Community

Congress Heights Residents at Cultural Crossroads

Like many of his constituents, 8C Advisory Neighborhood Commission Chairperson Mike Austin spent much of Saturday out and about on a slowly developing stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue during the Congress Heights Day Parade, and the Art All Night festivities that took place later that evening.

For several hours, the sights and sounds of a middle school marching band, EU featuring Sugar Bear, Black Alley, street artists, and Black vendors selling a bevy of wares served as friendly reminders of Congress Heights’ appeal as one of the District’s last bastions of highly concentrated indigenous Black D.C. culture.

“I appreciate the gems we have here,” said Austin, a fourth-generation Washingtonian who represents ANC Single-Member District 8C01, which includes RISE Demonstration Center. He said his policy goals involve increasing Congress Heights residents’ awareness about professional development opportunities, including those available at the University of the District of Columbia’s workforce development site at 3100 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

Austin also revealed his intentions to attract more proximate social services and addiction resources for residents hesitant about traveling on the other side of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. When it comes to the impending development on St. Elizabeths East Campus, Austin expressed a desire to lobby for the passage of D.C. Council legislation that would ensure housing affordability on those grounds.

For ANC 8C’s lead commissioner, beautification also serves as a priority. Streetlights on the outskirts of Shepherd Park, located on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard, would put residents concerned about illicit activity in that area more at ease. As commerce continues to expand along the 3100 and 3200 blocks of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, Austin said the crumbling sidewalks must also reflect the much-anticipated changes.

“We don’t have the same level [of development] as H Street or Tenleytown, but we have culture and that’s what makes our neck of the woods better if I’m being honest,” Austin continued as he reflected on the events of Sept. 15. “This is literally the last frontier of the city. People were able to support their own, and it was such a sight.”

Congress Heights residents, as well as those from other pockets of Ward 8, have also coalesced in times of tragedy, the most recent of which transpired the night before Congress Heights Day. On Friday, three youths on the 300 block of Parkland Place in Southeast suffered gunshot wounds.

Weeks earlier, an audit conducted by the D.C. Office of the Inspector General, at Austin’s request, determined a significant misappropriation of $40,000 while former ANC 8C Chair Mary Cuthbert sat at the helm. As part of an effort to regain public trust, commissioners announced the launch of a website that would include meeting minutes, an update to bylaws for greater security, and the allocation of grants awarded to ANC 8C for community programming.

Congress Heights, home to more than 14,000 people, had been designated by Destination Congress Heights as the most economically diverse neighborhood east of the Anacostia River and Ward 8’s largest commercial district.

By the late 2000s, at least $455 million worth of development projects had been underway, including the St. Elizabeths West Campus, THEARC, the Southeast Tennis & Learning Center and the area surrounding Congress Heights Metro Station. On average, 40 people attend monthly ANC 8C meetings where discussion about these developments usually occur. Since the installment of new commissioners, an executive assistant has called residents to encourage their participation.

For D.C. native and Congress Heights resident Brenda Jones, improving the quality of life for her neighbors remains an all-hands-on-deck effort and must be treated as such.

“I would like to see more unity and respect, and people to be friendlier,” said Jones, one of several participants at a recent meeting of the minds at Busboys and Poets in Anacostia. “If people are seen as unified, young people would respect adults and protect their community. It would be good for the community. It would help everyone for the better. We can’t depend on the government. Each resident can [help the community] with action.”

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