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As Va. Area Evolves, Views Diverge

Some See Safe Haven in Pr. William's Irongate Neighborhood; Others Live in Fear

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 15, 2005; Page B01

The neighborhood called Irongate is a horseshoe-shaped subdivision of brick- and vinyl-sided townhouses in the dense middle of Prince William County, behind the Dollar Tree, the Starbucks and the constant traffic of Sudley Road.

It is a community of families -- construction workers, teachers, middle managers, security guards -- where the 7-Eleven has recently become Arbol de la Vida Pentecostal Church, where a man named Candido Guerrero, in a white cowboy hat, walks down the sidewalk past families named Purschwitz and Chhoeut.

Dorka Calderon says she and neighbors have cleaned yards together, and she is comfortable walking, though she does so cautiously. Some problems might stem from cultural differences, she says. (PMichael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)

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Residents here, who are increasingly Honduran, Salvadoran, Mexican and Peruvian, among other groups, say it has almost always been a diverse and dynamic sort of place, one that has tended to reflect the ups and downs of the wider world.

Even so, recent months have been rather jarring.

In August, four members of the gang called Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, sealed off a townhouse, and one of them shot to death a man visiting there, a fellow gang member they suspected of cooperating with federal authorities, the county prosecutor said. In January, a 14-year-old boy shot a 16-year-old in the face at a bus stop after school, an incident police said was over a compact disc, not gangs. And last month, a 14-year-old member of a local gang called South Side Locos was beaten nearly to death with crowbars and baseball bats by four young men who police said were members of MS-13.

There have been a few street robberies lately, car windows smashed, bicycles and Christmas trees stolen and fistfights, incidents that, in the grand scheme of things, represent perhaps a tiny increase in crime, though hardly a trend, Prince William police say.

To residents of one melting pot neighborhood of Northern Virginia, though, it is the small scheme of things that matters: how it feels walking home from the Food Lion at 2 p.m. or taking the garbage out at night. And in that sense, some say, things feel altered.

Dorka Calderon locks her bike in the front yard now. Concepcion Cortez tells her son: "Don't go past here; don't go past there."

And yet, depending on who is speaking, the meaning attached to it all varies widely: Irongate is fairly friendly or increasingly hostile; it is getting cleaner or dirtier; it is a pretty nice place to live, despite the recent violence, or it is under siege. Perceptions shift from door to door.

"I feel fine here," said Rosa Galo, 26, a stay-at-home mother with three children, ages 6, 2 and 1. She has lived in Irongate four years with her husband, a bricklayer.

The family lives on Community Drive, one of the two main streets in Irongate, lined with trees and similar-looking, two-story townhouses. Their home is in the middle, by the pool, where teenagers hang out on warm evenings, but Galo said she didn't know about any gang problems, and she walks to the store without worry.

She noted that a student brought a gun, which turned out to be a toy, to the elementary school once. Otherwise, she said, "we haven't had any problems."

Less than a block away, however, Joy Banegas, 46, an elementary school teacher, said she sees a neighborhood that seems to be slipping steadily.

"There's a very laissez-faire attitude," she said. "It's not the same. It's not safe around here anymore."

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