Wisconsin Avenue, a tony street, has a row of trashy homes. What gives?

By and large, what people refer to as Northwest DC—especially the area west of Rock Creek Park—has never faced the problems of disinvestment and depopulation that plagued much of the capital city in the 1970s and 80s.  Even at that point when Washington DC was “the murder capital of America” (as it was for a good part of my childhood), the westernmost one-third of the vaguely rectangular city was stable, affluent, and safe.  The neighborhood of Glover Park—best described as “up the hill along Wisconsin Avenue NW from Georgetown”—is no exception.

Wisconsin Avenue entrance to Glover Park

The image above is standing halfway up that slope on Wisconsin Avenue NW, looking southward; the sign stating “Welcome to Glover Park” is partially visible on a triangular island of grass to the far right.  The commercial buildings in the distance are part of the core shopping district in Glover Park, where Wisconsin Avenue NW serves as the main street.  So, technically, this is the northern end of Glover Park, and, behind me from where I took the photo (to the north), one would see the next neighborhood of Cathedral Heights—the top of the hill where Washington National Cathedral presides—but neighborhood boundaries are always a little fuzzy, and Glover Park is better-known.  So I suspect a majority of  people would call the stretch of Wisconsin Avenue NW in the next few photos “Glover Park”, a minority would call it “Cathedral Heights”, and an even smaller minority would say “Observatory Circle”, another less-known neighborhood moniker for the gridded streets east side of Wisconsin, where all the photos come from.  

Even if neighborhood associations assert their boundaries, the essence of a neighborhood—what people think it entails—is nearly always fuzzier.  But then, neighborhood specifics are less important.  Whether Glover Park or Cathedral Heights or Observatory Circle, what’s interesting is the condition of the homes themselves:

block of unmaintained homes on Wisconsin Avenue

From the opposite side of Wisconsin Avenue, they don’t look too terrible.  But cross the street and view the above block from left to right:

unmaintained home on Wisconsin Avenue NW

The first home in the block isn’t falling apart, but it definitely shows signs of neglect.  The rust on the iron railing and pillars holding up that awning is considerable.  Landscape is sparse and cheap.  And the paint is almost completely stripped on one side of the upper-left dormer window.  Walking past the home and then pivoting back around shows the same home from a different angle.

All the windows in the lower levels have burglar bars.  I’ll concede that burglar bars might protect windows in even the toniest of neighborhoods; all it takes is one break-in and a homeowner is often prompted to add protection.  A single fearful homeowner with burglar bars is hardly a signal that “There goes the neighborhood” in terms of actual elevated crime, but suffice it to say, burglar bars are a much cheaper, uglier security investment than an electronic surveillance and alarm systems.  Those bars are a one-time investment; surveillance funding must continue in perpetuity.  These indicators might pass in a less affluent area, but Glover Park, Cathedral Heights, and Observatory Circle are all very comfortable.  Single-family homes like this should all be worth close to or over one million dollars, due to the desirability of the location.  Many homes will approach or exceed two million.  People care about their homes’ value, and neighbors who go decades without paint or who resort to burglar bars are going to raise ire.  There goes the neighborhood!

Returning to the series of home on this Wisconsin block, I will momentarily skip past the second home but promise to return later.  Here’s the third home.

unmaintained home on Wisconsin Avenue NW

It is considerably larger than the first and may surpass one million in value.  (I’m not going to bother to look it up; it doesn’t seem like ethical journalism to highlight the estimated value of individual homes using real estate sites.)  But the homeowner doesn’t seem to be doing a lot to help the home capitalize on the fancy neighborhood.  No landscaping whatsoever.  Window air conditioning units all over the place in a neighborhood where single family homes typically have central air.  A deteriorating gutter.  And, of course, more of those basement burglar bars.  But none of these are as bad as the condition in the back yard.  I don’t need to pivot much; only seeing a small portion of this yard from between the corners of the two homes says it all.  Maybe I just caught it on an off day, but if I didn’t, the message is clear: the people who live here let it remain a dump.

The fourth, fifth, and six houses on the block reflect a similar lack of care. 

Home number four: no landscaping, peeling paint, those tired looking awnings on the upper floors.  It also appears to be vacant, which may explain some of the neglect.

Home number five: drab and mismatched paint colors, no landscaping, and it looks like the owners stripped a front patio down to the basics.

unmaintained homes on Wisconsin Avenue NW

And home number six: a facsimile of home number four architecturally, but in even greater need of a paint job.

That wraparound front porch is a real eyesore: missing balusters, paint dangling from the ceiling, dead plants hanging from the windows. It has the potential to be a genuinely nice-looking house.

Approaching the end of the row of houses within that one block, the home number seven looks a fair amount better: the paint job is fine, the front stores aren’t decaying, the porch is tastefully tidy.  And it has landscaping.

Sure, it’s weird to see fake Halloween cobwebs int the shrubbery in February, or maybe it’s waterlogged toilet paper?  And the roof could use a little work.  But it’s in at least adequate condition.  But it is an exception, and it is still below the usual standard for the neighborhood.

I’ll concede that the photos in and of themselves don’t easily manifest the deterioration.  Zooming in is often necessary.  And, within the context of American housing across neighborhoods of all income strata, these would probably rate a 5 out of 10.  They’re not terrible.  But homeowners in Glover Park and certainly Cathedral Heights generally maintain their properties impeccably.  This is Wisconsin Avenue NW after all—about as far removed from the ghetto as one can get, within the District boundaries.  As It’s the spine linking some of Washington DC’s most fashionable mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods—the neighborhood that never declined even when DC was at its population nadir.  It isn’t as high-profile as Pennsylvania Avenue (with the White House and Embassy Row), nor as lengthy as Massachusetts Avenue (which nearly covers the full breath of the District).  Nor is it as trendy as Connecticut Avenue (the primary entertainment corridor for Dupont Circle), nor as aesthetically scaled as Rhode Island Avenue (the most thoughtful and consistent use of street-tree canopy in the city).  The New England States get pretty impressive representation in the District; no surprise, since four of them are among the original Thirteen Colonies.

