MS. REBECCA SHEIR
I'm Rebecca Sheir. Welcome back to "Metro Connection." Today our theme is Homegrown D.C. And the next place we're going to head is the intersection of 21st Street Northeast and Benning Road. That's where you'll find Langston Terrace, the District's first public housing project. When it opened in the spring of 1938, 2,500 families applied to move in. That's nearly 10 times the number of homes that were available at the time. Now, on its 75th anniversary, Emily Berman takes us back to the early days of Langston Terrace to learn why its construction was such an important moment for Washington.
MS. EMILY BERMAN
Back when she was a young girl, Eloise Greenfield used to spend a lot of time on the Langston playground. She liked to look at the stone sculptures of animals. Her favorite was the frog.
MS. ELOISE LITTLE GREENFIELD
You could sit on the frog's head and you could see the Washington Monument. You could see all over the city.
The frog and Langston Terrace, all the buildings that surround it, were commissioned in the mid 1930s by the Public Works Administration, part of Roosevelt's New Deal. Greenfield's family was one of the 274 selected to live there and she moved in on her ninth birthday, May 17, 1938. Her new home was a brick row house, like many others she'd lived in before.
The major difference was that it was just our family living there. Whereas before we had been sharing houses with other families.
MS. KELLY QUINN
The families who moved in here maybe hailed originally from North Carolina, parts of rural Virginia, some were native Washingtonians.
Kelly Quinn is a historian at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. And as we walk around Langston, she explains how in the early 20th century the District had a housing shortage. Thousands of African-American families had moved here to work for the federal government.
Some worked as elevator operators, janitors, messengers, clerks. Remember that in the 1930s, having a government job for African-Americans was really a sign of status and success.
Not only the designers, but the bricklayers and tradesmen were all pretty much African-American.
It wasn't that the federal government was benevolent and said, oh, we want to hire these black architects. It's that black intellectuals lobbied for placement in these kinds of jobs in the federal government projects that were being designed specifically for African-Americans.
Hilyard Robinson, the architect of Langston, was a native Washingtonian and had been studying architecture all over the world. He drew his inspiration for Langston from public housing in Europe. The buildings, which are still occupied to this day, take up one city block, called a super block in urban planning speak, with low-rise apartment buildings along the perimeter and cubic two-story row houses in the center, all surrounding a big courtyard.
One of the things I think that is so beautiful about Langston is the color of the buildings. And so that that's two-toned brick, a darker brown at the base, and then a buff brick at the top.
Residents have said the bricks look like stacks of butter, but there's also a lot of concrete in the complex, which is long-lasting, easy to maintain and actually, Quinn says, quite expensive.
The government invested well in these projects because they were building high-quality buildings that were using supplies that would help stimulate the economy.
Pathways connected rows of houses, letting neighbors walk to the library, to the rec center and to school without ever crossing a city street. And for kids, it was pretty much a paradise.
MS. BARBARA WATKINS HAGANS
I've always remembered Langston. If I had a dream, sometime I would dream about Langston. My name is Barbara Watkins Hagans. And my parents first moved into Langston in 1948 and I was two years old.
Hagans' house, she recalls, was on the inside court facing the playground.
The girls would do Double Dutch and the boys--what can I say? They would be playing the ball and our mothers would be talking.
Hagans lived in Langston until she was a sophomore at Howard University.
I do remember all the doors were painted blue and everyone had little red lawn mowers. Even though it was not our property, we treated it as it was. And we did occasionally hear the word project. And then we would wonder, what is a project? Because we, you know, we felt that we were rich as children, because our parents never told us.
As we walk away from Langston, Kelly Quinn stops in front of a concrete water fountain built into the base of a graceful staircase entrance to the block.
And to think about water fountains as really a symbol of segregation. And so for black families who had come from the South, where they would have seen regularly colored and white water fountains, to come to D.C. and then to move into a place where at the foot of the courtyard and playground there was this colorful water fountain, with no signs, just this kind of beautiful concrete, I think as these kind of very small gestures that made the urban space more habitable and more dignified and let black families know that they were welcome in a different kind of way.
Langston, Quinn says, was a housing project designed with the human experience in mind. We like to run into neighbors. We like to have amenities nearby. And sometimes we like to sit on the head of a frog, lean back and look out over the city. I'm Emily Berman.
This story came to us through WAMU's Public Insight Network or PIN. It's a way for us to get input on upcoming projects and for you to reach out to us. You can read more about the network and see historic photographs of Langston Terrace on our website, metroconnection.org.
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