Ever wonder why airplanes flying to and from Reagan National Airport follow the path of the Potomac River? You can thank Gerald Brown for his part in expressing the concerns of the residents of Georgetown about high levels of airplane noise and for his relentless pursuit of an amicable solution with the Airports Authority and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Gerald and his wife, Maude, have seen many changes since moving to Georgetown in 1951. In this interview with Michele Jacobson he describes some of these changes as well as his experiences over the years as an active member of the Citizens Association of Georgetown where he addressed the issues of trees, a proposed twenty-story tower at 29th and M, street lights, community leadership and many other elements that contribute to the quality of life in Georgetown.
Michele Jacobson: OK. I’m here this morning with Gerald Brown and his wife, Maude Brown, and my name is Michele Jacobson.
Maude Brown: Count me in.
Michele: OK. We’re here at their home at 2512 Q Street, Apartment 220. My name is Michele Jacobson. They’re at the Georgetown, and they previously lived at 2726 O Street. So good morning, Mr. Brown. As we discussed a little bit, perhaps we’ll start, if you would, describing your history, your personal history.
Gerald Brown: Yes.
Michele: And then, we’ll talk a bit more specifically about Georgetown. When did you come to Georgetown? May I just ask that first?
Gerald: We came to Georgetown in the year 1951, November of 1951. I had finished my graduate studies of three years at Northwestern University where I obtained the MA and PhD degrees. We settled in Georgetown. We had an apartment at O Street and 28th Street where we lived for, I think, 12 years until we bought our house. That was my introduction to Georgetown, which was quite different from the Georgetown it is now. It was heavily black. I found the black people very amenable, cordial, helpful and rather nice people. We witnessed the change in Georgetown, you might say, a metamorphosis from the Georgetown of its black days into the smart residential section which it has become.
Michele: It must have been amazing to see that change.
Gerald: During this, we enjoyed all of the benefits of those changes and the enjoyment of meeting newly arrived people here; some who were quite distinguished and others who were just working people. But we enjoyed that very much, and we lived here quite actively and became acquainted with the president of the Citizens Association of Georgetown and who invited me to take a role in the association. I was appointed Chairman of the Committee on Trees, which I administered for some years. I came to know Captain Peter Belin and some other people very, very well and was closely involved with them in policy making for the association and direction of its efforts. I took an active role in culture of trees ‑‑ in care of trees in Georgetown ‑‑ and seeing that they were properly watered, that the district took care of them, and that the residents responded to the tree in front of their house.
Michele: Well, I’m so glad you did that because it’s added so much to the community.
Michele: The trees.
Gerald: Later on, after some years, maybe eight or nine years of that, a new president of the association asked me to take over, if I would, the matter of noise; airplane noise in Georgetown, and monitoring the flights, over flights of aircraft to and from National Airport, now known as Reagan Airport, which I did for some time. I received complaints from various members as to the noise, abuses, which they sustained and how it disturbed their sleep, how it disturbed their social life. I was aware of all that and represented these concerns to the district government and to the federal government, to the Federal Aviation Administration personnel who were charged with administering and operating National Airport.
I came to know some of the people at National Airport and I was able to talk with them about these matters. I often spoke and briefed the monthly meetings of the Citizens Association concerning airplane over flights, airplane noise, noise at the airport, and what we could expect and the forthcoming events in the way of aviation here.
Michele: Well now, I understand there’s some limitations on when airplanes can fly in and out of National. Did that come as a result of your participation?
Gerald: That was a very important part of my concerns, and I was ‑‑ very, very carefully monitoring the takeoffs and landings to see that they were in accordance with the regulations. One concern that I had, was the number of aircraft takeoffs at National Airport in an hour and the hourly operation. This was a matter of considerable correspondence with the federal government and telephone conversations. I did have several visits with the manager of National Airport.
Michele: Oh, you did, huh? That’s a tricky subject, isn’t it? It’s a very tricky subject.
