The Day He Lay in Front of a Trash Truck

Eastland Garden’s Erman Clay speaks on the past and future of his community
Photograph By
Christine Rushton

Erman Clay, 93, the former president of the Eastland Gardens Civic Association in Ward 7. 

Erman Clay remembers lying down in front of DC city dump trucks in the late 1960s. The Eastland Gardens community in Ward 7 abutted the Kenilworth dumpsite, and neighbors no longer wanted that pile of city trash degrading the quality of their lives. Clay, then the president of the Eastland Gardens Civic Association, and his neighbors protested by lying on the pavement. “Oh yeah, yeah,” Clay said, laughing at the long past memory. “As a result of them dumping, they had burning. It was not good for this area … Finally we got Mayor [Walter] Washington to agree to close the dump.”

The city capped the dump with clay and planted grass to help start a park for sports teams and visitors. With the city’s permission and the civic association’s newly founded Eastland Gardens flower club, families took turns planting and caring for the landscape of the park. Clay said he remembers families that decorated the area for holidays like Christmas. “We got to know the neighborhood by planting there,” he said. “And each person wanted to have his garden better than the other.”

Clay, 93, appreciates the value of his community and has worked to preserve and improve Eastland Gardens since he and his wife Vanetta moved to there, just off the Anacostia Freeway, in 1961. His role as civic association president and background as a military officer in the Army and DC National Guard helped him push the city on issues like the Kenilworth dump, and he kept the community thriving for more than 20 years.

But with new families moving in from Maryland, and as older neighbors pass or move away, Clay worries that the tightknit community might not survive. He plans to do what he can to preserve the history of Eastland Gardens by sharing its story with new faces on his block and with the growing leadership in the civic association.

A Visit with the Past

Clay came from Piney Point, a small town in Maryland. He spent his days with his father digging for oysters and oyster shells to sell in town at 25 cents a bushel. Later he enlisted in the Army and headed to the beaches of Normandy on D Day, June 6, 1944. He remembers the landing craft he had to jump into in the dark. Once they approached the shore, officers ordered the men to jump off or risk getting shot. Clay jumped into the water and half an hour later reached shore. “But after we got on the beach, the dead soldiers were all around,” Clay said, recalling the first wave of soldiers hit by enemy fire.

After spending a few months fighting the Germans, he returned home and remained in the military. His move to the District 15 years later put him in contact with the National Guard, which he joined.

Clay applied the same discipline and dedication he learned in the military to his role in the civic association at Eastland Gardens. Under his leadership the community held yard sales, yard beautification competitions judged by a local professor at the District of Columbia Teachers College (now a part of the University of the District of Columbia), and met each month for a meeting at Clay’s house. Vanetta cooked food for more than 20 attendees. “My wife would fix food for them so much so that the IRS [Internal Revenue Service] would call and ask how I could justify that on my income tax,” he joked.

He and the neighbors understood the importance of maintaining a connection between each home. Even when he and Vanetta needed to focus on their work in the government – she in the Treasury Department and he in the DC Housing Finance Agency – they saved time for Eastland Gardens. “I don’t know of any other place I would want to be,” Clay said.

Helping Preserve a Community

Newcomers hoping to find a house close to DC often look in Eastland Gardens. The civic association isn’t as strong as when Clay and others ran it, he said, and that affects the feeling of community in the area. “If you move into a place and don’t know anybody, you’re not the first person to make that move,” Clay explained. “It’s people who are here that need to make that move.” Clay has met with the current civic association president, Rochelle Frazier Gray, and feels the neighborhood is moving in the right direction to rebuild that connection.

Gray knows the history of the community she represents as well as the value of listening to neighbors like Clay. “The older people have been able to help the newer residents appreciate the community,” she said. When she and her husband sought a place close to the city but with a strong community, they stumbled across Eastland Gardens. She loves that older neighbors refer to people’s houses not by the current owner, address, or street, but by the last name of the family that previously owned the lot. Everybody knew everybody, she said.

“People didn’t know where we were located for a long time,” Gray said of Eastland Gardens. “When they came over they were totally surprised that we have such great park lands and accessibility.”

She does face new challenges with the growing population of the city and Ward 7, though. Her community doesn’t like the division that Interstate 295 creates between Eastland Gardens and the other parts of Ward 7. She also wishes she could drive to a grocery store without spending 20 to 40 minutes in the car. And she wants her community to have a sit-down restaurant, not just fast food stops.

 “Just going to a bookstore, a gym, a grocery store – those choices are limited,” Gray said. “If you just wanted to go have a cup of coffee at Starbucks, those choices are limited for us.” She added: “I think the city has somewhat neglected Ward 7 in that respect.”

Senior residents like Clay and Bernice Underwood, who turned 100 this summer, deserve a place that’s walkable and isn’t cut off from amenities by new road additions, Gray said. She works in her role and with the help of Clay’s experience to advocate for their community in the city. She and her husband don’t plan on leaving Eastland Gardens. She likes her neighbors and considers the chance to learn from Clay and Underwood a privilege worth preserving. “We’re blessed to have as many seniors as we do in this community,” she said. “I don’t know that many others do.”

Erman Clay sits and watches his neighborhood from the home he’s owned since 1961 in Ward 7’s Eastland Gardens.
Erman Clay, the former Eastland Gardens Civic Association president, flips through old documents from when he and his neighbors fought to build their thriving community decades ago.

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