June 1st-4th

This week was a short one at the NBM, as I had Monday off for Memorial Day and then I went home on Friday for my little brother’s graduation. However, I still got a good deal of research done. This week I tackled Trinidad. I had been putting off this neighborhood, as I could tell from a cursory overview that it had the least amount of information and would provide the greatest challenge. However, I began carefully searching through the online archives of the Washington Post, to see what information I could find. I was able to put together a solid history of the neighborhood, even if it is not as extensive as Petworth and the Southwest Waterfront.

I learned that Trinidad got its name from James Barry, a nineteenth century land speculator who had once lived on the Caribbean island. Barry sold his land to the banker William W. Corcoran. The land was bought in 1888 by the Washington Machine Brick Company, which hoped to use the 65 acres of clay rich soil for brick making. They subdivided 100 acres of the area into homes. An 1888 advertisement proclaimed that the “The natural grade of Trinidad is very beautiful,” and that “in the centre is a high knoll.” The builders constructed homes that are still standing today, porch-front rowhouses that drew mostly working and middle-class residents.
Trinidad was once a vital part of the cablecar system. The Trinidad car house, located at 15th and H Streets NE, housed a cable car power plant. It was erected in 1895 to replace a horse-car barn. The mechanism consisted of a stationary steam engine that continuously propelled a steel cable beneath the streets for the full length of the line, pulling the cars at about 6 miles per hour.
Trinidad has suffered from its fair share of problems. Like the rest of D.C., the neighborhood suffered when many families chose to move to the suburbs. The crack epidemic of the mid-1980s was devastating to Trinidad. The drug kingpin Rayful Edmond III operated nearby, and Trinidad became a battleground for warring gangs. Due to Trinidad’s prime location and slow deterioration, it provided a prime environment for dope dealing. In a five-month stretch in 1988, police estimate that the drug gangs of Trinidad and an adjoining area were responsible for twenty homicides. Dorthea Richardson, a 27 year resident and the owner of Montello Avenue day-care center, explained in a 2008 Post article how in the 1990s she often had to order kids to lie on the floor when they heard daytime gunshots. She placed a steel grate on the center’s front doors and metal bars on the windows. Rayful Edmond was convicted in 1989, but Trinidad still went on to become one of the biggest crack markets in the city.
Trinidad is slowly but surely recovering from this devastating period. The very low cost of real estate in the neighborhood has attracted young professionals looking for affordable city housing. However, Trinidad still has problems with violence. In 2008 a police checkpoint was established for a weekend in an effort to curb violence. It will be interesting to see if Trinidad will be able to emerge as a thriving neighborhood, or will succumb to the pressures of crime.
On Wednesday I went to the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, to do research in their Washingtoniana section. Washingtoniana was established in 1905, and it houses a comprehensive collection of material on Washington, D.C from the late 18th century to the present. The collection includes a reference library, a photographic collection, and the D.C. community archives. As soon as I arrived I asked the reference librarian for help. She handed me a neighborhood bibliography, which listed references according to the areas of D.C. She also gave me a book to look at called Washington As Home. I was most interested in researching Trinidad, as I felt that was the neighborhood that I had the least information on. However, I was excited to see that the collection also had some interesting resources for Petworth and Southwest Waterfront. I also got a clippings folder on Trinidad from the reference librarian.
First I looked through the clippings folder. Most of the articles I had already found online. However, there were several I hadn’t seen. They were about a housing scandal that had occurred in Trinidad in the mid 80s, and really hurt the neighborhood. In hopes of benefiting from a wave of gentrification, real estate speculators bought up about 90 rent-controlled properties in the neighborhood. To lower their risk, the investors got Federal Housing Administration loan guarantees, and qualified for the program by submitting phony information about the stability of the buyers and the homes. Once they got the properties, investors were able to dodge rent-control ceilings and jacked up the rents, driving out longtime residents of the neighborhood. But even then the owners could not make the payments of their government-backed mortgages. By 1989 almost half of the homes had gone into foreclosure, becoming vacant. These vacant properties devolved into crack houses.
I also looked at some resources on Petworth and Southwest Waterfront. Washington At Home had some great information on Southwest Waterfront. In addition, I found a book called In the Alleys. The book is all about the photography of Godfrey Frankel. In the 40s he had gone to the Southwest Waterfront and documented scores of families living in alleys. These alleys were later cleared out as part of a large scale urban planning project in the fifties that wiped out the neighborhood. Frankel’s book is a haunting look at a community that was to be destroyed a few years later. I also found a wonderful auto-biography by a woman named Margaret M. MacGill called Growing up in Petworth. She had lived in Petworth during its heyday in the 20s and 30s. At the end of her life she had taken it upon herself to type up an account of her life and donate it to the MLK library. It provided wonderful insight into what it was like to grow up Petworth. She described the 4th of July parades, which was wonderful, as I had found photos of them in the Library of Congress photo archives. It is great to have a verbal description to match the pictures.