Reality Checkpoint

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Lisa Oksala and her lobbyist husband Erik knew they were moving to an evolving Northeast Washington neighborhood three years ago when they paid $400,000 for a rowhouse in Trinidad.

While their first two years were largely peaceful, the Oksalas have been shaken by the violence of recent months. In late April, a man was killed after being struck by 17 bullets a half-block from their stoop. A month later, police shot a knife-wielding man embroiled in a dispute with an ex-girlfriend. Seven hours later, the sirens sounded again for a triple homicide.

Then, driving home one Saturday, Lisa found herself stopped at a police checkpoint, an initiative that churned far-flung headlines and comparisons to Baghdad.

"This isn't what we bargained for," Lisa Oksala, 29, a program specialist for the Department of Health and Human Services, said with a chuckle.

After weeks of anxious deliberation, the Oksalas have resolved to stay in Trinidad, in part because they fear a financial loss if they sell. They comfort themselves with reminders of what drew them: handsome brick homes, gardens, kids playing in the street, and the condos, clubs and restaurants that have risen on nearby H Street.

"The murders and the checkpoint aren't the definition of my daily experience," Lisa Oksala said. "It's a neighborhood, and we have issues. But it's a community, and we're sticking."

The bloodshed and police crackdown in Trinidad, a neighborhood north of Capitol Hill, evoke memories of the late 1980s when drug kingpin Rayful Edmond III operated nearby and the area was a battleground for warring crews. During a five-month stretch in 1988, police estimated that drug gangs in Trinidad and an adjoining area were responsible for 20 homicides.

Yet, just as the housing boom transformed large swaths of the District, Trinidad is a different neighborhood today -- certainly safer than years ago. Although crime has risen recently, the number of homicides, robberies, and assaults declined modestly between 2003 and last year in the police service area that includes Trinidad.

In interviews, longtime residents said they feel more secure. Dorethea Richardson, a 27-year resident and the owner of a Montello Avenue day-care center, said that in the 1990s, she was accustomed to ordering kids to lie on the floor at the sound of daytime gunshots, a ritual she no longer finds necessary.

Several years ago, Richardson said, she removed the steel grate from her center's front doors, and she plans on taking the bars off the windows. The checkpoint, she said, was infuriating because it suggested Trinidad has not changed.

"It sent the message that this was a bad neighborhood," she said, standing outside the center on a recent morning, two doors from a shuttered liquor store where residents hope to open a community center. "I know what a bad neighborhood is, and this is not it."

In fact, Trinidad's property assessments have mushroomed in recent years; in 2006, its 31 percent increase was the highest of any area in the city. As the real estate market has cooled, property values in the neighborhood have begun a moderate decline.

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