Barras: East of the river suite #1

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

The Camry slowed in front of 819 Alabama Ave. SE. For the driver, the ritual visit to the Congress Heights house, once called "a mansion," evoked warm and delicious memories.

"My heritage is here," said former D.C. Chief Procurement Officer David P. Gragan, unfolding his family's narrative and connection to that east-of-the-Anacostia-River neighborhood.

"When I came to work for [Mayor Adrian M. Fenty], my first inclination was to buy a house [there]. It is the best value for housing dollar and has a beautiful view of the city," continued Gragan; changes in his personal life altered his course.

But his emotional ties have been abiding: His father, David E. Gragan, a native Washingtonian, lived there when he was in Kramer Junior High's first graduating class; when he was battalion commander of the Junior ROTC at Anacostia High School; and when, as a U.S. Marine Corps sergeant, he walked Mary Ann around the corner, sat on someone else's step and proposed.

As a military family, they moved a lot. But East Coast summers were spent with grandparents -- Ruth and Arthur -- in that Alabama Ave. house.

"My sister and I would sit on the front porch, and we would count taxis and firetrucks," continued Gragan. "There were black walnut trees and a Granny Smith apple tree in the yard. My grandfather would pick an apple off the ground and very slowly peel [it]. ... It seemed like it took forever."

Gragan's grandmother was captain of the household. His grandfather worked at St. Elizabeths Hospital for 40 years, retiring as commander of the security force. Then, there were 7,000 patients. "My Uncle Philip said before the introduction of certain drugs, all night long, they would hear screaming."

Mementos capturing Arthur Gragan's time at St. Es anchor an archives created by the city's mental health director, Stephen Baron. The government recently held an open house, inviting residents to use the newly renovated campus for gatherings, as the Gragans did years ago.

Then, Congress Heights was largely white. Now, it's predominantly African-American.

What color is gentrification?

Gragan hasn't considered that question. Many African-Americans, watching current demographic changes, have given gentrification a white face and a heartless personality.

His story suggests the answer is complicated, often determined by a city's life cycles; the District has had many sequences. New residents arrived and embraced what they found. After their departure, their imprints could be seen, like faded hearts carved on trunks of trees.

"The apple tree is gone," said Gragan. His grandfather died decades ago. His grandmother moved to St. Mary's County, after a stranger punched her in the stomach through her screen door. During a ride around the neighborhood, Gragan and his Uncle Philip lamented a liquor store at Malcolm X Drive had replaced the movie theater where they spent "every Saturday afternoon."

"But, the black walnut trees are still," at that Alabama house, said Gragan, smiling and offering evidence of the neighborhood's resilience, while hinting of yet another cycle.

Jonetta Rose Barras can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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