march of development toward the east--be credited to NPR's move. Abe Pollin's sports arena played an even bigger role in sparking all that change. But NPR was the first major employer to open the door to that neighborhood, and now the move of the 600-employee headquarters once again promises to change the feel of yet another piece of the city.

The spot public radio has chosen, 1111 N. Capitol Street, is home to a warehouse that dates to 1927 and was built for the old C&P phone company. Most recently, it's been used by the Smithsonian for storage. NPR will incorporate that building into a new office structure. The site looks out onto what the D.C. government calls the Northwest One community, a collection of public housing and rowhouses that includes Sursum Corda and Temple Court, two places known more for drug dealing and gun violence than for enticing urban scenes.

The housing projects are scheduled to be torn down and replaced by one of former Mayor Tony Williams' signature initiatives, a mixed-income New Community in which current residents will be guaranteed subsidized housing alongside hundreds of market-rate and workforce housing units, as well as a high-end supermarket, hotels and retail. The idea is to do urban renewal without mucking up people's lives nearly to the extent that caused overzealous government actions in the 1960s to be dubbed "Negro removal." Will it work? Check out the experience on the south side of Capitol Hill, where the Ellen Wilson Dwellings were successfully turned into a stable, mixed income community.

For now, the stretch of Capitol Street where NPR intends to move is hardly what anyone would call welcoming or pleasant, and given the street's heavy car traffic, it's hard to imagine it becoming a pedestrian-friendly avenue. But if the retail envisioned for both the NPR building and the New Community across the way come to pass, a far less forbidding streetscape may emerge. This is not likely to challenge anyone's idea of a charming city boulevard, but at the least, today's string of disconnected office buildings surrounded by parking lots could give way to something better.

Coming up at 10 a.m. here on the blog, the second stop on today's tour--a neighborhood built from scratch, or, rather, from the ruins of eminent domain.

By Marc Fisher |  March 7, 2008; 8:05 AM ET
Previous: At A Loss For Words Over Same-Sex Marriage | Next: Scenes From A Changing City--Part Two


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More power to NPR for being a pioneer. I'm just glad I don't have to work there. I wouldn't feel safe.

I remember being an undergrad at Georgetown when NPR was still a new addition to Chinatown. I would recognize NPR as a sign we had entered the not-very-nice, not-very-safe area. (I used to go with a group of classmates to Calvary Women's Shelter to volunteer, and we drove over in a van.)

That area was BEYOND sketchy back then! We would look out the window of Calvary and see drug deals, prostitution in action, etc. I was quite happy to return to Georgetown after each time volunteering.

Now I live not too far from there, about a mile south, near Archives, and as we all know it's such a different place. Calvary is now on the same block as the fancy 555 Mass Condos!

But it took years for that to happen. My heart goes out to the NPR employees that have to work on North Capitol Street while it (hopefully) transforms. Thank you, NPR employees - you're doing a valuable service - I'm just glad it's not me!

Posted by: PQ | March 7, 2008 10:35 AM

what's in a name? why use the word GAY? Why not be honest and call it homosexuality? Or a Sodomite? Why the big issue during the last few yrs. to promote homosexual " marriage" What next, incest? or would it be politically correct to call it "a family bond". Could an only son be allowed to marry his widowed mother in order to maintain the family name?
Or an adult man be able to "marry" a young teen because he "loves" her and they did that 1000 yrs ago Why not admit some men are homosexuals and not GAY. After all, What's in a name?

Posted by: robert | March 7, 2008 11:03 AM

Robert - Your ideas are intriguing and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter. Thanks for the oh-so-topical response.

Posted by: Zedov | March 7, 2008 11:18 AM

I am just informed by a friend (and I checked it out online) that Ken Stern, CEO of NPR, has left by "mutual agreement." And this, less than 48 hours, after the new move was announced.

Posted by: Jack | March 7, 2008 11:51 AM


I thought the fact that you responded to the wrong post speaks volumes about your stupidity, but then I read your post and realized that there were so many more volumes to your Encyclopedia Xenophobica.

Posted by: ripley | March 7, 2008 8:30 PM

To PQ: You know, some of us live and walk near that area already. It's not exactly Anacostia. It's just funny to hear how your Georgetown view of things hasn't really changed over the years--just transported East by a couple miles.

Posted by: tmp3312 | March 8, 2008 2:35 AM

Since you mention it, parts of Anacostia aren't exactly Anacostia.

Posted by: Downtown Rez | March 9, 2008 8:52 PM're part of the've stayed in G'town too long and we ubran pioneers got it changed...please stay in g'town sippling your high-noon tea.

Posted by: mtvernonsq | April 21, 2008 11:40 AM

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