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Federations near century of serving community

(Published July 17, 2000)


Staff Writer

Almost a century ago, an army of foot soldiers gathered forces to defend the District’s residential areas against development encroaching on the area’s beauty.

And the battle to maintain the city as a worthy home continues today as the Federation of Citizens Associations and the Federation of Civic Associations trudge forward.

Included in their battle triumphs over the years are a slue of victories that blocked an interstate highway, suspended liquor licenses in neighborhoods crowded with alcoholic beverage retailers, created task forces that monitor zoning changes affecting residential areas, and initiated efforts to enforce regulations on university campus expansions.

"We don’t always win, but I think (the District) would be a lot worse if we didn’t have a standing army to fight against those interests," said Federation of Civic Associations president Adolf Edwards.

It has been 90 years since the Federation of Citizens Associations was founded in 1910 as an organization for citizens united in cooperative efforts to improve the neighborhoods where they have first-hand knowledge. The Federation, which includes 35 member associations, has testified on behalf of D.C. residents before local agencies and Congress. It also serves as a liaison with legislative staff members, engaging in litigation when necessary, according to the Federation’s description.

Guy Gwynne, president of the Federation and the Burleith Citizens Association, said that in 35 years of bad District governance, "it was the citizens associations on the front line" to fix it. He added that organizations like these are of "the utmost importance" and "civic activism is a rewarding activity wherein one sees often the tangible results" of activities and efforts done for the common good.

Its companion in community activism, the Federation of Civic Associations, was formed in 1921 as a separate organizations because "at that time they didn’t allow blacks into the citizens associations – even into the ‘60s," said Edwards.

Like the citizens federation, the umbrella group for civic associations combines the efforts of more than 50 member organizations in an active campaign to protect neighborhood values and enhance the quality of life in the District.

Stemming from their roots in racially tense neighborhoods of the late 1870s, civic associations remain predominantly black organizations and citizens associations predominantly white, but include members of all race and ethnicity. They remain apart not because either organization has segregating membership policies, but because they focus on different community issues and problems, said Gregory R. New, president of the Cleveland Park Citizens Association which maintains membership in both federations.

"It’s a difference in style – I kind of go there with eyes shut and listen," said New, who attends both organizations’ meetings.

Although the beginnings of the federations may appear separatist or exclusive, there is no animosity or jealousy between the federations, which are oftentimes on the same side of District issues, said Edwards. They cooperate and coexist and "I foresee

someday the two will merge," because separate organizations will eventually prove unnecessary, he said.

Gwynne said the groups maintain contact "at the executive level, but we are on two different agendas … there is no imperative to merge."

The current focuses for the Federation of Citizens Associations include development and zoning issues, and the Federation actively works to "assist the city to get a grip on illegal and uncontrolled accessory uses for residential areas, encroachment of businesses or institutions into neighborhoods – the physical presence," said Gwynne.

While the organization supports those businesses that move into a neighborhood and help rejuvenate its economy, it does not condone attempts to expand that cause strain on residential areas with increased traffic congestion and intrusion on public space, he said. This expansion includes universities that plan to renovate and expand their campuses, actions that can negatively impact the college communities.

Gwynne said there is also "intense activity" in impacted neighborhood committees – where members of the communities effected by colleges work with the government to counter the "illegal conversions" of residential property into apartments, businesses and specialized housing, much of which is caused by lack of housing for college students.

The Federation of Civic Associations, under Edwards, gathered together to oppose the referendum to change the D.C. School Board, the subject of the June 27 special election. The School Governance Charter Amendment was an "attack on the Home Rule Charter," said Edwards. "Once it’s eroded on one side, there is room for other encroachment," he said.

Edwards said the federation saw the referendum as the priority for the group’s activities, but did not ignore other pressing issues including zoning changes and liquor license renewals and pending applications.

As an ongoing project, they are working to make annual assessments of property values standard for the District by writing letters to the D.C. City Council and the mayor and by calling government officials who handle property regulations.

"Many times properties are over-assessed or under-assessed due to trends" rather than actual property value, said Edwards. The group also monitors utility rate increases and advocates against price hikes to keep rates reasonable for residents.

The Federation of Citizens Association, in a celebration of its 90-year service to the District, honored fellow community foot soldiers at its annual anniversary banquet May 17. Presenting awards to D.C. citizens for individual effectiveness in the community, organizational efforts to improve the District and the length and breadth of service to the community, the Federation gave recognition to the importance of community service and commitment to the District.

This year’s award honorees included Dennis Bass for "Courageous Community Service," Dorothy Miller and Maria Tyler for "Sustained Community Service," The D.C. Heritage Tourism Coalition for "Contributions to Keeping Washington’s Heritage Fresh and Enhancing the District’s Economic Well-being."

Mayor Anthony A. Williams was also honored for his "courage under fire" – a recognition Gwynne says is not regretted. "The bottom line is that we were citing him for the reform administration." Gwynne said the mayor’s ideas for improving the District’s quality of life, neighborhoods and zoning enforcement were "right on the money."

The Federation of Civic Associations will celebrate its 80th anniversary in 2001.

Individual associations joined in the civic and citizens federations can be found immersed in any number of community programs including youth retreats, revitalization of dilapidated homes especially those for fixed income families and senior citizens, educational classes, neighborhood beautification and cleanup, and neighborhood watch groups.

Woodridge Civic Association president Anthony Hood said the federations are about improving the quality of District life by "getting people together to get things done." And they have been getting things done for almost a century, receiving recognition where it counts — in the neighborhoods across the city that they strive to make better.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator