Corner Carryout In a Crossfire on An Urban Frontier

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The graffiti that fill the walls of the vestibule at the New Dragon Carryout tells the story: R.I.P. tributes to young people killed right outside, boastful tagging by the crews that sell drugs on the corner, and this evocation of an all-too-local address: "16th and Death Row."

The New Dragon is hard by that place, at 15th and C streets SE, on a block of Capitol Hill where house prices have shot up from $120,000 to $500,000 since 2001, without much of a decrease in the shots fired outside.

As the bass thuds from car stereos, young white people in vehicles with suburban tags exchange cash for tiny envelopes from young black guys on the corner. The Chinese immigrant family inside the New Dragon cowers behind bulletproof plastic while drug crews do business in their vestibule.

"It's shootings, fights, the throwing garbage around, blocking traffic -- it's loud and it's unsafe," says Corey Buffo, who lives down the block.

The other night, a dealer stopped a neighbor walking his dogs and warned, "Don't come here again, or it'll be target practice."

For many years, neighbors have sought to clean up the corner. The police added patrols, and the National Guard mounted stage lights to chase the bad guys away. Each night when the cops left, the drug trade resumed.

In 2000, Jim Myers, a dynamo of a local activist, and dozens of others argued to the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board that the New Dragon attracted drugs, violence and trash to the corner it shares with Payne Elementary School. The board stripped the shop of its beer and wine license.

But the crews were still in business.

So Myers, 64, this summer organized a dine-in: One evening a week, he and about 20 other neighbors bought dinner at the New Dragon (egg roll, $1.10; turkey sandwich, $2.30) and ate right there on the corner.

"We realized that through all these years, with all the blood and the shootings, somebody was inside the New Dragon chopping broccoli," Myers says. "It didn't compute with this whole cosmos of negativity." (Myers, a writer, was a consultant on the CBS crime drama "The District"; when producers asked what a bad block should look like, he created characters modeled on the New Dragon crowd.)

For a few hours each week, the bad guys ceded the corner back to the neighbors. But the beef-and-broccoli rebellion waned: The effect lasted only as long as dinner, and many older residents stayed home, feeling vulnerable to retribution by the crews.

New strategy: Buffo, Myers and six other neighbors have sued the New Dragon, demanding it be closed for violating the zoning code by running a fast-food place with no tables on a block zoned for sit-down restaurants.

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