The City’s Runaway Neighborhood Threatens Again

President George W. Bush’s scheduled departure from office next year has many of our citizens preparing for a street fight of sorts. On February 1st, the upscale President Heights neighborhood is scheduled to add a second Bush St. to its ever-growing borders, and seven city organizations, including the Falmouth Hill Preservation Association, the Norbeck St. Residents’ Group, and Community Board 6 are urging the city to halt the proceedings.

To succeed they will have to convince the city council to repeal a 139-year-old amendment to the city’s charter that ranks as one of the most short-sighted and destructive bits of legislation in city history. If the council refuses, as seems likely, a 12-block section of Norbeck St. in historic Falmouth Hill would be re-christened after our 43rd president. Several landmarks on that stretch – including one of the city’s oldest churches and the Teal Estate, the original mayoral mansion – could be torn down or renamed at the whim of the President Heights Community Association, notorious for its draconian covenants that regulate the height, appearance, name and function of buildings within its ever-expanding borders.

The reason our city is almost powerless to stop this possible desecration of its own landmarks is believed to be rooted in an 1865 proclamation that commemorated the Union victory in the Civil War and memorialized the late President Lincoln. At Mayor Brown’s direction, a ridge-top neighborhood of mansions overlooking the eastern bank of the Ostahanoc River, then known as Mob Hill, was reorganized as Presidential Heights, and each of its streets was renamed after one of the country’s first sixteen presidents.

Most of the city’s foremost citizens and captains of industry already lived in the neighborhood, and were granted what were intended to be ceremonial positions in a concern called the Presidential Heights Coalition. Their numbers included former two-term Mayor Stanton Winthrop (ret. 1864, great uncle to Mayor Orson Winthrop), Admiral Archibald Tripp (grandfather of society figure Mabel Tripp), smelting magnate Barnaby Wonsley and other luminaries of the city’s first industrial boom.

It was only at Winthrop’s urging that Mayor Brown ceded to the Coalition any say as to the layout of Presidential Heights. It was declared that the 8 streets running east and west should be named for presidents deemed to have been “assets to the advancement of national interests,” and those streets running north and south named for those presidents held “responsible for tearing the union asunder.” By secret ballot, the so-called beneficial presidents were named Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Van Buren, Polk and Lincoln. The detrimental presidents: both Adamses, Harrison, Tyler, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan.

That was thought to be that. There was the somewhat quirky matter of two Adams Streets running parallel to each other with only one block between them, but that was viewed as a problem only for a select few wealthy persons (and their postman). The real trouble started in 1869, as the term of President Andrew Johnson expired.

Enraged and disgusted by their president’s disgraceful impeachment, Winthrop and his cohorts bullied Mayor Brown into allowing Presidential Heights to add a Johnson Street running on the “tearing the union asunder” axis. Finding Brown to be pliable on that matter, the reformed Coalition and its allies on the City Council forced an emergency session of closed-door legislation to cement their legacies as arbiters of presidential achievement.

On February 14, 1869, the third amendment was added to the city charter, “Regarding the jurisdiction of the Presidential Heights.” Briefly, it stated that the Presidential Heights Coalition would have full say over all matters related to the government of their neighborhood; few at the time bothered to read the fine print, which granted to the Coalition the right add a new street as each president left office – a right that would be retained “in perpetuity.”

Several administrations later, President Heights (renamed so in 1892) was becoming a problem. It had once been an out-of-the-way, upriver enclave, but as the city grid expanded northward, President Heights marched out to meet it. Streets named after Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison and Cleveland again, all built running north-south, crept off the ridge and down into Galveston Row, an area known in the 1880s for its German and Irish tenement dwellings. Instead of paving new streets, President Heights now began swallowing up existing city roads. Hundreds of families were systematically evicted every four-to-eight years, their slums torn down and replaced with large, handsome houses that were occupied by the city’s most exclusively rich and influential. Patrols of stick-bearing men kept riff-raff from re-entering the newly-annexed areas, and no one of consequence spoke up for the unfortunate victims.

