Ivy City Fights To Preserve The Crummell School Legacy

By Jeffrey Anderson


Artist and activist Lawrence Walker II (AKA Natural Dizasta) raps with ferocity through a pair of DJ speakers on Central Avenue in Northeast on Saturday, as a gathering of Ivy City denizens sit a half block away in lawn chairs around a small grill in front of the apartment where Edith Glasco lives.

Green is the color of ivy
of unity, family and friends rooted growing beside me
Community is at the heart of everywhere I been
Crummel is the heart of the Ivy.

Rising above this gathering, at the corner on Gallaudet Street, is The Crummell School, a boarded-up Elizabethan Revival building and monument to the legacy of Reverend  Doctor Alexander Crummell, abolitionist, educator and spiritual leader of the 19th century, that is at once historic and endangered, neglected and full of soul.

In Nineteen eleven it planted roots for IVYs own youth
residing,
Doors open, the working class city is thriving
with a place to grow, place hope and pride in

Two square miles of vibrance – shining

People of the sun out smiling

As Walker, of arts-activism group The Sanctuaries spits out rhymes, a commercial sized grill is kicking out burgers and dogs. Across the street there’s a tent and a photographic display of the history of this consecrated neighborhood; nearby, an inflatable bounce house bobs with the energy of small bodies jumping around inside.

Green is the color of Ivy still climbing,
still fighting, holdin’ on tight survivin’
Crummell stands as a historic monument,
And must be restored for kids to play outside in

Glasco is relaxing under a shade tree eating blue Italian ice from a styrofoam cup. She is surrounded by new neighbors and old friends. There is food and beer, and the mood is light. It will be a year since she moved back to Ivy City, she says, after many years of living in Southeast, Northeast, and in Durham, North Carolina. “My husband passed and I came back to D.C. four years ago, because I couldn’t afford the house,” Glasco says. “I lived with my sister, stayed in the shelter, and now I’m here.”

Others gathered around have come back to Ivy City from Maryland in support of a community-based effort to develop the Crummell School site into something more than the condo-retail plans that typically derive from politically connected commercial developers.

At stake is a 99-year ground lease on the surrounding area that Mayor Muriel Bowser has asked the D.C. Council to declare as surplus property, or, “no longer needed for public use.”

Several entities bid on the project. Bowser chose the plan proposed by a venture that consists of The Jarvis Company, run by lawyer-lobbyist-developer Bill Jarvis; ProFish, a premium seafood company and operator of Ivy City Smokehouse; and Stonebridge Carras.

In choosing the more influential venture, Bowser passed over a community-backed plan spearheaded by grassroots organizers Empower DC, with Ivy City youth taking on leadership roles, and WC Smith, a well-connected development firm in its own right.

Though Bowser selects the development proposal–ostensibly after a good faith competitive bidding process–the D.C. Council must approve of “surplusing”  the land. It’s a classic example of a traditional commercial approach that features density and market rate housing, versus an approach rooted in “critical public uses” such as health, education, child care, professional development, open space, arts, recreation and affordable housing.

At the center of the debate rests a shuttered but stately historic building that Ivy City residents hold sacred. That’s what brought Marlene Savage out today: “We grew up here, went to school here. There wasn’t anywhere else to hang out. It was our saving grace.”

Savage lives in Bowie, but she like many others feel vested in Ivy City’s future. Empower DC has collected hundreds of signatures of citizens and residents who would like more of a say in that future. “I used to work for the Summer Youth Employment Program, and I know what it’s like to fight for the community,” she says. “People pay taxes and we need a place for the children. The community has to speak up. No one can advocate like the people of the community.”

Green got the city ready to sell out commons
for private profits – sounds like nonsense — and it is
stand for crummel – stand for the kids
Tell the district people must get something out of this
Development – can’t only benefit the filthy rich
Green represent IVYS that won’t leave cause
Green represent roots that go down deep

Tricia Kent is here as Glasco’s guest. A longtime supporter of the effort to preserve Crummell, she was among more than 40 people who testified at a joint  Council committee hearing last week headed by Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh and Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who represents Ivy City and its neighbor, Trinidad.

