Capitol Hill Crusaders

For These Individuals, Making a Difference Is Life’s Work

Posted February 20, 2004 at 3:09pm

This is the last in an occasional series looking at life on Capitol Hill.

Given its proximity to the nation’s seat of power, it’s hardly surprising that the Capitol Hill neighborhood would be a draw for individuals looking to effect social change. Indeed, from economic revitalization to historic preservation to educational outreach, the Hill boasts a preponderance of civic groups dedicated to furthering the development of the surrounding community.

“It’s so to speak on the edge — on the edge of urban pioneerdom,” says community activist Richard Layman of the Hill’s appeal. “More things happen in edge areas so as a result you get more motivated to shape the future of [the] neighborhood.”

With that in mind, Hill community leaders were consulted in an effort to pinpoint some of the individuals considered key forces behind major projects or issues currently percolating on the Hill landscape.

A diverse group, the individuals selected range from urban professionals to retired bureaucrats and lifelong social activists. Some are new to the Hill, while others have lived nearly their entire adult lives in the shadow of the Capitol. And still others reside elsewhere in the city but choose to devote themselves to improving an area they see as in the throes of a major transformation.

What binds them together is a nearly universal passion for public service — whether that means fostering cultural enrichment in the midst of privation or assisting impoverished individuals with housing concerns — and an unflagging determination, irrespective of the obstacle, to ensure their vision is realized.

Jan Eichhorn
Founder/Director, Friends of Tyler School

When Ward 6 Democrats President Jan Eichhorn founded Friends of Tyler School 14 years ago, the small, after-school tutoring program for a couple of dozen disadvantaged children met in a counselor’s office.

Today, FOTS is headquartered in two townhouses on Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast and boasts an annual operating budget of roughly $75,000. Its nearly 50 students, tutored by a volunteer staff of about 60, meet four nights a week, with overflow sent to the second floor of the Barney Circle McDonald’s. FOTS also has an after-school program, where paid teachers offer instruction and homework supervision. Eighty percent of students who are enrolled in FOTS for at least three years graduate from high school.

The now-retired Eichhorn, a longtime aide to then-Mayor Marion Berry (D) and a leader in the home rule movement of the early 1970s, admits she “fell into the program” by chance.

It was a summer day in 1989 and Eichhorn, who had stayed home sick, took her dog to the softball field behind Tyler School for some exercise.

“I met this kid Desmond who had picked up a lost dog and was trying to take care of it,” she recalls. “And I took his dog in to try and find the owner.” The owner was never found, but the 10-year-old boy started coming over every day after school to walk the dog, and the two became close.

When she approached what was then known as the Capitol Hill Association of Merchants and Professionals Foundation about starting a tutoring and mentoring program for Desmond and other children like him, she remembers being told, “You start it and we’ll support you.”

Over the years, Eichhorn, herself a college dropout, said she’s seen her share of heart-breaking cases, including one Potomac Gardens family whose children were living in essentially “a crackhouse.”

“It can be very sad because we’ve lost kids that should not have been lost. There’s just too many obstacles to overcome. But we’ve made a real difference and a real impact on a number of other kids that’s been positive and in some cases extremely positive,” the 65-year-old Eichhorn says, pointing to a recent FOTS alumna who’s now a sophomore at Smith College.

Given the challenges, Eichhorn prefers to accept younger students who have demonstrated they have “good attendance” and are “committed to learning.”

“We cannot save children. We can just add another ingredient into the pot of what’s necessary to make it,” she says.

Jane Lang
President, Atlas Performing Arts Center

Jane Lang sweeps her arm across the front of the dilapidated Atlas Theater on H Street Northeast. “All this will be filled with dance classes,” the 56-year-old former litigator says, her eyes brimming with excitement as she envisions the flamenco and ballet classes which will soon populate the now drafty, stripped-down space.

As president of the nonprofit corporation she formed to rehabilitate the 1938 art deco movie house, Lang has spent much of the past two and a half years laying the groundwork for what will be a complete transformation of the long-empty, 56,000-square-foot structure — a metamorphosis she believes will have a ripple effect along the once-vibrant H Street corridor, currently the target of District revitalization efforts.

In addition to the dance studios, the Atlas Performing Arts Center, scheduled for completion by December 2005, will feature a 276-fixed-seat theater, a 225-seat black box theater, two lab theaters, a café, a costume shop, dressing rooms and administrative offices.

But were it not for the painter Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration” series, which tells the story of the black, post-World War I migration from the rural South to the urban North, the Atlas might still stand neglected.

