D.C.'s shabby gateway

Optimism: On the New York Avenue strip, drooping from neglect, signs of a rebirth are beginning to appear.

August 11, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The air reeks of truck exhaust, the streets glint with smashed beer bottles and the landscape is pocked with boarded-up rowhouses, tinsel-strewn car lots and motels known for cheap encounters.

This is New York Avenue N.E., a gateway to the capital of the most powerful country in the world, though you would hardly know it from the view. The street, carrying more than 100,000 vehicles a day, cuts through some of the city's most neglected neighborhoods and lays bare some of Washington's worst urban woes.

But lately, on a street that has been beset by troubles and false hopes for years, optimism is taking root. Several developers are renovating warehouses in the area, such high-tech companies as Qwest Communications International Inc. are moving in and the federal government is considering a sprawling new headquarters for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms there.

Of course, this gateway is unlikely to get a Hollywood makeover anytime soon; no monuments and Parisian-style traffic circles are in its immediate future. But the district government is turning fresh attention to the thoroughfare as the local economy rebounds and developers seek alternatives to the crowded downtown.

Revitalization of the New York Avenue corridor -- the industrial trip east of downtown also known as U.S. 50 -- is one of the city's top three priorities for the next year, said Douglas Patton, deputy mayor for economic development and a veteran of more than 30 years of city politics.

"Frankly, this is the most serious talk I've ever heard about New York Avenue," said Patton, who recently joined the administration of reform-minded Mayor Anthony A. Williams. "Everybody said, `Geez, we ought to do something about New York Avenue.' Now we are."

Many Washington veterans remain skeptical, having heard plenty of promises about this street before. Lacking money and political allies, advocates for the avenue have failed in past sporadic attempts to revitalize this strip.

"My sense is that when it comes to New York Avenue, people just aren't on board yet," said Joseph Bender, an urban planner who worked for the city from 1979 to 1994. "The stakeholders need to decide what they are going to do and how much they're going to invest in it."

History of dead-ends

Previous governmental campaigns for the avenue have run into dead-ends. A city-funded economic redevelopment plan in the 1980s went nowhere. Neither did the proposed 1993 New York Avenue Development Corp., which would have used federal money to spur private investment in redevelopment.

A $1.4 billion street redesign drafted in 1996 -- a sort of pure ideal of the avenue, featuring widened boulevards with green parks and cinematic vistas of the city -- has not been enacted.

Even the street's biggest optimists say it will not look thoroughly remodeled and glorious soon. "I'll be 6 feet under by then," Patton said.

Still, the signs are more promising than in years: A New York Avenue subway stop is all but approved, which would bring foot traffic. And several developers are renovating buildings that were abandoned after blue-collar industries went bust.

Several technological firms are considering the corridor: MCI WorldCom Inc. is nearing a deal to put some operations there, as is the digital start-up XM Satellite Radio.

Where this leaves the street's sparse residential development remains to be seen, though the mayor took a ceremonial ride in a bulldozer this spring to raze one rowhouse to make way for a park and office space. He promised more demolition.

Along the avenue, a few longtime residents are still proudly hanging on, planting vegetable gardens and putting lace curtains in their windows. But those homes are alongside abandoned rowhouses whose doors the city has replaced with concrete blocks to keep trespassers out. The number of residents of New York Avenue has dropped more than 10 percent over the past five years.

"It's breaking my heart," said Anna Caporaletti, 73, who was born on the avenue and never left. She lives on a block with four other families, 14 abandoned houses and her barking Rottweiler, Hootie. Her daughter keeps her clear of the windows on nights when there is gunfire.

The avenue -- though always a heavily traveled industrial corridor -- was graced with lush front yards when Caporaletti was a child, before the city widened the street in the 1960s. Caporaletti lives down the street from a church dating to the 1850s, one of the oldest in the city, and several other New York Avenue historical landmarks.

"Just today, I was reminiscing about how beautiful it was," Caporaletti said. "I wouldn't know how to live anywhere else."

The avenue shows its battle scars. Traffic snarls with fist-clenching regularity: A construction project near the Maryland line clogs the road. Neighborhoods along the strip report among the city's highest jobless rates, though crime dropped by 7 percent over the past year, compared with the year before, mirroring a citywide trend.

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