My personal writing has often been about my home neighborhood of Kenilworth in Washington, DC. The life of the ‘hood, and my family’s unique position as Amish-Mennonite ‘missionaries’ in this urban black community, features often in my creative work. I’ve written essays and poetry about the neighborhood, completed a self-directed community and oral history project, and published a booklet of neighborhood history.
My parents, Elmer and Fannie Lapp, lived in Kenilworth off and on from 1965 to 2001, working beside other volunteers to start a church. Though my mom and dad no longer lived in Kenilworth, I moved back there from 2003 to 2006 to write about the community and my family’s experience there. Here is some of my work, which is ongoing.
Kenilworth: A DC Neighborhood by the Anacostia River
An increasing fascination with Kenilworth’s past culminated in a self-published, 32 page booklet on neighborhood history published with support from the Humanities Council of Washington, DC and the DC Historic Preservation Office. Famous for its water gardens and later hosting the city dump, the area’s change from farmland to housing projects highlights the history of land use, housing, race, and changing attitudes toward river and swamp areas in the nation’s capital. You can download a pdf of this free publication.
Kenilworth essay in Washington at Home
My essay on Kenilworth history also appears in the second edition of Washington at Home, the go-to book for historical information on DC’s neighborhoods, edited by Kathryn Schneider Smith and published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Buy the book to have my Kenilworth essay in print and learn more about the city’s communal history outside of the political spotlight.
Oral history of family, church, and neighborhood publicly archived
To inform my writing, I recorded interviews with 40 people connected to Kenilworth. Though the oral history project focuses on my family and the Fellowship Haven Church that my parents helped to start, it also explores the history of the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, the Kenilworth Courts public housing complex, and the nearby community of Eastland Gardens. Copies of the cassette tapes and transcribed interviews from the project are archived at the Washingtoniana Collection in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, DC.
A place of peace and promise for black families in the early and mid 1900’s, Kenilworth suffered from the urban ills that hit many low income, minority neighborhoods in the seventies and eighties. There are many heroes in Kenilworth’s past, however, who worked hard to improve the community. Download a pdf to read a set of three stories, in prose aimed at youth, about some of these heroes: community organizer Kimi Gray, pastor couple Elmer and Fannie Lapp, and resident-turned-park-ranger Walter McDowney.
When I moved back to Kenilworth in 2003, I pictured myself focusing on creative nonfiction about my family’s life as white, rural Amish-Mennonites starting and maintaining a church in a black, urban ‘projects’ neighborhood. But, while I did some of that writing, I got distracted by the history work outlined above. Or perhaps the history work was simpler than wading through the mixed emotions of memoir? In any event, more than ten years on, I’m dusting off my digital manuscripts to keep the memoir dream alive…
Stolen cars and flung cookies
My memoir writing got some buzz from an essay I published in the Washington City Paper in November 2006, Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Dodge Caravan. “What’s the son of an Amish-Mennonite reverend doing in Kenilworth Courts? Going after kiddie car thieves,” the subhead teases. The essay draws parallels between my parents’ past positive action in the neighborhood and my own community activism against the then-current teenage crime fad: hot-rodding around in stolen cars.
Samples of other published work on Kenilworth
Finally, here is some other writing about or inspired by my Kenilworth experiences.
Washington Post essays
Where a Puddle Persists, Lotuses Bloom—a wetland forms from a water main break
“The Siren Call of Disaster at Our Door” and “Wild In the Streets”—two essays about crime and the city
More history writing
Kenilworth: A Northeast Neighborhood by the Anacostia River—short overview of Kenilworth neighborhood history, published in East of the River newspaper
The Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens: Loving Ward 7’s Wetland Park—short overview of the history of Kenilworth’s aquatic national park, published in East of the River newspaper
Of Urban Plantations and the Rural Amish: Ms. Kimi Gray and Mr. Elmer Lapp in Kenilworth—text of a spring 2005 talk to the NE DC Historical Society