Fear's Neighbors

Ebony Simms sells snacks on Robinson Place SE, an area where homicides are common.
Ebony Simms sells snacks on Robinson Place SE, an area where homicides are common. (Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 19, 2006

What is the geography of Fear, that expansive territory into which some people sink and never quite make it out?

In one place, Fear is so steady and persistent, its residents have become familiar with it. "We have had drive-bys, but it's a good neighborhood. It's quiet most of the time."

In another place, Fear arrives suddenly, crashing into a neighborhood's charm, like an unexpected visitor, had the nerve to come all the way up on the circular driveway . Happened in a nice neighborhood, where people, "because of the statistics," expect comfort because they paid for it. A white Briton's throat is cut, his white companion "nearly raped." Two black men, a teenager and a 26-year-old woman are arrested. The police chief declares a citywide crime emergency as 14 people are killed in 12 days. The Mall, the rarely violated place, is threatened. A police inspector tells an affluent crowd in a neighborhood meeting that people should be suspicious of black men standing on corners in Georgetown at 2 a.m. "They were black," Inspector Andy Solberg said. "This is not a racial thing to say that black people are unusual in Georgetown. This is a fact of life."

That was the state of the city last week.

The inspector has since apologized. The mayor has called a special session of the D.C. Council to discuss cutting crime. Still, the geography of Fear remains a question.

Homicide, the most foul of deeds, and the words following have inflamed tensions, breaking the sensitive lines of race and class, prompting discussions about the external and internal geography of Fear.

We go in search of answers to the questions on different sides of the lines.

* * *

First stop: Robinson Place SE, a predominantly black neighborhood where two suspects in the Georgetown slaying lived and were arrested. Robinson Place is a circular street so far from grocery stores and restaurants that the daily visits by the ice cream truck generate a lunchtime rush -- people emerging from their apartments to buy pink pickled eggs and half smokes, and chili dogs and chips and red liquid in plastic bottles. It is a place where rather than repairing an apartment complex swimming pool, the owners filled it with dirt and planted grass on top without having removed the concrete below. People who live here say someone tore down the basketball court and put up tennis courts, "but don't nobody down here like playing tennis." And there is nothing for the young people to do in a place where Fear is constant and bold and familiar like an overexposed celebrity.

And people recognize Fear here, it follows them, greets them in the evening, escorts old women off their porches at night, rides along in unknown cars in the noon hour, in back seats that could be carrying innocent visitors or drive-by shooters.

It is a neighborhood where people mind their business but still go to the funerals. Where talking to the police can get you killed, for real. Where if you are standing in line for the ice cream truck, somebody points out a young man whose father was gunned down right over there because, they say, he took the basketball from some young punks.

The ice cream man, Kenneth Rawlinson, 46, climbs out of his truck to explain: "Kids don't have no recreation, no courts," he says. "They come buy lunch here because the stores are gone."

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