By 1952, the neighborhood was an unwieldy mess, 24 blocks long and only nine blocks wide, as nearly every outgoing president had been ranked a failure. It had become a confusing jumble, featuring 2 streets each named Adams, Harrison and Cleveland, all running parallel, and 2 Roosevelt streets intersecting, with no compass designation or any other indication as to how one street differed from its twin. The neighborhood paid no heed to the map-wise geography of other city streets; visitors, especially, were confounded by the unexplained 9 block interruptions of such major thoroughfares as Grume Ave., Main Ave., Brodway and State Road 86 by McKinley, Wilson, Taft and Coolidge Streets, respectively. To make matters worse, the homes within the district were so similar-looking as to be indistinguishable – a consequence of homeowner’s covenants introduced in the 1930’s.

Concerned citizens and legislators from areas bordering the rampaging neighborhood began making annual attempts to rein in the outsized powers wielded by the Presidential Heights Coalition (known since 1926 as “Community Board 8”). Closed-door sessions with the Mayors and Council heads proved fruitless, as Eisenhower, Kennedy and a second Johnson Street replaced roads at the northern and eastern ends of old Galveston Row, shuttering long-time businesses and displacing hundreds more low- and middle-income workers to distant suburbs.

Citizens from all walks of life, newspapers and state legislators decried Community Board 8’s merciless, bullying attitude and were exasperated by City Hall’s total inaction. Mayors regularly refused comment on the subject of President Heights’ expansion, even as it marched toward the equally exclusive (and arguably more historic) Falmouth Hill neighborhood.

In June 1969, Bill Schlammaker, a reporter at the Clarion-Standard, received a large packet of documents and a hand-wringing cover letter signed only, “Concerned in CB8.” In it were purported to be copies of the minutes from over two-dozen meetings of the Coalition/Community Board 8 between 1880 and 1968. The Clarion-Standard ran a four-day series featuring excerpts from the documents, even though no additional source could be found to assure their veracity. Among the highlights:

  • In 1945, after the second Roosevelt St. was installed running north-south (and intersecting the first Roosevelt St. on the neighborhood’s northeastern border), Mayor Dell reached a gentleman’s agreement with CB 8 that any future streets would run east-west until such time as the neighborhood achieved more reasonable dimensions; the hideously unpopular Truman administration led to a cancellation of this deal.
  • Reasons for deeming so many presidents to be detrimental ranged from the reasonable (Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, Grant’s corruption), to the absurd (Hayes’ beard, Arthur’s “incomparable stench”), to the ridiculously unfair (Garfield’s “insufficient constitution” in succumbing to his assassin’s bullet, FDR’s failure to secure “total victory” in WWII prior to his death).
  • All buildings, regardless of size or purpose, were to be painted “virginal white” beginning in 1937.
  • Under no circumstances would houses of worship other than protestant churches be allowed to congregate, and no business licenses be granted to “haberdashers, tavern-keepers, blacksmiths, or book binders” (later, “internet cafes” were banned as well).
  • The President Heights Community Association allegedly maintained a secret fund consisting of “voluntary” contributions by its wealthy residents. In dire economic emergencies – 9 times in all over a period of 63 years- considerable amounts of money were transferred to city coffers. Schlammaker believed that this gave President Heights incredible levarage against any of the city’s attempts to curb its expansion.

The public outcry wasn’t enough to save what little remained of Galveston Row, but outraged citizenry began demanding action, even as members of CB8 and city hall all described the documents as “preposterous forgeries.” In 1972, Mayor Wilhelm Shapiro was ousted from office with a record-low 8 percent of the vote and it seemed that frightened city council members were ready to bring the third amendment up for referendum, above the objections of CB8. However, public opinion on the matter of President Heights shifted mightily in the wake of Watergate, and the additions of Nixon and Ford streets on the north-south axis were greeted with approving op-ed pieces and general satisfaction (although notably not in Falmouth Hill).

Now, however, with the 110 year-old St. Christopher’s Church facing demolition on the second soon-to-be-called Bush Street, and the handsome Teal Estate – home to the city’s mayors from 1874 to 1978 – looking forward to a coat of virginal white paint, Mayor Wilders and the Council are working to solve the peculiar problem of President Heights. But, as councilwoman Meredith Radison (Community Board 8) has darkly pointed out, “We will do our best, but we are in a recession, here…isn’t that too bad?”
– Shek Baker

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