Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Lost Connections of the Friendship House

At 619 D St SE, the Maples condos are now selling for between $400,000 and $1.65 million. From 1936 to 2008, the Friendship House provided social services at that site. In 2008, the Friendship House closed due to bankruptcy.

The Friendship House was a settlement house. Settlement houses, like Hull House in Chicago run by Jane Addams, were set up integrate immigrants, help reduce poverty, and advocate for political change. African Americans also established settlement houses to help African Americans migrating from the South to large cities. At the GWU Special Collections, I have been reading the letters, reports, and records of the Friendship House. It quickly became apparent to me the immense loss our community has experienced.

The Friendship House was a place that helped organize the poor to advocate for themselves and create community. The Civil Rights Act and the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 provided funding to Community Action Agencies like the United Planning Organization and the Friendship House to fight poverty by empowering the poor.

During one three-month period in 1982, Friendship House had distributed 6,175 flyers, pamphlets, and newsletters (about resident council meetings, jobs, school activities, bingo nights, etc; usually distributed door-to-door allowing them to know personally many Hill residents); connected 150 residents with resources; assisted 33 renters or owners; advocated for city-wide policy changes; organized public housing meetings and a disco to fund public housing resident councils; helped people get jobs; dispensed clothes; gave out emergency food assistance; enrolled 84 families in a food cooperative; organized parents to improve the public schools; provided a breathtaking array of youth activities; provided seniors with meals and services (including visiting them in the hospital); and more (GWU Special Collections, Friendship House Association records). They organized public housing residents into resident councils to advocate for repairs and security, formed food cooperatives and low-cost food buying clubs, and organized residents as consumers to work to improve the Safeway and call for lower utility bills. The CQ Research reported in 1998:
What's a kid to do after school or during summer vacation when Mom and Dad have to work? There are plenty of answers for those participating in the DCKids program at Friendship House in Washington, D.C., one of Washington's oldest social-service agencies. They can take guitar lessons, learn how to resolve conflicts peacefully, talk about African-American history, write a play about drug abuse and violence, or visit one of the Smithsonian Institution museums.
They also worked with organizations across Ward 6 and the city. Now, the poor have been displaced from their homes, especially with the closing of the Ellen Wilson, Arthur Capper, and Carrollsburg public housing projects, where the Friendship House worked regularly. At the same time, according to the Census, poverty has remained at 20% over the past 30 years in Ward 6. Middle- and upper-income residents have benefited from the work that the Friendship House did. An immense network has been ripped out of Ward 6 with little left to replace it. With the end of Friendship House, who is left to empower the poor?

The historic significance of Friendship House should be a concern for the Capitol Hill Restoration Society and the Historic Preservation Review Board: "Historic preservation safeguards the District of Columbia’s cultural heritage, supports the local economy, and fosters civic pride in the city’s beauty and history." From a Hill Rag article about the closing of the Friendship House:
Nancy Metzger, Chair of the Historic Preservation Committee of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, the community gatekeeper for Hill historical preservation, says she is glad that the property has been purchased and hopes that long overdue repairs might be initiated. Metzger expressed concern that the continuing neglect and unabated damage of the last years might be its permanent undoing. “I understand water has gotten in. It has been neglected. The roof needs to be addressed,” Metzger lamented. There are also concerns that faulty electrical wiring expose it to the strong possibility of fire. “We want it to be restored and brought back to the community in some way.”

Is bringing the building "back to the community" done by selling it as high-end condos? Wasn't the Friendship House long part of the community? It is sad that it ended this way. In 1973, the Friendship House became part of the Capitol East Housing Coalition "to try to help low and middle income people remain in their Capitol Hill maintain the economic and racial mix which now exists in the Capitol East area." They were formed "in response to the massive restoration of homes which is taking place in Capitol East, and which threatens to transform Capitol Hill into another Georgetown" (GWU Special Collections, Friendship House Association records). Now, the Friendship House is gone, and the building belongs to those who can pay $1.65 million.

P.S. Any updates on the Friendship House from those who worked there would be especially welcomed.

P.P.S. In what ways have you seen or experienced the disappearance of the Friendship House?

1 comment:

  1. It's nice to say Save the Maples, but the Friendship House organization is not able to save itself due to internal and financial problems.


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