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Hillcrest Roots

The gardens in a Southeast neighborhood show off a community’s colors.

Alexis Simendinger’s yard has waxy orange lilies, hummingbirds and foxes that dart among her flowers and her neighbor’s pear trees, and blazing-red Birds of Paradise. “It’s like living in a park—a park in a city,” she told a crowd who was granted a rare look inside her oasis during her neighborhood’s 17th annual garden tour last Saturday.

Just east of the Anacostia River is an area whose residents are determined to make it the jewel of Southeast DC. Hillcrest has rolling hills, red-brick colonial homes, and bird’s-eye view of Capitol Hill. Its well-loved and well-tended gardens are home to mayoral hopeful Vincent Gray.

During its annual garden tour, Hillcrest residents open their doors to the rest of the community, deck their patio tables with sweets, and show off carefully tended lawns to visitors and neighbors, some out in their Sunday best.

For a neighborhood that doesn’t get a lot of stray traffic, this is a much-anticipated event. To highlight his garden’s facelift after snowstorms demolished his front yard, Gregory Hudson drafted a speech, which he read to about 80 people. He received a shiny, hand-painted rock—a garden-tour tradition—for participating.

Hillcrest is called the “Georgetown of Southeast,” but the neighborhood wants to be something between a gated community and a hotspot. Marvin Bowser, the first vice-president of the Hillcrest Community Civic Association, says, “We want this place to continue to be a managed secret.”

The shared sense of protection makes for a close-knit neighborhood. Charlotte Brookins-Hudson, the self-styled Mayor of Westover—the street she lives on—has organized block parties and circulated community death notices for the past 20 years. “Sometimes I get tired doing this. I think, ‘why me?’ ” she said. “But we need to continue to build this community.”

For Joel LeBeau, who just moved here last year with her musician son, her new Hillcrest home is the first she’s owned since her New Orleans home was destroyed after Hurricane Katrina. As she sits on her porch, sipping iced juices and greeting neighbors, the avid oil painter and administrative assistant at the US Trade Representative’s Office marvels about the studio that she’s set up in her new home and the community she’s building around her.

“I’ve never been able to have a studio before, and now I do,” she says in amazement. “Now I just need to do up my yards like those beautiful yards we saw on the tour.”

Building up the image of this neighborhood takes the same painstaking effort as manicuring a lawn. Veronica Davis, a local blogger, recalls constantly having to pick up liquor bottles and other debris when she went on morning walks. But after a community impact statement targeted at negative influences around her block in Fairfax Village—a group of townhouses and garden apartments in Hillcrest—she says, “It’s been so peaceful. You can’t imagine what my neighborhood was like compared to now.”

She calls herself a Pollyanna character who’ll fight for change until she gets it. Now all she needs is for DC residents west of the river to realize what they’re missing.

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