Sursum Corda Cooperative

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Map of Washington, D.C., with Sursum Corda highlighted in red

Sursum Corda Cooperative is a small neighborhood located in Washington, D.C., bounded by North Capitol Street on the east, First Street NW to the west, K Street NW to the south, and New York Avenue NW to the north. It consists of 199 housing units constructed as an experiment in cooperatively managed low-income housing in 1968. Managed by the District of Columbia Housing Authority, it became a notorious open air drug market plagued by violence and poverty in the 1980s. In 2005 the District of Columbia offered to purchase the complex as part of its "New Communities" plan for neighborhood rehabilitation.


Residential neighborhoods north of Massachusetts Avenue underwent a prolonged decay in the first half of the 20th century. Controversial urban renewal plans of the 1950s and 1960s called for massive demolition of the area, part of it comprising the old Irish American neighborhood of Swampoodle, though they were only partially executed.

Various Masonic and religious organizations took advantage of loan programs of the recently created U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to build housing for some of the displaced households. A group of Catholic activists from the nearby Gonzaga College High School and the parish of St. Aloysius conceived of a new urban village to house some of the households displaced by the demolitions. They also received support from the D.C. Public Housing Authority and the then-Senator from New York, Robert F. Kennedy.

The leading organizer and founder of the Cooperative was Eugene L. Stewart, an alumnus of Georgetown University.[1][2] In 1965 Stewart was approached as a member of the Georgetown Alumni Association and asked if the Association would become involved by sponsoring a low income housing project.[3][4] The idea presented to him was for students and alumni to assist with tutoring the poor and their children in the community. Stewart presented the ideas to the Alumni Board of Governors, but the plan was rejected. He formed Sursum Corda, Inc. and oversaw the construction of the Sursum Corda Cooperative.[4]

Image of Sursum Corda Cooperative along 1st NW, taken in January 2014.

Construction on the new development began in 1967. It was named Sursum Corda, a Latin expression meaning Lift up your hearts which is intoned at the start of the Eucharistic Prayer during the Mass. The original plan called for 155 resident-owned and 44 rental townhouses on four acres (16,000 m²), arranged on courtyards and alleys around a horseshoe-shaped street (1st Terrace, L Place, and 1st Place NW) to promote a sense of community. The style was quite unusual for public housing of the era, in that the neighborhood was largely closed off, presaging some of the HOPE VI rehabilitation plans. The units offered amenities such as air conditioning, washer and dryer units, and kitchen garbage disposals. Rents were originally fixed at 25 percent of the residents' income.

A group of nuns from the religious institute of the Religious of the Sacred Heart (R.S.C.J.) were among the first residents, aiming to support and minister to the new residents. Father Horace McKenna, a Jesuit priest at St. Aloysius Church at Gonzaga College High School and well-known advocate for the poor, established a program to bring Georgetown University undergraduate students to tutor children in the neighborhood, a program which continues to the present day. McKenna Walk, NW is named for him.

Disadvantageous tax laws led to neglect of the properties, and the arrival of crack cocaine in the 1980s sent the neighborhood into a steep decline. Its layout made it difficult to police, and consequently an ideal drug market and frequent battleground for street gangs. Despite the efforts of the Tenants Association, it became associated with poverty and crime. Even the nuns were driven away, the last departing in the early 1990s.

The neighborhood re-entered the city's consciousness on January 21, 2004 when a gunman shot 14-year-old Jahkema Princess Hansen execution style, believing she may have witnessed one of two shootings in the neighborhood the previous Sunday. The D.C. Metropolitan Police designated the area as an increased enforcement zone for drug trafficking and prostitution afterwards.

The construction of the nearby NoMa - Gallaudet University and Union Station stations of the Washington Metro and a surge in property values have sparked interest in redeveloping this area; the once-abandoned region is now a frontier of gentrification dubbed NoMa (for North of Massachusetts). The city is now advancing a plan called "New Communities" to encourage mixed-income development. The plan was supported by the Bush Administration; HUD, which owns the mortgages on most of the buildings in the area, has foreclosed on Sursum Corda and may not renew its Section 8 contracts with the other complexes in the area.


  1. ^ Feinberg, Lawrence (25 September 1968). "Montgomery Sets Up Study of Gun Control". Washington Post. 
  2. ^ Monagan, John (1985). Horace – Priest of the Poor. Georgetown University Press. ISBN 9780878404216. 
  3. ^ "Sursum Corda Lift Up Your Hearts". Journal of Housing 30 (1). 30 January 1973. 
  4. ^ a b "Georgetown’s Highest Ranking of The Greatest Generation". The Georgetown Academy. February 1999. 


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Coordinates: 38°54′19″N 77°00′40″W / 38.9053°N 77.0112°W / 38.9053; -77.0112