Reparations for Reno: Wilson organization pushes for affordable housing in Tenleytown

Emily Mulderig

In 2019, ELA teacher Marc Minsker worked with ten Wilson students to advocate for rehabilitating the Chesapeake House, an abandoned building on the corner of Fort Reno, as a community center. Now, all those students have graduated. 

With renovation set to start on the Chesapeake House soon, Minsker recruited two Wilson seniors, Salif Bumbaugh and Esther Nachbar-Seckel, to focus on a new project: campaigning for affordable housing in Tenleytown. 

Their vision is to build 30-40 garden-terrace apartments on the grassy triangle bordered by Davenport Street, Nebraska Avenue, and Reno Road, between Deal Middle School and Murch Elementary School. The housing units would serve as a form of reparations for the primarily Black community in the Fort Reno area that was demolished to build Deal and Wilson in the early 1900s. 

“I think it’s important that students [who] come to school here realize that this once was a really diverse neighborhood and try to understand the forces at work that changed the makeup of the neighborhood,” Minsker said. 

In the past few years, he has worked closely with the DC History and Justice Collective, a local organization that advocated to change Wilson’s name and raises awareness about the history of Tenleytown and Reno City. It was Judith Ingram, co-founder of the Collective, who first suggested the Davenport Street location, which she dubbed “Davenport Park”, as a potential place for affordable housing construction. 

The space is owned by the National Park Service and managed by the DC government. Since Mayor Muriel Bowser has openly supported the expansion of affordable housing across the District, Minsker suspects that city government officials will take much less convincing to get on board with their proposal than Park Service officials, who are likely to want to preserve as much open green space as possible.

Similarly, he anticipates a lot of backlash from the residential Tenleytown community. 

“I’m sure there are a lot of people who would say, ‘if you put in affordable housing, my property value is going to go down,’” Minsker said. 

“What I would say to them is, ‘your property value is elevated because the forces that have been at work for 100 years here, including groups like the Chevy Chase Land Company and Francis Newlands, whose racist ideology made this an enclave of white people,” he continued.

Minsker, together with Bumbaugh and Nachbar-Seckel, has rebranded what was formerly known as the Coalition for the Chesapeake Community Center to the Community Coalition for Change (CCC), with a broader mission of “righting the wrongs” of the racist history of Tenleytown. 

Since being back in school, Bumbaugh and Nachbar-Seckel have visited social studies teacher Aaron Besser’s Activism in the US classes, enlisting 60 Wilson students interested in advocating for social change with the CCC.

On October 9, the CCC will hold a canned food and cleaning supplies drive at Davenport Park to support Feed the Family, a local food pantry in Van Ness. The drive will double as an opportunity to spread the word about Davenport Park and get signatures from community members who support affordable housing in Ward 3. 

“It’s a good cause,” Bumbaugh said on the CCC. “This is a good way to help other people because you’re bringing people food and shelter, which are two things people need most.”

Nachbar-Seckel agreed. “This club, a part of it is definitely just educating people on how [Wilson] even got here and the darker history behind it. And I feel like we all should be doing everything we can to make reparations for all of that.”

As for the Chesapeake House, Minsker hopes that Wilson students will get to have a say in designing the exhibit featuring the history of Reno that will line the walls of the soon-to-be community center. “We want Wilson students and the history department here to help us envision what that will look like,” Minsker said. 

Students who are interested in joining can email [email protected]. •