Barry Farms yesterday, today & tomorrow: Reflections of a former resident

Michael Turner (early 1950s)

As a former resident and person who came of age in Barry Farms, my heart is torn over its fate. 

There is a debate over whether it should be torn down and replaced with market-rate housing, with “consideration” given to former residents. Before getting into this hot-button issue, let’s look at the history of “The Farms.”

Yes, there was actually a farm on this land owned by the Barry family for generations. As I understand, the farm was purchased by the Freedmen’s Bureau, to be settled by former slaves after emancipation in 1867. So, for over 140 years, this parcel of land has been an African American community. 

 In 1943 the land was used to build 444 units of public housing, which leads us to today’s questions. 

Has it outlived its stated purpose? Is it worth saving in something like its present form? If not, what should be built there, and who should morally have the right of first refusal to live there moving forward? 

Let me tell about my experience there as well as the experience of others whose families lived and prospered there, leading to very different outcomes compared with some of today’s dwellers. 

Stevens Road and the other streets are named after Civil War generals and abolitionist politicians. 1304 Stevens Road means everything to me. It’s the place of my happiest memories as a child. 

Barry Farm public housing, 2018. Several boarded-up units on Stevens Road, which was named after Thaddeus Stevens, an abolitionist and member of Congress during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. The same street, Stevens Road, is shown at the top in a photo from the early 1950s, courtesy of Michael Turner.

Back then, it seemed huge. Since it was still basically new, there were few mature trees. You could see right to the river and beyond, with breathtaking panoramic views of downtown. This was before Bolling Air Force Base was expanded or the construction of the 295 interstate. On the Fourth of July, the hundreds of families just stood in the middle of the streets to take in the fireworks. The effect was unbelievable. 

The “new” Birney Elementary School had just been built, giving parents a chance to give their children something most of them never had: the ability to walk to a neighborhood school. I had heard many stories from my mom and others of her generation about having to walk and ride by schools not designated for them, and the hurt and anger it caused. We had our own brand-new school. 

One of the things I noticed on a recent visit — yes, from time to time I ride through to connect with my past and heritage — was the absence of fathers. Most of the families I remembered had a male head of the house, which is a rarity with today’s residents. Having a two-parent household seems to have made advancement much more possible. In my opinion, public housing was meant to be only a stop along the way to self-sufficiency, not a destination. 

My family and others not only survived, but prospered. I have no official data, but this I can say without a doubt: Almost 100 percent of the members of my parents’ unique social club left Barry Farms and purchased their own homes, with many, such as my parents sending their children to parochial schools around the city.  

We left in 1958, when my dad, who worked as a janitor, saved enough to buy my family’s current home on what’s now Capitol Hill, for the then-princely sum of $8,000. And to think my dad never made more than a couple of bucks per hour, and today houses near “our” house sell for north of $600,000.  

Remember, there was no Section 8, food stamps or programs resembling today’s government efforts. We were never on public assistance that I am aware of, we all just had hard-working parents. My mom went back to school there, eventually joining me at the same college years later. Boy, was I proud of her, and it sometimes led to uncomfortable moments.  

The Barry Farm public housing community in 2018. An alley that separates Barry Farm and the St. Elizabeths campus. Approximately 20 yards back from the stone wall is a perimeter fence surrounding the U.S. Department of Homeland Security buildings. Photo by Wendell Williams

All of my siblings except one went on to college and became homeowners. One even became a U.S. Park Police officer, then a social worker. Their children all went to college, one rising to the rank of Captain in the D.C. Fire Department. This is typical of the stories of most of the early residents. All this was made possible by the opportunities and support received by living in affordable housing at Barry Farms years ago. 

Today it’s an eyesore and has outlived its usefulness. Only one or two units are occupied per row. Back then, all 444 units were full of life and possibilities.

On one recent visit, I couldn’t even get out of my car before dealers were trying to sell me some of the many substances they were marketing. Another occasion I was stopped, cuffed, put face-down on the ground and searched while leaving, because of my Virginia tags. That is not a sign of a healthy ecosystem. 

Since my parents and my older siblings have passed, I am not really sure when we moved in. Based on old photos and talking to old friends, I’d say we got there around 1951-52. What I do know for sure is I started kindergarten at Birney in ’55 with my first friend, Michael Turner. Even when our lives took different paths, I never stopped thinking and wondering about him. We finally reconnected recently. Today when our families see one another, we laugh and talk about how Michael and I came home to use the bathroom on the first day of school because we didn’t know that there were bathrooms at the school. We felt so safe back then in the “Farms” that not only did we walk to school each day, but we came home for lunch as well. Now, who remembers that? It was truly a village that raised and watched out for its children. No one filled us with the fear that today’s parents rightfully have instilled in their kids. I remember loading our little red wagons to go “camping” along Suitland Parkway to the famous “Three pear trees in a row” and walking all the way down to Good Hope Road for a double feature, at the Anacostia movie theater, after stopping at the five and dime. And we did all this as 5- to 7-year olds. Crime was not a major issue then and as far as we knew there were no drugs or the social ills now associated with them. As Archie Bunker used to sing, “those were the days.” 

Barry Farms today is the badlands of D.C., sorely in need of demolishing. Once, I felt we should just do away with the place. I couldn’t see any future use that would benefit lower-income residents. But going over my story had me thinking that, done the right way, it can do for today’s families what it did for mine. Keep in mind, this parcel of land is a developer’s dream — with Homeland Security, the expanded Bolling base and Metro nearby, and breathtaking views of the city. But this piece of land historically belongs to African Americans by virtue of the U.S. government’s 1867 agreement to the freed slaves. To turn in another direction is a slap in the face of generations who suffered. I don’t know what the solution is or should be, but it isn’t gentrification. This is holy land for African Americans. 

Wendell Williams (left) and his friend Michael Turner revisit their childhood community. Photo courtesy of Wendell Williams

Issues |Housing

Region |Barry Farm

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