D.C.'s Plan To Take Back A Neighborhood

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, February 24, 2005

Princess Hansen's family got out of Sursum Corda; they hope never to set foot again in the scary place where the 14-year-old girl was murdered last year. The 1,041 people who still live in Sursum Corda may talk about getting out, but where would they go?

The square bounded by K and M streets NW from North Capitol Street to First Street has been trouble for decades. "That place is designed for criminals," says D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey--lots of isolated corners, a center-city location with lots of office workers nearby but totally invisible from the main drags.

For years, even the police were afraid to enter Sursum Corda. The residents are mostly people who couldn't find anywhere else to live--more than half the households earn less than a third of the average U.S. income. The dealers ruled.

But after the Hansen murder and the public outcry that followed, City Administrator Robert Bobb decided the city had to regain control. Sursum Corda became the first of 14 "hot spots," crime-saturated places where the District launched an all-agencies effort to change the rules. A year later, crime is down more than 40 percent in Sursum Corda, and there hasn't been a murder since Princess died.

First District Cmdr. Tom McGuire had his officers put together a list of the top 50 criminals in Sursum Corda. Most of the dealers on the streets don't live in the complex; this is their office. "Sursum Corda was like a free zone where people could ply their trade and move on," Ramsey says.

A year later, all but five of the top 50--and about 400 other drug dealers, buyers, prostitutes and others--have been arrested. Most of the bad guys are already back on the street, but McGuire was ready for that. "We knew they would get out quickly," he says, "so as we locked them up, we got the U.S. attorney's office to get stay-away orders keeping them out of Sursum Corda. If we caught them there, we could start contempt of court cases against them."

Alverta Munlyn, a longtime resident who is leading an effort to rebuild Sursum Corda, says there is noticeably less crime now but the police action only mows the weeds, leaving the roots behind. "They shut one drug house, and another opens. You gather up the young boys, but you're not finding who brings it to the neighborhood. How come we can do everything in another country, but we can't figure out our own community?"

Bobb and the District want to answer Munlyn's question--and the doubts of many Washingtonians. "The hurricane of gentrification is getting ready to wash right over Sursum Corda," he says, sweeping his hand across a satellite image of the District's core. "We cannot continue to lose and displace residents to development."

For eight months, Bobb has been meeting with Munlyn and other residents, and they recently agreed on the basic rules for reconstructing the area. Details are still hazy, but the idea is to replace the existing 500 units with 1,500 units, guaranteeing residents the right to return to subsidized housing. The rest of the units would be split between moderate-income families and those that can afford the market rate. With a mixed-income neighborhood, the city hopes to attract developers, create stability and prevent displacement.

"We've damaged a lot of communities by parachuting in with our plans," Bobb says. "This is going to be a slow process of winning trust, but it would be a shameful act if we just sat back and let the wave of gentrification wash over them."

The new Sursum Corda is expected to cost about $400 million, like a certain baseball stadium. As with that stadium, much of the cost will likely be borne eventually by private investors. This place is so dangerous that few residents oppose tearing it down. As Munlyn says, an economically mixed community will have better schools and services than a poor neighborhood could ever muster.

Bobb says the new Sursum Corda can be built in five years; Munlyn thinks it will take much longer. But with the federal government bailing out on housing projects like Sursum Corda, the pressure to act quickly is intense.

"This is our test," Bobb says. "Every city I've been in, we see African American neighborhoods displaced, and they never come back. We have to make this work. This is harder than baseball--much harder."

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