District Seniors Push Back and Win
Benjamin Koconis | 7/14/2010, 8:30 p.m.
After a long, hard-fought battle, the residents of a Northwest apartment building prevailed and purchased their home along the bustling U Street corridor, in a last-ditch effort to prevent tenant dislocation and keep the rich history of the storied area alive.
Senior citizens who live in the Campbell Heights Apartments purchased their 171-unit building, Wed., June 30 despite uncertainty from a handful of detractors who thought a profit was being made at their expense. For the past two and a half years, residents, with the help of District-based developer Jair Lynch, exercised their right, under the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, to buy the $26 million dollar building, after being notified that it was for sale by the current owner, AIMCO Cos., in March 2008.
"Everyone has stayed here from Fidel Castro, to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.-- Nat King Cole-- Arthur Prysock-- anyone you can think of," said Sandra Truesdale ,70, the president of the Campbell Heights Residents' Association and primary coordinator of the purchase.
"As time went on, it became a haven for entertainers in Washington D.C. All of the great entertainers stayed at the Dunbar Hotel," she said.
The building, soon to be renamed the Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments, at 2001 15th Street, Northwest, previously the site of the legendary Dunbar Hotel, which opened in 1945--was once considered one of the District's most famous African-American hotels and premiere music venues.
Initially, a few residents appeared wary of the purchase and thought Truesdale was pushing the deal forward strictly to make a profit but, most changed their minds. "You couldn't pay me to do what I did here. This is our history," Truesdale said.
Although, the original building was demolished in 1974 after it fell into disrepair, the Campbell Heights Apartments replaced the former structure -- current residents continue to keep the legacy and spirit of the Dunbar Hotel alive.
Music has been the heart beat of the building for more than 50 years and nothing has changed. This is no ordinary senior community-- residents like to let loose and listen to some straight up "Funk," Truesdale said.
"We don't just do jazz, we do the real [thing]--we don't play," she said.
Over the years the Campbell Heights Apartments has been home to its own in-house gospel choir and a venue for live performances both inside and outside of the building.
"There was a gentleman from Washington D.C. -- everyone knew him--his name was Nat Turner. So, Nat would come and perform for us as well as Jamal Muhammad, a jazz DJ at WPFW-FM," Truesdale said.
Campbell Heights, is not only a host to musical performers, but is also considered home to many a musician. Both, Gregory "Guitar player" Gaskins who jammed with Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, and the Manhattans and Bobby Robinson, a saxophone player, for the Howard Theatre House Orchestra, still live in the building.
Gaskins, 64, said he has been coming to this address since he was a small child when it was the Dunbar Hotel.
"The first entertainer I ever saw here was Fats Domino. I was a young boy. I was so excited because I never really saw a performer that close."
Gaskins said that his life has come full circle since he moved to the building five months ago.
"Living here now, brings back a lot of memories. I made the 360. I delivered newspapers here when I was a boy -- then I traveled around the world. Now, I am a retired senior citizen and I'm right back where I started."
This is a great place -- people are really friendly, he said.
Mallory Prout, 75, said he's been living in the U street area for 24 years, but didn't move into the Campbell Heights Apartments until three years ago. Prout confessed he was a bit hesitant when he first moved in, but said, his skepticism quickly faded.
"I used to pass this place all the time. I never knew it was a senior citizens home--and then one day I looked and saw all of these ladies come out. I thought it was a senior citizens home for ladies," Prout said.
"I didn't want to come in here, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I don't feel like I'm in a senior citizens place. I love my view-- where I live--the people are nice--I'm not going anywhere."
Truesdale, and her friend, Nadine Whittington, vice president of the residents' association, and long-time resident of the building, recently reflected upon all the great things that have occurred in the building over the years, including, contests, computer training programs, art shows and classes and health programs.
"I did what I would want to do myself," said Truesdale who organized the majority of the events, while president.
Both Whittington, 77, and Truesdale said one of their fondest memories included an annual competition. Residents stepped up to the plate.
"These are one bedroom apartments--every apartment has a patio. We would have contests to see who could decorate their patio the best and they got cash prizes," Truesdale said.
Lillie Baker, 77, said she used to love arranging her patio with flowers and furniture in an attempt to win the grand prize of $100. The prize money ranged from $100 to $25 dollars.
"I was the one who won $25 dollars," she said and then laughed.
Baker said that the exterior of a building can provide a clear indication about an individual's quality of life.
"The reason I came here was because of the beautification that was taking place when I would ride by," she said.
"If the outside doesn't look [good] -- well you know."
Truesdale said environment plays a crucial part in a person's overall health and well-being.
"I do not want residents to live in an environment that is depressing or [one that] isn't uplifting. One of the things that's vital when you begin to age is the environment in which you live, because a person might be on the brink of dementia and lots of other things-- sometimes even if you have taken care of yourself."
Like Baker, Ida M. Shaw, 77, a 14-year resident and research chair of the residents' association, said the sheer beauty of the building served as a selling point for her as well.
"I would ride by here almost every day. When the bus would stop on that corner, I would say [to myself]: 'I'm getting in that building--I don't know how, but I'm going in that building. This is where I really want to live,'" she recounted.
Shaw said the building employed a meticulous manager when she initially moved in, some 14 years ago, but eventually it took a turn for the worse under an AIMCO manager.
It wasn't until Truesdale received the unanimous support of residents and was elected president of the building that a change ensued. She started to revive the dilapidated building.
"Our goal is to build it back up to the way it was before. The landscaping was simply beautiful outside. We had professional landscapers at that time. The interior of the building was beautiful and it smelled good," Shaw recalled.
It appears as if the reality of the purchase hasn't fully taken hold for many residents, including Truesdale or Whittington. When they speak of the apartment building they tend to speak in past-tense, not realizing that now, with the successful purchase, that their lives will continue to be filled with the sounds of music and laughter.
"The thing that is so important that people don't understand: from conception to death, if you can keep a healthy environment for people, they can continue to be productive. We as seniors have so much to share with young people that can be helpful to them," Truesdale said.