Wisconsin Avenue NW, meanwhile, has a southern terminus in buzzy Georgetown; its original name was “High Street” when Georgetown was a discrete, pre-colonial fishing village not yet incorporated into the District.  And, for quite a few blocks within Georgetown, it serves as the primary north-south commercial corridor, intersecting prominently with M Street NW, its east-west commercial counterpart.  I covered some innovative al fresco dining approaches along the southernmost portion of Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown several months ago.  Wisconsin Avenue NW extends (and ascends, gradually but extensively) northward, with regular commercial nodes that indicate the former sites of stops on the old streetcar line: Glover Park is the first major one, then Cathedral Heights, McLean Gardens, Tenleytown, and Friendship Heights that straddles that DC/Maryland boundary.  Wisconsin Avenue then reaches further into some of the most prestigious Maryland suburbs like Bethesda, as it renames itself Rockville Pike.

Returning to the block in question on Wisconsin Avenue NW at the northern end of Glover Park, I singled out seven different houses that were unusually shabby given the otherwise pristine state of the neighborhood.  My initial speculation—especially after my scrutiny proved at least one of the homes was vacant—was that this block was an example of “land banking” that I first covered many years ago, where a person with large-scale development interests gradually purchases a series of contiguous smaller properties, sits on the properties with no improvements, then runs them to the ground to incentivize the remaining property owners to sell.  Once the development team has purchased all contiguous properties, it can raze the deteriorated buildings and construct something bigger and better.  This strategy often helps explain why otherwise high-value areas might manifest a series of poorly maintained properties all in a row.  It would make sense for this area in Glover Park; after all, the opposite side of the street offers a series mid-rise apartment and condo buildings, which is much higher value than single-family detached homes.

But that’s not the case with these tawdry homes along Wisconsin Avenue NW.  The secret is in that one holdout property.  Recall that I initially skipped past that second home but promised to return to it later.  Well, here it is.

Perfectly tidy and cute as a button.  It’s got nice landscaping, a well-maintained front yard, a perfect roof, and not a single missing shutter.  Compared to all the other homes on this block, it looks terrific, and especially that flophouse neighbor with all the trash in the back yard.

But why should this homeowner bother investing so much into appearances, when clearly none of his or her neighbors are willing to offer similar levels of upkeep?  Doesn’t this homeowner see the writing on the wall—that the others are looking to sell so the whole block can be turned into luxury multifamily buildings?

Well, it’s not that simple; a sign on the front door of 2721 Wisconsin Avenue NW reveals the actual condition of this smart little home.

Both the front and side entrances have foreboding signage: no trespassing whatsoever.  Come to think of it, the windows all look deliberately obscured, like there’s more than just curtains blocking any views to the inside.  The yellow-painted curb is weird too.  It’s usually an indicator that on-street parking along the curb is prohibited, but why would a private homeowner need to do this?  What’s going on here?

As attractive as this little colonial might appear, it’s not a home.  The commercial real estate sites contain virtually no information on it; beyond from digging into tax assessment data, the best I can find is that it is “Government Public Use General” and is “Not for Sale”.  This property at 2721 Wisconsin Avenue NW is a hollow shell containing a public utility: probably either an electric substation or a switching station for a cellular/wireless company.  Though it probably housed a family at one time, the primary use changed decades ago and now it merely shields the eyes from a semi-industrial use inside.

Compare this “home” to its unkempt neighbors, and it all makes more sense.  (I’ll confess that it helps that I ran into a long-time Glover Park resident who clued me in, but I speculated on the quirks of this tidy pseudo-home.  She indicated I was right.)  This one modest brick structure proffers a land use of greater significance than any single-family residence, and it almost ensures that the other homes nearby are not, in fact, waiting to get demolished for a new mega-condo structure.  They’ll remain homes for quite some time.  The shell home in these final photos (House #2 on the block) belongs to a utility network servicing these affluent neighborhoods, much akin to the fake “schoolhouse” I explored in the upscale Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia a few months ago, where the “school” disguised a Verizon switching station.  No wonder the utility don’t want anyone coming near the place—either Chestnut Hill or Glover Park.  The inside of these buildings is quite possibly dangerous.

What, then, explains the condition of all those other houses on the block?  The long-time Glover Park resident explained to me these homes have always looked like this; the owners are out-of-state and lease the properties to students at one of the nearby universities, most likely either Georgetown or American.  Thus, the block offers the telltale indicators of a student ghetto: lack of landscaping, a desperate need of a new coat of paint, neglected adornments (railings, canopies, balusters, shutters), window A/C units in every room, and—of course—dumpy furniture on the front porch.  The property owners probably face ire within the community, but the fact that Wisconsin Avenue is a busy, largely commercial street probably quells the tempers of neighbors far more than if these conditions had existed on a quiet residential side street.

Thus, a single block serves as a microcosm for various competing land uses and socioeconomic forces, all coming to play in an area where the pieces visibly don’t all fit together.  But, after such a thorough assessment, why should I have been surprised?  The only thing missing is a pair of laced shoes flung up onto the telephone wires.  But then, this area mostly has underground cables.  It’s Wisconsin Avenue, after all—pretty high-class for the most part.

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