It Feels Like Home, Faults and All

By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 31, 2007

When my doorbell rang in mid-December a year ago, boxes were everywhere. The kitchen still was under renovation. I had just moved into a 100-year-old rowhouse and wasn't expecting company. My only unexpected visitors were the police, who had recently come by looking for a parole violator who'd given my address as his own.

So I was surprised when I opened the door and found a sidewalk full of Christmas carolers, right here in Anacostia.

I had lived in the Washington region on and off for 15 years, and never once had I seen a caroler in my neighborhood. Not in Greenbelt. Not in Capitol Hill, Bloomingdale or Logan Circle.

But in the middle of Ward 8, supposedly the city's meanest streets, there they were, prancing around at night, singing sappy Christmas songs. I can't remember what they sang but, as they bounced merrily down the street, I stood on the porch smiling. This was the sense of community I'd hope to find, hoped to help build. The Historic Anacostia Block Association, formed a year earlier by recent arrivals like myself, organized the carolers.

When I tell people in Washington I live in historic Anacostia, their eyebrows rise and they nervously ask: How is it? I can see the visions of mayhem -- shootings, police tape and crackheads -- dancing in their heads. As with other neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, people reflexively think danger. I thought it, too.

Back in the mid-1990s when I was a police reporter, I regularly rode along with undercover vice officers from the 7th Police District. We always ventured out at night, when the streetscape was shadowy, sometimes mysterious.

One night, not far from where I live now, the officers suspected a teen was driving a stolen car. When they made eye contact with him, the teen slowed the car and dove out. One officer ran after the still-moving vehicle, jumping into the driver's seat before it crashed.

Three others, as I recall, chased the teen on foot. The lanky youth, not wearing a belt, kept tugging at his waist. Their weapons drawn, the police yelled at the teen to show his hands, to stop running. He didn't. When they tackled him, his beltless jeans were at his knees and he was unarmed. The episode could easily have ended in tragedy but for the police and their restraint.

This is the Anacostia most people know, or hear about. It's not inaccurate. It's just not complete. There is character, history and community here, a discovery made daily by the mostly black professionals who have flocked here in recent years.

I wanted a place with a yard large enough to tinker in the garden and host barbecues where children could "go long" for the football as I did when I was a kid. I got what I wanted for less than $300,000, across the street from Cedar Hill, the former home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, now a national historic site attracting visitors daily.

But I got so much more. In southern Louisiana, we call it lagniappe (lan-yap), a little something extra that's thrown in for good measure by the local grocer or the roadside vendors selling fresh shrimp, sweet potatoes or mustard greens.

For me, the extra was the carolers, the small church around the corner that sells "scratch-and-dent" furniture from national retailers and, of course, my newly adopted neighborhood hangout, Players Lounge in Congress Heights. It has reasonably priced drinks, good people and good music. On Wednesdays, Zeke, the DJ, plays Johnnie Taylor, Z.Z. Hill and Mel Waiters. He even throws in some southwest Louisiana zydeco -- just like at home.

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