Slaying Still Haunts Eighth and H Streets;D.C. Neighborhood Hopes for Better Days

April 22, 2012

This article originally ran on March 23, 1986.

The alley where Catherine Fuller was brutally murdered on a rainy afternoon nearly 1 1/2 years ago has been cleaned and dirtied again. On a recent afternoon, the park where her assailants met daily — young men known as the “Eighth and H Crew” — was sanctuary only to a man dressed in Army fatigues who muttered to himself and said his name was “John.”

Three months after the trial of Fuller’s murderers, people in this Northeast Washington community speak of fear and the invisible scars of the tragedy, and real estate agents say people do not want to buy in the neighborhood.

Yet there is excitement about a new merchants association and talk of entrepreneurs who view the H Street corridor as a place of economic promise.

Residents welcome that future. But for now, they say, unemployment and crime are still high and there are no recreation facilities for teen-agers in the area. Most residents agree there have been no visible changes in the community since the day Fuller was killed.

“We need to go back to the word of God! We’re gonna leave here one day!” an evangelist on the southeast corner of Eighth and H streets NE called through a bullhorn to passers-by one recent afternoon.

Across the street a young man in a knit cap asked the same passers-by: “Want to buy a gold chain today?” Standing in front of Murry’s Steaks, a woman slipped her tank top to her waist to reveal her breasts. A little girl walked by on her way from school, a violin case strapped to her shoulder.

The children who walk on H Street see a lot. Some people have known that for a long time; now everyone knows. This is the street with the infamous corner, the street with the alley where the 48-year-old Fuller, a mother of six, was brutally beaten to death, an area of the city that was mentioned on the news almost nightly during the six-week trial of nine young men and one woman charged with her murder.

Residents, many of whom have lived in the working class neighborhood for two decades, live with the notoriety that a single brutal act by some of their young people has brought upon their neighborhood.

“I’ve talked to real estate agents who say they’ve had people who don’t want to go north beyond H Street,” said Barbara Thomas, special projects manager for the H Street Community Development Corp. “On the other hand, we are still getting calls from business people interested in coming into the area.”

Thomas said she believes that an economic upswing is on the way for the community, and she points to the formation of a new Eighth Street Merchants Association, which she said includes black, white and Korean business persons.

Residential streets south of the H Street corridor have been gentrified. Once-decaying row houses, scooped up at bargain prices, stand freshly painted with bars at their doors and windows. North of the corridor is a mixed neighborhood of run-down and well-kept houses, new and longtime residents, middle-class families and families who run out of food before the next check comes.

Between the two communities is the demilitarized zone: H Street, small shops and vacant lots on a strip that seems to belong to petty thieves, thugs and drug dealers most evenings. In the past a lot of purse snatchings on the strip occurred at the now-notorious Eighth and H streets corner, where two banks attract elderly clients carrying Social Security checks.

The corner is now “quiet . . . dead,” according to a police detective who worked on the Fuller case.

Some residents agree. Others warn that the real test will come soon as warm weather draws idle young men into the streets.

“People talked about the Fuller case for a while because it was shocking, bizarre,” said Gerald Turner, owner of B&B Beauty Supply, 652 H St. NE. “But it didn’t change anything, in a negative or positive way. Now the talk is about the weather.”

Said 65-year-old Stanley Meadows, who since 1939 has owned the auto garage behind which Fuller was killed: “I can’t help but think about it; it was so close. But I’m trying to forget.”

There may not be visible signs of change, yet people speak of changes, invisible scars that will be carried for some time as well as new thought being given to the condition of the neighborhood.

“It’s nothing you can see,” said Joe Henderson, an optician with an office on H Street. “ The Fuller murder gave the people a lot to think about — the young people and the old.

“Those kids got some pretty big time,” said Henderson, who is president of the Brown Junior High School PTA and who knew some of the Fuller case defendants. “It may have shaken up the youngsters a little bit if they thought about messing up. Some of these youngsters live in that make-believe world where they think nothing can happen to them.”

“Because of the Fuller case, it has become glaringly obvious that there is nothing here for kids,” said Thomas. “There is absolutely nothing to do here but hang out.”

“It’s terrible when you’re 17 and it’s a Friday night in the summer and you have nothing to do,” said Henderson. “It’s a dangerous situation for everybody.”

Some residents remember when H Street Northeast was a shopping mecca and no one stood idle on the street corners.

“It was more like a middle-class neighborhood,” said Katie Smith, who lives in the 800 block of Ninth Street Northeast. “I have a kinship to the neighborhood because I know how pretty it was when I was a child. We had flowers and vegetables, and no one would ever think of stepping on anyone else’s grass.”

In 1968, following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., rioting turned some blocks of H Street into a huge blaze fed by rage until nothing was left but cinders and memories. Since then the D.C. government has announced a series of plans to rehabilitate the corridor.

“It seems like it’s taking forever,” said Smith. “They’ve revitalized Pennsylvania Avenue on Capitol Hill. That’s basically the same kind of area we used to have. Now you ride down the H Street corridor and we have so much unemployment, people standing around with nothing to do.”

“What makes me mad is that nobody has done anything to help the youths in this area -- not the District, not the people in the neighborhood,” said Henderson.

“I’m still looking for some good constructive entertainment for the children to come here,” he said. “When the weather breaks, they get a lot of energy. They have no place to go to dance around here, no movie theater, no bowling alleys, no anything.”

Meanwhile, Michael Willis, who used to live in the neighborhood, is planning a spring fashion show to raise money for the Fuller family.

“The main reason is to let Mr. Fuller know there are a few decent people who still care and who feel a deep sorrow for what has happened,” explained Willis, who said his mother knew Catherine Fuller.

Other people are praying for more good to come to their neighborhood. The merchants association is to meet monthly with officers from the police districts in the area. Members visited the U.S. attorney’s office to “talk about the Fuller case and the negative aspect it had on the community, and to set up channels of communication,” said Thomas. Another defendant is awaiting trial on murder charges, and prosecutors have said the investigation into Fuller’s death continues.

Smith wants to be optimistic. “Maybe something positive can come out of something negative. Since Martin Luther King’s death we’ve had all these torn-down buildings.

“All we can do is call the police about the crime and pray the bureaucrats do something about the other problems,” she said. “I hope people will look at this community now. I hope they will care a little bit.”

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