Gerald: Yes. I found that this subject was one of great interest to the records of Georgetown and they often spoke to me about it. I became well known for my interest in this subject. Even now, people will speak to me about it as if I’m responsible.
Gerald: My reputation has lingered even to this advanced age.
Michele: Well, you must have been doing a good job. I think that’s a very tricky, very difficult, touchy subject to deal with.
Michele: I happen to live down near the river, and so I appreciate your efforts in trying to control the noise there and making them adhere to the guidelines.
Gerald: Well, I consulted frequently with Captain Belin and with other officials, other personnel in the Citizens Association, as well as members of the association, people who were in areas where airplanes flew over very regularly closer to the river and especially in the area on the west side of Wisconsin Avenue. On the east side of Wisconsin Avenue, the noise abuse from airplanes was lesser. It was more pronounced on the west side.
Michele: Probably because of the angle of the river.
Gerald: There’s one particular person named Wilbur Chapman who was very ardent on this issue and talked to me all the time. He owned property around Georgetown and saying that his tenants were being annoyed and that they were unhappy, and they were going to move. It was interfering with his income because of the airplane noise. What was I going to do about it? Well, I had to keep very active in correspondence with the federal government and talking to National Airport hearing an airplane go overhead when it was not supposed to be there. I would often call the airport and make a complaint and be told that the pilot of that airplane was in error and he would be disciplined.
Michele: Hmm. So, they disciplined the pilot of the airplane? Is that how they’d do it?
Michele: Or the airline.
Gerald: Well, they would fine him, I think $500.
Gerald: He would have to suffer that.
Michele: I see. Wow. Well, that’s an amazing topic to have had to have dealt with. Before we get a little further into Georgetown, tell me a bit about your, you mentioned that you were at, did you say Northwest University?
Gerald: When I …
Michele: Where did you go to school and what did you study? You said you had a MA and a PhD.
Gerald: Well, I went to school initially at the University of Florida and received a bachelors degree there.
Michele: I see.
Gerald: After the military service in World War II, I left the army and became a student at Northwestern University in graduate studies. That’s where I received the MA and PhD degrees.
Michele: I see.
Gerald: Upon conclusion of the studies there, I came on down to Washington. While we were at Northwestern, during that period of time, my wife and I were married in Evanston, Illinois.
Gerald: In a church there.
Michele: Oh my goodness. Well, and you were in the Army, did you say?
Gerald: What was that?
Michele: Did you say you were in the Army, in the war?
Gerald: I was in the Army, yes.
Michele: In the Army.
Gerald: When I was in college I received military training and was made a lieutenant in the Army Reserve on graduation. With the result, when the war occurred I was summoned into military service.
Michele: And then when you left the Army, was there recognition at that time?
Gerald: What was that?
Michele: Was there some form of recognition of your achievements in the Army?
Gerald: No, I did not receive any formal recognition. But I had, during my service, received a military decoration‑‑well, a medal, you might say, for my performance in carrying out an important military task of leadership and received this award. It is the very high decoration that’s just second below the Medal of Honor.
Michele: My goodness. Wow.
Gerald: It is known as the Silver Star.
Michele: The Silver Star. Then, you and Maude came to Georgetown in 1951.
Gerald: 1951, yes.
Michele: Then, you lived on O Street and you said the address, but I’m afraid I forget. What was the address?
Gerald: I think it was 2727.
Michele: Oh, very close to where you bought…
Gerald: 2729 O Street, right on the corner of O and 28th Streets. an apartment.
Michele: I see. And then, that was the apartment that you lived in.
Gerald: Yes, we lived in it.
Michele: And then, you bought a home?
Gerald: Well, we bought two other homes in Georgetown in the neighborhood, and finally we resided in a house on O Street across the street from the apartment. We lived there for 31 years in that house which we only sold a few months ago.
Michele: Do you remember the address of that house?
Gerald: That was 2726 O Street. I could never forget that number.