Just one person testified in support of The Jarvis Company’s plan, along with Jarvis and his development partners. Yet at times it seemed as if the community was destined to beg for a measly splash park and hoops court, as Cheh and McDuffie tried cautiously to wrap their heads around what is happening.

A voice of dissent resonated. “The main hurdle is the challenge, the struggle to get the support of the city,” says Kent. “They [the Council] might have turned around. It’s just about them wanting to do something that the community wants. Seems like they should have more of a reason to do something different from what the people really want.”

Enjoying the sounds of James Brown and Maceo Parker blaring from the DJ speakers, and old-school residents dancing in the street, District Dig asks if McDuffie has been by on this scorching Saturday. “Yeah he was here,” says one of Glasco’s neighbors. “He walked right past.”

“When, I didn’t see him,” asks another. “Was he wearin’ a disguise?”

The group busts up laughing.

McDuffie had in fact come by earlier in the day. Organizers say he talked with residents, checked out the historical displays, and picked up a custom-made Crummell School T-shirt. A couple days later, McDuffie invited The Dig to walk the neighborhood and discuss its prospects.

McDuffie says he’s interested in opening up more green space and taking a closer look at the award process to ensure it was fair. “They [Empower DC] clearly put a lot of thought into their proposal. It’s very grassroots oriented and very creative,” he says, highlighting the youth leadership role. “I’m not sure about the current project, or whether they’ll have to start over or not.”

At the same time, McDuffie says that it appears the city in making its award gave significant weight to the community benefit aspects of The Jarvis Company’s bid. Yet he also acknowledged that residents can be skeptical. Asked how to reconcile the community’s concerns, he says, “It’s hard to do that unless you deliver for the residents.”

Experienced developers tell The Dig that the competitive bid process is for show, to let voters think the community has had a seat at the table when major tracts of public land are being disposed of. Which makes the Council the last line of defense.

“It’s a fake process to show that the Mayor is trying to play above board,” says a local developer. “These decisions are mandated by the Mayor and she has the absolute right to award public land and projects to whatever developer she wants. Sole discretion.”

It’s hardly what Alexander Crummell would’ve wanted, says Berlin Dean, a longtime resident of nearby Trinidad. A private property inspector, Dean has a passion for African American history. He says Crummell went on a fundraising mission in the 1840s to England, where he lectured on the subject of slavery in America, and explored the concepts of pan-Africanism at Cambridge.

Crummell later moved to Liberia, in 1853, and served as a parish rector, college professor and proponent of Liberian nationalism, Christianity and the civilization of Africa by empowered blacks from around the world. He returned to the United States in 1872, and founded St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, the first black Episcopal church in D.C., in 1875.

In honor of a life devoted to uplifting black people in America and abroad, the city affixed his name to the schoolhouse, built in 1911. Having closed down for school purposes in the 1970s, serving as a civic center for a working class neighborhood until the 1980s, and resting idle during some of the city’s most violent years thereafter, Crummell school is more than a building to be repurposed, Dean says. It’s the heart of a community.

“He was a mentor to W.E.B. Dubois,” says Dean. “You have a visionary who planted seeds. He had a direct connection with an ancestry in Africa. DuBois was a young man when Crummell blazed his trail, you get me? Crummell School is the perfect place to show his ideas.”

Dean has had the opportunity to talk with McDuffie, he says, about the historical and spiritual significance embodied in the omnipresent building down the block.

“You think he was listening?” The Dig asks. “Yes,” Dean  says. “I think he’s changing his posture a little, when he starts talking about experiences of his childhood that are parallel to these folks. I don’t know what other people think, but I do think he’s listening.”

We read the future by the past
Stand for the city – Ivy always grow back
You can check // the record go back
Stand for Crummel – Ivy always grow back

 

*This story has been corrected. Just one person testified in support of Jarvis’ plan, not a half dozen, as The Dig first reported. We regret the error.


Lyrics from the song “Green Is For Ivy” courtesy of Lawrence Walker II, AKA Natural Dizasta. Walker created the song as a fellow in The Sanctuaries Collective.
Photograph by Jeffrey Anderson

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Categories: Culture