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As Va. Area Evolves, Views Diverge

Calderon, 32, who is Peruvian, speculated that some of the problems stem from cultural differences between how people lived in their native countries and how people live here.

Overall, she said through a translator, "this neighborhood is fine."

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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Cindy Boyd, though, said she stays shut in her townhouse most the time. Since the slaying, she and her husband have gotten a dog for protection, and she drives her daughter to school, rather than let her walk the few blocks.

"I'm afraid of getting caught in the crossfire," said Boyd, 40. "I used to walk the dog, but it just got too bad. One guy said we should sit on the front porch and watch what's going on, but I don't like sitting outside. I know they're trying to clean it up, but it just seems like there's more and more crime. Just looking around, there's more teenagers hanging out on the corners, mostly at night."

Maj. Ray Colgan, assistant chief for criminal investigations for the Prince William police, said that in reality, there has not been a significant increase in crime in Irongate.

While a few documented gang members live there, he said, the three incidents, for which most arrests have been made, were hardly harbingers of some dark future.

"Numbers-wise, I don't see anything different from where it's been," said Colgan, who added that the department patrols the area regularly and has deployed a street crimes unit there. "It's a matter of perception."

Robert J. Sampson, a professor of sociology at Harvard University, said in his studies, perceptions of order and disorder in neighborhoods tend to be influenced by racial composition: the more Latinos or blacks who move in, the more people, including Latinos and blacks, tend to perceive that things are getting worse, even if they are not.

In fact, his research has found that neighborhoods with high concentrations of first- and second-generation immigrants often have low rates of violence.

"I'd say it's not just the [crime] that is important but the meaning people give to it that is equally important," Sampson said. "People will say, 'Well, this is what's going to happen to the neighborhood,' so they leave. But suppose people stayed and fought the problem?

"That's the irony of perceptions -- we saw this historically in U.S. cities. People would say, 'Well, this is what's going to happen to the neighborhood,' so I leave, and I make it happen," by shifting money and commitment elsewhere.

People always have come and gone in Irongate, but many are leaving now specifically because they believe things are getting worse.

Michelle Cowin-Gantz will soon be among them. She is moving farther west, to a house with an acre of land. At Irongate, her three children -- 14, 9 and 5 -- are not allowed to play outside unless she is watching. She doesn't take the garbage out at night because she is afraid. "And if you drive around," she said, "it's just dirty."

"This neighborhood has served its purpose for me," said Cowin-Gantz, 37. "I wanted to buy a house, go to graduate school and in the meantime, my kids learned to appreciate different cultures. But this is too much.

"These people over here," she said, pointing to the house next door, "there are 15 in the house. I don't know, I don't know what I'm trying to say. . . . They're here more for economic reasons. They're not devoted to the community," she said and added: "Not that I am."

Staff writer Lila de Tantillo contributed to this report.

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