Michele: No. That’s a good number, 2726 O Street.
Gerald: Yes. Yes, we had lived there 31 years. The house had been built by a developer here in Georgetown, and it is a very attractive three story house.
Michele: Do you know when he built it? When it was built?
Gerald: About 1956.
Michele: . That wouldn’t have been Al Wheeler, would it? Who built the home? No, that would be too… No. It doesn’t matter. I was just curious because I just spoke with Mr. Wheeler, and he built some homes in Georgetown.
Gerald: No. I can’t remember the name right now. Maude, you might remember that name. It’ll come back to me in a bit.
Michele: That’s no matter. You said that things changed a lot. See, I have a time line in here of events in Georgetown. I’m trying to remember what it said about the 1950s. Well, I guess that was when Eisenhower was president, perhaps?
Gerald: Well, President Eisenhower was president, and he was elected president while we lived in the apartment, yes.
Michele: Let’s see ‑‑ according to this paper I have, it says that in 1954 the DC schools were desegregated.
Michele: That might have had some impact here in Georgetown, I don’t know. And then, of course after that, then Kennedy’s election occurred in the ’60s. Can you put a time as to when you think the community started to change? You said it changed from being predominately black to ‑‑ I think you said the “smart residential community.” When do you think that started?
Gerald: I think that started about 1960. The advent of the Kennedy family into Georgetown…
Gerald: At this time, I became a member of several clubs in Georgetown ‑‑ not Georgetown, in Washington ‑‑ which influenced my association of the people in Georgetown and the people I sought out, the Chevy Chase Club and the Metropolitan Club. Maude was in the Sulgrave club.
Michele: What was that club?
Gerald: Maude was in the Sulgrave Club, and eventually president.
Michele: Oh, really? Wow.
Gerald: This was always in the background of our life in Georgetown. But in Georgetown, I was always involved in the Citizens Association affairs. I was often a member of the nominating committee in choosing the new slate of officers, either as a chairman or a member of the committee. I had a long association with the presidents of the Citizens Association and accommodative to them and offering them advice on association policies and topics and subjects for concern.
And, I took a very …
Maude: Because Patrick and family and …
Gerald: That’s right, yes. Yeah, that’s right, yeah. Our family background had a lot to do with this. Maude being ‑‑ coming ‑‑ from Australia, and we always had a lot of Australian friends visiting because they were in Washington, and it was always a lot to do with the embassy of Australia.
Michele: Oh, how wonderful.
Gerald: We would often have parties in our house, cocktail parties, and we would invite the Ambassador from Australia and he always came and he always told a few good stories. It was that side of life in Georgetown which was very nice ‑‑ the social life. I took a very strong role in the association. I was always making my views known to the president. Usually it had something to do with the choice of the president, selecting, identifying who the president might be and persuading him to run for president. It was a very, very active life.
Eventually I became, as the airplane noise situation improved over a period of time, I don’t know whether it was my efforts, but some of it my efforts, but the government and the airlines and the people who run National Airport were all very conscious of the impact of noise on citizens of Georgetown and the other areas around.
Michele: That’s good.
Gerald: Because the airplanes flying overhead would destroy the ambiance of the party, a cocktail party in someone’s garden. There was nothing worse than having people there, all your good friends, and having the sound of an airplane coming.
Michele: Can’t even hear each other, yeah.
Gerald: We eliminated, we were gradually able to eliminate that and have the airplanes fly on a prescribed route up and down the river. The airlines were given the route that they were supposed to fly over the river, and that way [to] stay away from residential areas.
Michele: That makes perfect sense.
Gerald: That is still the rule. They must fly over the river except when they cannot see. When visibility is poor, well, then they can fly anywhere. That’s why on a very cloudy day you’ll hear airplanes flying all over the place.
Michele: Huh. I never knew that.
Gerald: But when the weather is good and they can see the river path, they have to fly over the river.
