I landed in a neighborhood some folks fear. Now it’s my D.C.

The generous soul beneath the chaos of Carver Langston

August 1, 2014

I moved to Carver Langston, a community in Northeast Washington just west of the Anacostia River, in 2011. A couple of years later, I began photographing strangers with an iPhone, finding them, then giving them prints. Now 8-year-old C.J. is my godson, and I know more neighbors than anywhere else I’ve lived.

When I ask them about this place, I’m often countered with questions: How did you get here? What do you think of it?

Fair enough. Carver Langston is dominated by two housing projects built expressly for blacks in a segregated city: federal project Langston Terrace, completed in 1938, and massive Carver Terrace, begun a year later by a private developer. I recall seeing in the year after I arrived, too broke to rent elsewhere, only five whites besides me. Two were, apparently, undercover police costumed as desperados looking for a fix.

Locals began to call Carver Langston “Little Vietnam” during the height of drug-related violence in the 1980s and ’90s. The streets are quieter now, but not too quiet. In a 2013 Washington Post map of gunshots in the city, Carver Langston glowed dark purple. One afternoon last summer, I was planting zinnias in pots outside when one man shot at another on the opposite sidewalk. This morning, a man was shot to death a block away.

It’s a complicated place. Sometimes I think of it as a refugee camp a few generations old. Given options, many wouldn’t have chosen it. Once here, they have worked hard to make it feel like home. It is marked by chaos and mistrust, yes, but also deep generosity. Stray cats are fed. A bag of hand-me-downs is divvied by what fits whom. A message is left on a phone: “Top o’ the mornin’ to you, love!” Given a photograph of oneself, a person passes it to friends, who remark — they always do — on how good-looking its subject is.

Darcy Courteau is writing a book about the rural Ozark Mountain community where she was born.

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