Captivated by a showing of the works at the Phillips Collection, Lang, a former Carter administration official, formed a production company to commission a play based on Lawrence’s scenes. However, when the time came to stage it, she “had to beg and borrow to get space. … We needed to find or create rental space if we were ever to do more of these.”

Even after she first saw the Atlas in July 2001, “I went home shaking my head,” she recalls. But “the more I thought about it, I thought this could be the space that could transform the community and bring back the vibrancy to Near Northeast that it had once enjoyed.” (The D.C. Office of Planning H Street Strategic Development Plan, released last year, designated the Atlas as a key anchor of the corridor’s Arts and Entertainment zone.)

Lang and her husband, Paul Sprenger, through their eponymous foundation, have already put up “$2.5 million plus me” against the project’s estimated total cost of $14 million — with an additional $50,000 promised for each of the first five years of operation. All in all, about $6.3 million has been raised toward that goal.

Her twin passions of philanthropy and the arts appear genetically predestined. Her father, Eugene, started both the Eugene Lang and the “I Have a Dream” foundations, while her brother, Stephen, is an accomplished stage and film actor who starred as Stonewall Jackson in last year’s “Gods and Generals.”

With the project heading into the second of four construction phases and the marquee due to be lit up for the first time in 30 years this fall, Lang is on the lookout for ways to improve the environs beyond the theater complex. The Cleveland Park resident recently helped launch “Lucky 13” in an effort to improve business conditions on a block where 25 vacant storefronts now stare blankly at passersby. With a charitable set-aside from a settlement fund, she’s also directed $15,000 to the D.C. Public Library for renovations at the R.L. Christian Community Library, at the corner of 13th and H streets Northeast.

“I don’t ever want to be a spectator in this lifetime,” Lang says of her post-retirement preoccupation. “It was here and it was crying out for someone to do something.”

Steve McCoy
Executive Director, Capper Carrollsburg on the Hill Community Development Corporation

It was a dream, Steve McCoy says, which indirectly led him to his current line of work as executive director of the Capper Carrollsburg on the Hill Community Development Corporation.

The year was 1971. McCoy, then 21, was a Metropolitan Police Department officer, assigned to the 4th District substation, just north of Howard University.

“I started having nightmares about walking around an enclosure — all these poor people were inside the fence,” he says. “I just felt that I had it within me to do a different kind of public service work.”

And so, the Tar Heel State native enlisted in the Army, earned degrees from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the University of Detroit, then spent the next 20 years in the Motor City working at a private nonprofit housing counseling agency before returning to the D.C. Metro area last year when his wife, Stephanie, was offered a job at the Health and Human Services Department in Rockville, Md.

As one of four HOPE VI projects now under way in the District, Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg — the Near Southeast public housing projects located on 30 acres between Capitol Hill and the Anacostia waterfront — is being demolished in favor of a mixed-income housing development. While the number of public housing units will be replaced on a 1-to-1 ratio, in the meantime, its 1,300 or so official residents — with median incomes of about $10,000 per year — must find alternate shelter.

That’s where McCoy comes in. As administrative head of the CDC — the nonprofit corporation formed to provide a range of community support services to residents facing re-location — McCoy aims to ensure that the $34.5 million HOPE VI grant results in “economic uplift and not just plain displacement.”

“The key to economic development is to have folks gainfully employed,” says McCoy. Along these lines, he manages Hope on the Hill Moving Company, an initiative of the CDC, which in partnership with a private moving company, hires current and former residents to move tenants as they are relocated. He’s also put in a joint-venture bid with a demolition contractor in hopes of employing residents as laborers on the sites.

With its rows of nondescript, brick barracks-style housing, pockets of open-air drug markets and frequent street crime, Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg is about as far removed from “official Washington” as you can get. Along one block of K Street Southeast, two memorials of teddy bears, paper roses and empty Moët champagne bottles mark the spot of a pair of recent fatal shootings. The first person hired for the CDC’s executive director position quit before even starting. “It’s wearying,” McCoy says, matter of factly.

But for the 53-year-old McCoy, who grew up amid the poverty of Appalachia, it remains “the right thing to do.”

His once Army-shorn head sprouts flowing Bob Marleyesque locks, a feature the self-described “Rasta sympathizer” says reflects his kinship with the Jamaican movement’s spiritual values of “helping people who had nothing to eat or no housing.”

“Do you think the denizens of the Hill need my help?” he asks.

Aimee Occhetti
Special Assistant, D.C. Office of Property Management

Longtime Capitol Hill resident Aimee Occhetti wears many hats in the community.

