By Jessica Wolfrom
Where We Live | Congress Heights in Southeast Washington
In a sense, Congress Heights has always expected prosperity. In the 1790s, when Washington became the nation’s capital, many assumed that the city’s core would expand toward Southeast. About 100 years later, as the Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge — known as the John Philip Sousa Bridge in its present incarnation — neared completion, Col. Arthur E. Randle began developing Congress Heights to take advantage of the anticipated growth the bridge would bring. But the development didn’t happen at the speed or scale most people anticipated. Until now.
Today, Congress Heights is experiencing the interest and investment Ray hoped for in the 1990s. Multiple development projects are underway, including the transformation of the St. Elizabeths East campus.
But for Ray, the development hasn’t come fast enough.
“As much change that has happened in Congress Heights since I’ve been here, I’m still disappointed in the amount of change,” Ray said. “We need more.”
The neighborhood’s panoramic views, wide-open green spaces and affordable housing have long attracted residents to the area.
But Congress Heights also exists within Ward 8, the most economically depressed ward in the District. Homeownership is not the norm in Ward 8 — around 78 percent of residents are renters, according to census data. Many Congress Heights residents live in multifamily homes or rent garden-style apartments, which are abundant in the neighborhood.
Crime is also a fact of life here. There were more homicides and instances of assault with a deadly weapon in Ward 8 than any other ward in the District during the past two years. Residents say that theft is common. Loud music and fireworks erupt late into the evening. And although conditions have improved, residents still express concerns about safety.
“I don’t mind the loud block parties — I like the aliveness, the vibrancy of the community that I’m in,” said Panama Jackson, a resident and co-founder of the award-winning blog Very Smart Brothas, a section of The Root. “But you juxtapose that against the gunshots that you hear. And it’s like, I love it here, but I also don’t know how long I should be here.”
But Jackson points out that crime is a part of living in any major metropolitan area.
“In no way, shape or form do I frame the narrative of my life in Congress Heights as one of crime,” he said. “But I do live in the poorest ward in the city, and that comes with certain things.
It also comes with the feeling of being overlooked. The Metro system expanded into Virginia and Maryland before the Green Line was built into Congress Heights. And while development has boomed west of the Anacostia River, investment in Ward 8 has lagged.
“My neighbors and I don’t have the basic amenities that other neighborhoods have. We don’t have a hardware store. We only have one grocery store. And to bring those amenities, we need development,” Ray said. “But we need development that’s equitable. We need development that’s sensitive to our community.”
The St. Elizabeths East campus is the locus of much of the new development. Originally built in the 1850s as a psychiatric ward and later used as a hospital for Civil War soldiers, St. Elizabeths is now home to a new arena for the WNBA’s Washington Mystics and the NBA G-League’s Capital City Go-Go. The Sports and Entertainment Arena, which opened in 2018, also doubles as the practice facility for the NBA’s Washington Wizards.
Construction crews are converting St. Elizabeths’ historic brick buildings into townhouses and multifamily residences. Other parcels will have hotel, retail and restaurant space. In an effort to address inequities in Ward 8’s access to health care, Universal Health Services plans to open a new hospital on the campus by 2023.
Across the street, City Partners, a development firm, is planning a mixed-use project along Alabama Avenue that will bring residential, office, retail and restaurant space to the neighborhood.
But some residents worry that development might lead to displacement.
“I probably could not afford a unit in that setting,” said longtime resident Maybelle Bennett, referring to the new homes at St. Elizabeths. “If I leave here, I couldn’t get back here. That is a shame. It’s a sad commentary on the adverse impacts of gentrification.”
Gentrification has been front of mind for Keyonna Jones, the executive director of the Congress Heights Arts and Culture Center. The center recently showcased photographs of a changing ward in the exhibit “The Last Bite of Chocolate City.”
“Visually, I think that definitely hit home. People could see themselves,” Jones said. “I think it gave people that sense of how important the black community is.”
Residents want to make sure the neighborhood emerges from construction with its spirit intact.
“It has its own little character, its own unique locations, its own unique delis. It’s a very community-minded area,” Jackson said. “It’s the kind of place that I think is entirely worth the investment.”
Living there: The Congress Heights Community Association considers the neighborhood’s boundaries to be Suitland Parkway to the north, Oxon Run to the south, Stanton Road SE to the east, Halley Terrace SE and Atlantic Street SE on the southwest and Interstate 295 to the west. It includes the St. Elizabeths East campus, even though it is its own historic district.
There are 28 homes on the market in Congress Heights. The highest-priced house is a four-bedroom, two-bathroom Cape Cod listed at $780,000. The lowest-priced house is a three-bedroom, three-bathroom semidetached Colonial listed at $122,000. Last year, the highest-priced home sold was a five-bedroom, three-bathroom split-foyer house that sold for $562,000. The lowest-priced home sold was three-bedroom, two-bathroom Colonial that sold for $199,000. The average price of homes sold in 2019 was $358,645.
Schools: King Elementary, Hart Middle and Ballou High.
Transit: Congress Heights is served by multiple bus lines. The Congress Heights Metro station is on Alabama Avenue SE near the St. Elizabeths campus. Major thoroughfares are I-295/Anacostia Freeway, Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Alabama Avenue SE.
Correction: A previous version of this story said George Washington University plans to open a new hospital in Ward 8 by 2023. Universal Health Services, the operating partner of the George Washington University Hospital, has entered into an agreement with the District to open the new hospital.