Michele: Well, as I say, I live near the river and that’s, that is what they do. I can’t imagine what it must have been like when they were flying over the residential area because it’s deafening. It can be deafening because they are either coming in or rising up and they aren’t, they’re not that far from the ground, really.
Gerald: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Michele: It can be deafening, although I’m very appreciative for the work that you did on that. Has the Citizens Association changed over the years in your opinion? Has it’s character or focus changed over the years?
Gerald: Yes, the character of the Citizens Association has changed. As people moved away or as people passed away, the new people came into the Citizens Association and I felt in meeting these people, I had a missionary interest to inform them of what our concerns were, and what my concerns were about the airport. Many of them were very active people, very good‑hearted people, anxious to do the right thing, except they had to be told what it was all about. They had to be briefed. They had to be converted.
Michele: [laughs] Put there by the missionary. Yeah.
Gerald: So that was it, and I took a strong role in recommending who, candidates to be President, who, candidates to be members of the Board, and people who I thought were qualified and suitable and capable.
Michele: That has a strong influence over the organization’s ability to do its work is finding a good team to lead it.
Gerald: As time went on, I found that my interest transcended the airport. I’ve found that public interest focused increasingly on public safety. I was also charged in my position with interest in the welfare of citizenry, their protection from crime, and so I became…
Gerald: I became a very strong advocate of proper street lighting and well‑known for being sure that the lights were operating. People would call me up and tell me lights were out at a certain location.
Gerald: It was only maybe about a year ago or so, I had noticed that all the streetlights ‑‑ lampposts ‑‑ were all very rusty and looked very dilapidated and needed a coat of paint. The district government said they didn’t have the money; something like $600,000 to paint them. But then, finally, they did paint them, after a few more calls, they did paint them. They look a lot better now, and Georgetown looks better.
Michele: Yes, it has a large influence, huge impact.
Gerald: So things like that. As the airport noise situation improved, I looked to other concerns, like the streetlamps, public safety.
Michele: And safety. In the 1950’s, was crime a problem?
Gerald: No. No, I don’t think it was a problem. No.
Michele: But it did get to be a problem, at some point, I believe?
Gerald: It did get to be a problem, but that was not my concern. I was not involved with public safety. I was not involved with public safety.
Michele: Oh, I see, it was the safety of the street lights in keeping…
Gerald: I was only concerned with streetlights as a means to increasing public safety.
Michele: Yeah, it makes perfect sense. Very interesting. I wonder, do you think Georgetown’s downtown is going in the right direction? Are you happy with the M Street and Wisconsin shops and all?
Gerald: Yes, I am. I think that it’s attractive, yes. I think it has taken on more of a…
Gerald: The ambiance of Georgetown, the thing that made a great difference was the advent of the Kennedy family. They made a great impact.
Gerald: I just wanted to say the advent of the Kennedy family was a great factor in shaping the ethos of Georgetown.
Gerald: The family was a great factor in shaping the character of Georgetown. It added a quality of smartness, a quality of fashion to Georgetown which it hadn’t had before. Bobby Kennedy and Ethel Kennedy lived at the corner of Q and 28th Streets. Everyone knew they were there and it was a great thing. John Kennedy, himself, lived in a house on N Street, in the 3300 block almost, on the other side of Wisconsin Avenue, and he was living in that house when he was elected President.
There was always a great story when the reporters came to tell him that he had been elected President. He came to the door and shook them by the hands, and they had a great conversation, and that’s the way it was.
Michele: That’s amazing.
Gerald: The Kennedy element persisted for a number of years. Even though they were not here, the aura was there.
Michele: Yes. So that was when Georgetown started to change a little bit.
Gerald: Yes. That brought them out. That was in the very early 1960s, and from then on, Georgetown was on an upward swing.
Michele: I think perhaps we were lucky to have been ignored for a while, because the homes were left intact. The community as a whole was left intact. It was just in 1954, I think, or 1950 ‑‑ excuse me ‑‑ that the Georgetown Act was passed, and that did a lot to preserve what is now Georgetown. Interesting.
