Washingtonians now and forever Fixtures: Some see the nation's capital as a city of transients, but many residents wouldn't live anyplace else.

November 13, 1997|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Al Wheeler bought his own high-class mausoleum in this city, on the theory that if he has to die, he'd rather do it here than anywhere else.

Wheeler, president of the Association of Oldest Washingtonians, loyal to a capital that is by nature transient. When everyone else gets swept out of office, bumped out of favor or fed up with politics, it is people like Wheeler who dig in and stay.

"My friends don't move away -- they die, but they don't move away," said Wheeler, a 78-year-old Georgetown lawyer with a patrician manner and a silk handkerchief tucked into his breast pocket. "Why would they leave? Where else is there to live?"

The capital is widely seen as a temporary home, a bus stop of a town where one gang of political operators is thrown out as fast as the next is voted in. But this image fogs over another truth about Washington: Some folks never go away. Ever.

"You have a corps of people who come and go," said Tony Washington, 37, an expecting parent who lives in the same neighborhood as four generations of his family. "But then you have the bigger corps who stay -- they make up what we've come to know and love as the real D.C."

Although the city is constantly in flux because of politics -- and has experienced the same middle-class flight that has drained cities like Baltimore over the past decade -- a cadre of die-hards nevertheless remains. Many rely on the federal government for jobs. More simply do not want -- or cannot afford -- to leave the place where they grew up.

Sense of community

In Wheeler's case, the government offered work. As the chief lawyer for a Senate committee on the district, he wrote the first major provision calling for district self-governance in a 1948 home-rule bill. But the city also gave him money and status, and a sense of community.

His early love for Georgetown -- he dined there every day in his 30s with a group of friends that dubbed itself "The Conclave" -- had him investing in the historic neighborhood when few others were. Now the cluster of town homes he developed is worth at least $18 million.

Like other loyalists, Wheeler hopes his two sons, who share his Georgetown investment business, remain in the city. At the very least, he knows at least one Wheeler is staying put.

"I built my own little mausoleum in Oak Hill because I don't ever want to leave," said Wheeler. He could not help but boast a bit about his plot, which sits in one of Georgetown's most exclusive cemeteries. "It's hard to get," he said. "I love it."

Without a doubt, the city is beset by troubles, with a high crime rate, failing schools, dismal services and crumbling infrastructure. The population, which hit a high of 810,000 in 1953, dropped to a low of 535,000 this year.

By comparison, Baltimore's population fell from a high of 949,708 in 1950 to 675,401 last year, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures available.

The capital's population is not much more in flux than Baltimore's. Washington lost roughly 47,053 people and added 31,971 in 1994-1995, while Baltimore lost 39,469 and added 29,808 the same year, according to Internal Revenue Service data.

Lifetime commitment

Like many Baltimore residents, a corps of Washingtonians has made a lifetime commitment to their city, with about four in 10 Washingtonians born and raised here, Census figures show.

Among these long-timers are Tony Washington and his family. Although he settled briefly in Argentina in 1982 to play on a South American basketball team, it quickly became clear to Washington that he couldn't leave the capital for good.

"I never found another city that has what D.C. has," said Washington, a real estate consultant who lives in the middle-class Crestwood neighborhood. "For one thing, look at the number of minorities in decision-making positions in the government and nonprofits here. It's a good atmosphere if you're trying to get established. The comfort level is high."

This feeling is particularly strong among older African-Americans, who recall the federal city offering opportunities that others lacked, particularly during segregation. During World War II, Florence Braxton remembered the local phone company refusing give her a job because she was black. So she turned to the U.S. government instead.

"The federal government was hiring everybody," said Braxton, 70, who worked as an auditor at the Department Housing and Urban Development for 30 years, while her sister, Harriet, took a job at the Pentagon processing forms on war casualties. "We were supposed to be temporary, but as years went on, we became permanent. It was good work."

If Washington is a transient place, then this working-class Mount Pleasant neighborhood where the Braxton sisters live doesn't show it. Braxton never felt compelled to leave the city, and has lived with her sister in the same house since they were toddlers.

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