Work Samples

A History of Welcoming Newcomers

Modest Prices Attract Recent Immigrants and Young Families to Pr. George's Town

August 16, 2008

By David Driver
For the Washington Post
Used with permission

Juan Carlos Martinez and his wife, Elia, entered La Fondita Restaurant in the heart of Edmonston for lunch on a recent Saturday.

The couple sat in the back corner of the restaurant at one of the seven small, green tables, all occupied. A television played a show that counted down the top Spanish-language songs of the week.

A small sign on the wall in English read "Welcome Friends." It hung above two cacti, a nod to the rural Mexican landscape. There were also signs in Spanish, including advertisements written on iconic American Frisbees for "platanos fritos" (fried plantains) and other specialties.

Martinez, a life-long Maryland resident whose parents are from Mexico City, said he has been living in Edmonston off and on for 12 years. "It is easy. There are no problems," he said. "I like it."

La Fondita sits on Decatur Street, the main east-west artery that runs through the small inside-the-beltway Prince George's County town. Thanks to its authentic food, the restaurant is a major meeting place for immigrants and natives alike, many of whom have found in Edmonston a home they can afford.

"You can live in the D.C. region for Baltimore prices," said Adam Ortiz, the town's mayor, a New York native who went to college in Baltimore. "We attract young couples, immigrants and families buying their first homes. You have families who have been here a century and immigrants who have been here a year. In essence, we are a working-class town but providing first-class services."

Ortiz lists neighbors from Vietnam, Trinidad, El Salvador and Mexico. "A construction worker can afford a home. A lobbyist can afford a home. A professor can afford a home," he said. Single-family houses generally list for sale for less than $400,000, with an average sales price of less than $250,000 in the last year, well below other parts of the region.

Edmonston has long been a welcoming spot for newcomers. The town, founded in 1924, began when a bridge was rebuilt on Decatur Street over the northeast branch of the Anacostia River that connected the area to nearby Route 1 and Hyattsville.

Kinjori Matsudairi, the grandson of a Japanese feudal lord and a native of Pennsylvania, was the mayor of Edmonston in 1927 and again in 1943, according to the town Web site. Ortiz notes with pride that Matsudairi's second term came during World War II, when many people of Japanese descent were held in U.S. internment camps.

Construction worker Hector Duarte is one of the recent immigrants Ortiz mentioned. Duarte came to the United States from El Salvador in 1995 and lived in College Park for a while. He and his wife, Ena, bought their first home in Edmonston in 2001, a house across the street from La Fondita.

"The city here is very quiet and it is [less expensive] to own a house" than in other areas, Duarte said. "I like the house. I like everything over here."

Duarte works at construction sites in downtown Washington. He regularly leaves his home long before dawn and drives about 25 minutes to work. He is usually home by 2 p.m.

Ken Graham, an engineer, and his wife, Eldonna Douglass, an accountant, bought their first home in Edmonston about nine years ago after renting in Greenbelt.

"Over the past four years it has completely changed," said Graham, who is African American. "The older folks have moved out. What I like about Edmonston is it is very small. You can walk into Town Hall and talk to the mayor. You can't do that in big cities."

Graham and his wife live in a Victorian built in 1910. From his attic, he can hear conversations of those who are walking and riding bikes on the path along the northeast branch of the Anacostia River.

"It is a very nice little community. It is good for a new family that wants to come in and settle down. It still has the old charm," Graham said.

Edmonston is far from perfect. There are several homes for sale along Decatur Street, and Ortiz said some are foreclosures. The majority of the town's homes are owner-occupied, he said, which usually means properties are better kept up. However, a few houses have trash in the yards despite a monthly newsletter -- in English and Spanish -- that encourages residents to maintain their property.

Crime is a major concern for many Prince George's County residents, but Ortiz said Edmonston's crime rate is among the lowest for inside-the-Beltway communities in the county. He noted that there are six full-time officers for a population of 1,400 in a city with a one-mile radius. Ortiz said some police department staff speak English and Spanish.

"Public safety is our first priority. We are responsible for the health and safety of every person that lives or passes through Edmonston," said Ortiz, who recruited one police officer from Puerto Rico. "We take it very seriously."

Bill Fronk, who lives next to the Duarte family, also bought his first home in Edmonston. But his story stretches back to 1941, when his parents moved to Edmonston from a farm in Anne Arundel County. He was about 6.

Fronk still lives in that same house on Decatur Street, where he also raised two sons, now in their 40s.

"There are still some fairly small houses here," said Fronk, who is white. "There were a series of houses built in the 1930s that were built from Sears and Roebuck, cookie-cutter houses with two bedrooms, and very small. Some are still around and have been added on to."

Ortiz said there are three types of houses: farm houses, the Sears and Roebuck bungalows, and two-bedroom-houses built after World War II. The town, he said, is "a melting pot of diversity," with a mix of white, African American and Hispanic residents who live, for the most part, peacefully.

"We just have a very inclusive message," Ortiz said. "We want everyone who lives here to be a full member of the community. Know the rules: Take out the garbage, cut the grass. We make sure people know the rules."