Michele: We’ve had a big snowstorm here in 2010. Was there ever a winter that you recall where the snow was like this?
Gerald: Oh yes, we’ve had heavy snowfalls in the past, but nothing of this proportion, nothing of this size. This has brought things to a standstill. This has never happened in Georgetown before.
Michele: Wow. Well, it certainly has brought things to a standstill. I was walking here from near M and Wisconsin, and many times I had to walk in the street because the sidewalks were impassable. But it’s starting to get better now. How many days since we had the snow? I guess it was Wednesday we had it, so Thursday, Friday. It’s three days, and we’re just barely beginning to get out. [laughs]
How about in the downtown? I was starting to ask you about the downtown. In 1950, what was it like? Or in the ’50s and ’60s, what was the downtown like, of Georgetown?
Gerald: Well, there were shops there, but they were rather very ordinary, very ordinary shops. They did not have the smartness. They did not have the glamour that some of the shops have now. Not all of them have it now, but some do. But it changed a lot then. There were more shops like shoemakers, and dry‑cleaning shops, and things like that. They don’t have any of those now.
Gerald: There was an incident that I always remembered. The government was going to build a huge tower at the foot of 29th Street and M Street, a tower which was going to have lights projecting from it. It was going to be the equivalent of a 20‑story building. I took it on myself to oppose that, considering that it was a hazard to ‑‑ I said it was a hazard to aviation, a hazard to airplanes. I rallied support of the Citizens Association to my position and I spoke at the Fine Arts Commission where Carter Brown was the president and opposed this.
When I finished, when I saw the great big smile on his face, I knew that I had made my case. I sat down and he just said “Very, very good presentation,” just like that with a big smile and I won it.
Michele: What was the purpose of this tower? Was it a building or was it like a monument that they were…
Gerald: Oh no, not a monument. It was just a, they wanted to make a, it was going to be a tower that it would have lighting facilities on it.
Michele: The electrical,…
Gerald: I thought, and many other people felt that it was a useless thing, and which it really was. It was defeated.
Michele: Oh, that’s good. 20 stories.
Gerald: But, there were always little things like that would come up which would require someone to go and take up a position and speak to the people in the government. It was very nice, and now I’m just retired from all that.
Michele: Well, thank you for your service in those areas. It’s what made our community what it is now.
Michele: I appreciate your efforts. That’s a lot of work.
Michele: Were you working at the time, as well?
Michele: Were you teaching?
Gerald: I had full time employment, yes. Yes.
Michele: My goodness, at the same time. That’s hard.
Gerald: Yes, I was always in the military services. It carried on from World War II and being in the army. I continued all my connections with the military services and I had a position in the Pentagon in the Department of Defense.
Michele: Oh, you did? Oh, my goodness. Tell me a little about, well, just starting around your neighborhood where you lived for 31 years…
Gerald: Well, we lived here, 57 years in Georgetown.
Michele: In Georgetown, 57 in Georgetown, that’s amazing, but 31 in that one home, how did that immediate neighborhood change over those 31 years?
Gerald: Well, it was heavily black when we first went there and there was a church that was right next to where we lived, a red brick church. It was a black church. It had been a slave church and the black people had continued to use it as a church. We got to know them very well. They would always come over to our house and want to get ice. They got to know where the ice chest was and they would just come in and help themselves.
Gerald: They were all very friendly and I got to know them very well with some of them living across the street. When we had to move any furniture around, I would just call on one of them to come and help me and they did. They’d be very cheerful about it and they were very, very nice.
Michele: Good neighbors.