As an Office of Property Management special assistant since April 2001, the 35-year-old North Carolina native serves as the city’s point person for two of the Hill’s highest-profile properties: Eastern Market and the Old Naval Hospital. She’s also active in District Democratic politics, and is the newly appointed chairwoman of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society’s House and Garden Tour.

And, on the day this interview took place, Occhetti rose at dawn to make an early morning meeting of the fledgling Capitol Hill Rotary Club, which she has subsequently joined.

“I get fulfillment in my job working with the community and in my personal time also,” says Occhetti, a former Congressional staffer and one-time aide to D.C. Councilman Harold Brazil (D-At Large).

Such enthusiasm has earned her plaudits from community groups and individuals with a stake in the properties under her purview.

“We work with a lot of bureaucrats … and it’s like pushing a rock up the hill,” says Rob Nevitt, president of the Restoration Society, a group that works to preserve the neighborhood’s historic fabric. “But she’s someone if she says she’s going to do it, she does.”

For instance, when it came to preparing the request for proposals for the Old Naval Hospital, Occhetti worked hard to ensure the transparency and overall integrity of the process, says Nevitt. She convened several public meetings on the issue and maintained her neutrality, despite the fact that one of the groups currently vying for the lease of the facility has deep roots in the community.

“She’s been impeccable about saying, ‘My job is to protect the process,’” says Nevitt, who supports the community group. “It sometimes irritates me, but I respect it.”

When Occhetti’s personal and professional passions have cross-pollinated, however, the results have proven felicitous for the neighborhood at large.

A few years back, at a Democratic Club meeting she bumped into Arizona Rep. Ed Pastor (D), who lived just across the street from Eastern Market.

The two of them started talking about the market, and Pastor asked her what the city had planned for its development.

“We got X amount of money and we can only do so much with what we have and it would be great if the federal government could appropriate some money for the project,” Occhetti remembers telling him.

The result: a line item in the District of Columbia appropriations bill, earmarking $50,000 for repairs and renovations in fiscal 2002, as well as subsequent $150,000 allocations in fiscal 2003 and 2004.

As for Occhetti’s future trajectory, the University of the District of Columbia Law School graduate and Democratic State Committee member says she hasn’t ruled out a potential run for elected office somewhere down the line, though she declined to elaborate. “I want to remain in public service in some fashion,” she says.

Cody Rice
Commissioner, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6A

Along 12th Place Northeast, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Cody Rice is held in such esteem “there has been talk of him running for mayor,” gushes resident Marissa Irwin, pointing to his success at helping neighbors spearhead a District Department of Transportation streetscape project, completed late last summer, along the one-street block. “Cody gives people the feeling they can accomplish things.”

When the civic-minded, 32-year-old Environmental Protection Agency economist moved to the Hill in August 2001, he remembers going “to all the meetings I could find” before finally settling on ANC 6A because it “was not as effective as it could be.”

Indeed, prior to the 2002 redistricting and subsequent ANC elections, ANC 6A was “a joke,” says current Chairman Joe Fengler. Financial reports had gone unreported for six quarters, and its funding had been revoked. Intracommission acrimony ran so deep “they were hitting each other in meetings,” Fengler notes, adding that a police presence was frequently required.

“For the first time in my memory living on the Hill, this ANC is really moving forward in a productive way, and Cody’s a big part of that,” says longtime resident Jeff Fletcher, who has worked closely with Rice. “What Cody has done is really give us a voice on some of these issues we’ve never had before.”

As chairman of the ANC 6A economic development and zoning committee, Rice is frequently at the center of thorny land-use issues, ranging from rezoning recommendations for H Street Northeast to the construction of community-based residential facilities.

Rice served as “the driver behind” the joint effort between ANC 6A and 6C last summer to generate a set of zoning guidelines with incentives for H Street-specific development, says Fengler, which “the city is now using as part of their small area plan and will use when they start identifying zoning requirements for H Street.”

And given neighborhood concerns over the city’s increasing willingness to allow community-based residential facilities to set up shop with little or no notification of residents, such as the Youth Services Administration rehabilitation home on Kramer Street Northeast, Rice worked closely with Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6) on a bill recently introduced in the council that would require the city to issue a 30-day notice before issuing building permits for publicly funded building projects, Fletcher said.

Since taking office in January 2003, Rice, a Texas native, says his goal has been simple: “To help residents navigate the bureaucracy of D.C. government,” whether through writing letters, making phone calls or meeting with city officials.

“We serve effectively as advocates or ombudsman,” Rice says. “But it really takes the active involvement of a pretty good segment of the population to make it happen.”