Dismissed and Disdained, Ward 8 Drowns in Appalling Neglect

A Ward 8 crossroads named for heroic figures Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X avenues isn't home to a library or community center, but to a liquor store.
A Ward 8 crossroads named for heroic figures Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X avenues isn't home to a library or community center, but to a liquor store. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
By Malcolm H. Woodland
Thursday, February 2, 2006

As a resident of Ward 8, I am troubled by the lack of concern and at times outright disdain exhibited for my section of the city by Washington officials. I witness my neighborhood being silenced by poverty, health disparities and indiscriminate violence.

These problems are exaggerated and prolonged by the ward's failing school system. The public schools in Ward 8 are disorganized, inadequately funded and often located in the most dangerous communities. The illiteracy, dropout rate and school violence in this area reflect the inadequacy of our educational institutions. In my neighborhood, open-air drug markets are commonplace and fostered by inefficient policing.

My fellow residents feel like hostages in their homes. We should not be forced to live under such appalling conditions.

While I am alarmed at the disregard for the lives of Ward 8 residents, my urgent concern is with the systematic social erosion occurring in my community. I see too many kids in my neighborhood losing their lives as Mayor Anthony A. Williams and other city officials refuse to critically engage the politics that create these problems.

A stroll through the blocks that surround my home in the 3000 block of 5th Street SE reveals these problems. My community is overrun with halfway houses, homes for the mentally ill, homes for sexual offenders and methadone clinics. The dispersion of the city's neediest populations into this community is problematic because of the lack of resources in Ward 8.

Housing these populations would not be so problematic if the appropriate community resources were provided. For example, services such as reentry-to-work programs, literacy initiatives and hospitals should line the streets of my neighborhood. Rather, the backdrop of the neighborhood consists of liquor stores and corner stores that sell absolutely nothing nutritious but stock excessive amounts of malt liquor.

Locating fresh fruits and vegetables in Ward 8 is as difficult as finding 211 Malt Liquor on Foxhall Road in upper Northwest. The mayor and other city officials should be ashamed.

Perhaps most insulting is the liquor store that scars the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X avenues. One would suppose that a crossroads named for these heroic figures would host a library or community enrichment center. Instead there is a filthy liquor store that smells of urine and feces. Neighborhood drug addicts and alcoholics congregate in front of the store from the time it opens until it closes.

My sympathies are extended to Ward 8 parents and teachers who try to teach our children self-appreciation and self-love amid a context that exhibits a clear lack of love for the lives of our children. Less-than-subtle disregard is exhibited toward our children through old and rotting school buildings, the hiring of school security guards with criminal records and nonexistent after-school programming.

The parents of these children often work unbearable hours, trying to make ends meet, leaving the children to have their immature curiosities answered in the streets. As a result, children with no structured activities mingle on the same corners as junkies and alcoholics. When people in distress are forced together under subversive circumstances, violence becomes inevitable.

But change is possible, and solutions can be found on the individual, local and national levels within the ward. Individually, Ward 8 residents must continue to pressure local government officials to address the employment, economic and health disparities. City officials must cultivate institutions that reconstruct the social fabric of the neighborhoods, including small businesses, which often provide a sense of social cohesion as well as needed employment opportunities.

Perhaps most important on a local level, officials should increase community policing and other initiatives that allow the people of Ward 8 to feel safe enough to reclaim their neighborhoods. On the national level, jobs that provide living wages must be reintroduced to poor urban areas, offering the residents the opportunity to participate in the established economy.

As I write about the condition of my neighborhood, I am reminded of D.C. native Marvin Gaye's song "Save the Children." Gaye asks, "Who really cares? Who's willing to try to save a world that is destined to die?"

It is obvious to the people of Ward 8 that Washington officials do not care and are willing to let my community die.

Malcolm H. Woodland is a Ward 8 homeowner and research fellow at the Center for Human Environments at Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company