Gerald: Yeah. There are still, I think, two black families living here in the area and they go to the same church I do. I remember my wife and I attended a church. It was only around the block from where we lived. We went there and we found that everyone was black and we sat in the front row. My wife likes to hear everything that’s going on. A black gentleman came along and said he was going to ask us to move to another seat. So, he took us and he sat us right in the very back seat in the church, in the very back seat. We didn’t pay any attention to that though. I just thought it was interesting when we continued to attend the church and we always sat in the back somewhere.
Michele: Hmm. That’s strange.
Gerald: But, it was, they were very nice people and all, yeah.
Michele: You must have seen many people come and go over those 30, well more than 31 years in that neighborhood.
Gerald: Yes, yes.
Michele: Yeah. Huh. Well, that’s wonderful. Did you happen to be at all aware of the changes that occurred south of M Street?
Gerald: Yes, yes.
Michele: Probably in about the late ’60s or early ’70s?
Michele: I think it might have been.
Gerald: Well, it was always an industrial area down there. There was a cement company down there and the PEPCO had a station down there and there was a construction firm. They were doing something with gravel. They always had tug boats bringing gravel up the river and delivering it to Georgetown. That was part of the cement business. It was a very active industrial area. There was a place where ‑‑ a company ‑‑ which took in deceased animals and would and would render them. But in the process of rendering them, they created the most repulsive odors, the most repulsive odors. That went on for some years until we were finally able to get them to move.
Michele: Huh. That must have been awful.
Gerald: Yeah. It was that sort of thing down below M Street and some people lived there. The people, some people lived there and, of course, it’s a fairly acceptable residential area now, and quite a lot of people do live there now.
Michele: Yeah, now it’s changed. What about transportation in 1951 or around that time? How did transportation change? Were the trolley cars working back then?
Michele: The trolley cars, the cable…
Gerald: Yes, trolley cars were working. Yes, they were working.
Michele: Yeah. Were they useful? Were they helpful?
Gerald: Yes, they were helpful. I rode on them quite often, yes.
Michele: Yeah. Then, they pulled them out and then had buses instead, I guess.
Gerald: They put in the buses, yes.
Michele: Yeah. So, that’s been a big change.
Gerald: Yes. Oh, yes, that was. That was a great change.
Michele: Yeah. I wonder when that happened? I’ll have to look that up. Well, this has been very interesting. Is there anything else that you would like to tell me about your experiences here in Georgetown?
Gerald: Well, I’m sorry, I’ve got this runny nose. Oh, no. It’s just that it’s been a very nice area and we’ve enjoyed being here. We always liked going to the meetings of the Citizens Association every month, monthly meeting. It was always like a neighborhood gathering where people talked about a lot of things other than the Citizens Association.
Michele: Yeah. I want to pass on that Betsy and Nola miss you and they haven’t seen you for a little while, and so, they miss you coming to the meetings.
Gerald: Well, nowadays they’ve changed. We used to always have the meetings at a hall provided by St. John’s Episcopal Church on the other side, and we would meet there. There’s a parking lot across the street where you could park the car. Yet, my wife could walk across the street, she has to use a walker and it’s not very easy for her to walk and it was not a very long distance. Now they have the meetings in various locations around Georgetown. Various places will allow them to have meetings in their premises. Consequently, the parking situation is difficult. It’s difficult.
Michele: I see. I see.
Gerald: The distances that my wife has to walk to get to the meeting is troublesome.
Gerald: We don’t go to the meetings now because we cannot transcend the problems.
Michele: Yeah. I’ll pass that along. I’m sorry because you’re missed.
Gerald: It used to be very nice when we had the meetings at St. John’s Church, which was an attractive place to have the meetings. Now the various business enterprises allow them to use their premises, the Swedish Embassy allows them to use their embassy premises there, and so on.
Michele: Yeah, yeah. Well, I appreciate your time so much. This has been very interesting.
Michele: If there’s anything else that you want to add, I want to say that if I can voice for everybody, thank you for all of the time that you have given to the Citizens Association of Georgetown.
Michele: And, to the community.
Michele: Well, thank you.
Gerald: Yeah. Well, thank you.