The Washington Post
Woman, 82, to Get Neighbors
Washington Post, December
22, 1998, Tuesday,
Final Edition - Metro,
By Valerie Strauss, Washington Post Staff Writer
Mayor-elect Anthony A. Williams
(D) was at the housewarming
party yesterday, and so were
the heads of Fannie Mae, Bell
Atlantic Corp. and Howard University.
But the real star was 82-year-old Lillian Robinson, who has lived
on tiny Oakdale Place NW, near Howard, for more than a decade
alone -- her row house surrounded only by rundown, abandoned
homes. Robinson's tenacious refusal to leave helped spark the
renovation of one of Washington's most historic neighborhoods,
Within days, Robinson will have neighbors. People are moving
into homes newly renovated under a multimillion-dollar project
undertaken by Howard University in a partnership with Fannie
Mae, the nation's largest provider of home mortgages, and other
organizations. Officials hope it will serve as a national model
for community revitalization in urban areas.
"I think I saved the block," Robinson said proudly as she sat in a
heated tent where D.C. political and business leaders gathered to mark the completion
of the first of 10 homes being renovated on Oakdale Place, a block once littered
with dirt but now filled with construction material.
"It would have been a vacant lot if I left," she said as guests visited
the 700-square-foot, two-story renovated row houses near her well-tended home. "People
would always say to me, 'Aren't you afraid to live on this block all by yourself?
Shouldn't you leave?' And I always said, 'No.' If I had moved out, this wouldn't
If her comments were an exaggeration, it was understandable.
Robinson's symbolic role was so powerful that D.C. Mayor Marion
Barry (D) declared yesterday "Lillian Robinson Day," and
Bell Atlantic-Washington President Marie C. Johns addressed her
remarks "to Mrs. Robinson and the other dignitaries assembled
The party was a long time coming for LeDroit Park. For years,
Howard owned 28 unoccupied, boarded-up properties and 17 vacant
lots on five blocks in the area -- and ignored them, fueling
a reputation as a lousy neighbor among those who live near the
prestigious, historically black university.
But President H. Patrick Swygert, who came to Howard in 1995
with a reputation for fostering strong ties to the community
around the Albany, N.Y., school he previously headed, changed
all that. He began by seeking help from the business community.
Fannie Mae climbed on board, investing more than $ 20 million
to provide a range of services. It helped provide financing for
the development and construction of the properties and joined
with the D.C. Housing Finance Agency to provide mortgages for
home buyers at below-market interest rates.
Howard, with Fannie Mae's help, will pay up to 3 percent of the
purchase price of the homes, which begin at $ 70,000, for university
staff members. And Howard extended that same offer to D.C. police
officers, firefighters, teachers and others who already live
in the neighborhood and are members of local civic organizations.
Bell Atlantic agreed to help, too, with state-of-the-art telecommunications
links to the area installed at cost.
"At first, I didn't believe it could happen," said Ruby Farmer, a Howard
University employee who now lives in Southeast Washington and has put a down
payment on a house in LeDroit Park. "But then they had all these meetings,
and each time it seemed a little more real."
There were many skeptics when Swygert proposed the plan for LeDroit
Park. "This is a community that has heard a lot of promises," said
Jamie Gorelick, vice chairman of Fannie Mae. "Patrick Swygert
and I felt the most important thing we could do is keep a promise."
LeDroit Park first appeared on a District map in 1873, when a
Howard University trustee hired an architect to design homes.
When racial barriers fell in the 1890s, elegant houses there
became home to Washington's black intelligentsia, including poet
Paul Laurence Dunbar and civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell.
But over the decades, as the District lost population, the area
became a marginalized urban neighborhood.
Two years ago, Howard undertook the physical rehabilitation of
a section of Georgia Avenue. Howard University Hospital's emergency
and trauma center was renovated for $ 6 million, and a liquor
store was converted into a police substation. The school also
opened a community association in what used to be a convenience
With dozens of homes to be completed next year, Swygert is making
plans to do more. He wants to turn fenced-off McMillan Reservoir
into a public park with trails and landscaping, create a cultural
district around the Shaw Metro station at Seventh and S streets
NW and attract other business to the area. He also hopes to attract
the proposed National African American Museum, which originally
was intended for the Mall.
Annie Coleman, soon to be a neighbor of Robinson's, said she
was overwhelmed by the chance to be a homeowner.
"If you had asked me a year ago whether I would have been able to afford
a mortgage or own my own home, I would have said no," said Coleman, who
praised Fannie Mae and Howard for spearheading the program that has made it possible.
Annie Coleman checks on the progress of the LeDroit Park house she is buying
as part of an urban revitalization project spearheaded by Howard University.