In late summer of 2001, a few citizens from the lower part of Eckington got together with the goal of forming a civic organization. We thought both longstanding problems and nascent issues of the community could be addressed more quickly and effectively if the people they affected most directly – Eckingtonians – were involved in identifying and implementing solutions.

Real estate prices were skyrocketing, city coffers were flush, and atypical families and individuals were buying homes and moving into the area. Some were in it for the long haul, others hoped to cash out within a relatively short period. For awhile it seemed like Eckington might experience the sort of overnight transformation other DC neighborhoods had undergone. We wanted to preserve the positive features of Eckington and eliminate (or at least mitigate) the negative aspects – and in the process, avoid the predictable schisms between “newcomers” and longstanding residents. The trouble was (and, often, still is) that not everyone agreed on what those positives and negatives were – and what priority each should have.

We chose to resurrect the dormant Eckington Improvement Association. Though quaint sounding, we wanted the name to reflect the character of our turn-of-the-century neighborhood (1900, not 2000) and its historical legacy. A well-established, intimate community composed almost entirely of modest single-family rowhouses, we hoped to stay that way. We wanted to avoid pretense or affectation – or anything else that could be exploited to provoke conflict between “gentrifiers” and existing residents. We believed a practical definition of “improvement” would evolve if our community were truly inclusive and committed to collaborative effort.

With limited resources, at first we welcomed – but did not actively recruit  – members from the upper part of Eckington (north of T Street). We understood that some residents from those blocks had been participating in the Edgewood Civic Association for some time. When Edgewood Civic Association was formed in the 1950s, it claimed both the Edgewood and Eckington neighborhoods. However, it seemed to most of us that the distinct needs of the two “E” neighborhoods would be best served if, eventually, each had its own community association.

The path was not entirely smooth. Though EIA got off to a good start, it never garnered enough members to reach critical mass. By the end of 2002 it was limping along. Resurrected in 2003 under new leadership as the Eckington Civic Association, it aimed to serve all of Eckington from the outset. In August of that year, the group made a great leap forward when former resident Joan Willoughby established a listserv and volunteered to moderate it.

The listserv, at first restricted to individuals who lived/worked in Eckington, grew steadily. Operating in parallel to the the Eckington Civic Association, it worked to informally complement the organization. However, then – as now – official proceedings only occurred during monthly ECA meetings.

Slowly, the organization also grew. Though on the listserv (now open to non-residents) discussions periodically got fiery, differences were resolved with no rancor to speak of – until the battle over housing facilities slated to be built in the heart of Eckington on land owned by St. Martin’s of Tours, a Catholic church just over the line in Bloomingdale.

Originally, St. Martin’s had proposed a modest project, which was already funded and did not require a zoning change or taxpayer support. With real estate – and rents – spiralling upward, a larger, more expensive development was planned. The revised project was to house about the same number of people, but would consist of large apartment blocks rather than rowhouses. Instead of being for families with “very low income”, it would be “workforce” housing aimed toward single people, couples, and smaller families. Also, a significant number of square feet would be provided for common use areas. At the time, funding had not yet been obtained.

Church leadership gained the endorsement of the Edgewood Civic Association early on, but not of the proposed development’s immediate neighbors. And ECA had not been approached. With the church stating the community was solidly behind its project, the period was confusing and fractious.

Not everyone understood that as private organizations, community organizations need not conform to official neighborhood boundaries recognized by the city; they can establish any borders they like. The Edgewood Civic Association asserted the St. Martin’s development fell under its domain. To bolster its claim, the Edgewood Civic Association cited its non-profit charter and membership in the Federation of Civic Associations, which recognizes only one community group per neighborhood. Though still unchartered, ECA felt it more closely reflected the views of the Eckington community, regardless of external affiliations.

In the past, competition between the two organizations had been resolved amicably. A year or so before, Fairfield Development Corporation planned to acquire CSX-owned land near Eckington Yard and construct a large condo project with extensive retail space. To obtain a the necessary zoning variance, it sought endorsement from lower Eckington, the nearest neighbors. After negotiating a respectable concession package, including $10,000 for itself, ECA voted to support the PUD. Later, an additional $10,000 was added for Edgewood Civic Association – an award which confused some newer residents who didn’t understand what connection Edgewood had to a project on the far edge of Eckington.

(Eventually, the “Fairfield project” – officially Eckington One – was acquired by Trammel Crow. A series of modifications reduced the total amount of residential space and drastically scaled back other elements. Proposed retail space, initially meant to be 15,000 s.f., shrunk to a mere 1,000 s.f. The number of planned below-market units and parking spaces was also significantly reduced, and a few other components were changed or scrapped altogether. Among the casualties was a planned Q Street access point for the Metropolitan Branch Trail. Progress on the Trail continued, but the project stalled during the nationwide market slowdown. Instead of constructing an access point as planned, the developer ended up contributing an equivalent amount to a general fund. Of the remaining concessions granted, some have been fulfilled, others have not. The last anticipated start date publically announced for this project was the second quarter of 2009. Conveyed with all legal appurtenances, the proposed development survives – at least on paper – today as Alexan NoMa West).

Meanwhile . . .

A lengthy, bitter disagreement ensued over the zoning variance requested by St. Martin’s. Professionals were engaged to champion the development. A number of community members objected vociferously, citing various concerns. Proponents said those residents feared affordable housing would tank their property values. The “G” word was whispered. Opponents felt unfairly denigrated. Some accused church membership, heavily populated by suburbanites, of hypocrisy. St. Martin’s insisted its project was needed to counter displacement of hardworking residents. Local – and even a few national – media outlets portrayed the issue in strictly black and white terms (sometimes literally). A few residents, by now a bit testy, pegged the whole ugly brawl as calculated and reckoned a pile of money stood to be made on it. Most of ECA’s leadership supported the project, and eventually the organization endorsed it.

When the dust settled, St. Martin’s received approval to proceed with the project. The project, now a joint partnership with the Department of Housing and Community Development, the DC Housing Authority, Catholic Charities, and St. Martin’s, is extolled as “the largest affordable housing project in DC”. As of September 2010, the most recent published photos are in a January 2010 City Paper article. However, apparently the complex  – now “The Summit at St. Martin’s” – is essentially complete since these “brand new affordable luxury apartments” apartments are currently being advertised.

The two rival community associations – who, disconcertingly, share the same initials – never actually quarreled. They continue to compete for Eckington members to this day. Both are recognized by the city and the general public; neither has any sort of government affiliation. Eckington residents are welcome to participate in either – or both.

During the post-St. Martin’s lull, while community members licked their wounds and recovered from battle fatigue, the organization underwent another leadership change. During the process all preliminary work toward drafting a mission statement and by-laws was lost.

Sitting majestically atop the hill that Eckington is draped around, the architecturally beautiful McKinley High School building has dominated the Eckington landscape since it was erected in 1926. Offering special courses not taught at other DC schools, “Tech” attracted students from every Ward. Graduates of the original McKinley Tech consistently praise not only the education they received, but the lifelong friendships and associations they forged studying alongside a diverse body of students. Closed in 1997, McKinley sat idle for a time, its fate uncertain. In 2000, the decision was made to essentially resurrect the school. After numerous delays, the renovated and modernized McKinley Technology High School finally opened for grades 9 and 10 in 2004. Grades 10 and 11 were added in 2006.