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Reality Checkpoint
Trinidad Residents Reflect on Their Neighborhood's Future

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.

Peter Tatian, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute, said that rising home prices across the city and low interest rates pushed a wave of middle- and upper-income buyers into Trinidad and diversified a neighborhood that has long been almost entirely black.

At the same time, Tatian said, "There's still a significant population that's lower income and dependent on public support. It's a very transitory period in the neighborhood and it's not clear how it's going to end up."

The more recent arrivals include Mark Thorp, 38, a bar owner who saw the neighborhood as a shrewd investment because developers were pushing east across the city, and real estate was comparatively inexpensive. In 2003, Thorp sold his rowhouse in Shaw and used the profit to buy four properties in Trinidad, including a rowhouse in which he lives.

Whatever impression was spun by the checkpoint, he said, will fade over time. "People will end up over here because this is where they can afford a house," he said. "Doesn't economics drive everything?"

On Montello Avenue, a block from where police staged the checkpoint, Montgomery Gray, 25, a real-estate agent, and another investor last year paid $620,000 for what residents say is Trinidad's only detached house, one that was owned by a physician who treated neighborhood patients for decades and is now deceased.

Gray envisions razing the house and building duplex condos. While he worries that the recent violence will "slow the process of moving money into the neighborhood," he remains optimistic. "I already own here; it wouldn't benefit me to give up," he said.

Gray's move to Trinidad was partly inspired by the discovery that a friend, Adrian Roberts, 30, a construction worker, had purchased the rowhouse across the street. Since arriving in 2003, Roberts said, he has noticed fewer young men loitering. He knows that the potential of danger is real, but so are the improvements: sidewalk repairs, the ongoing renovation of a nearby elementary school, homeowners fixing up properties and adding flower boxes.

"It's gotten progressively better," he said. "But it's not going to happen overnight."

The new homeowners and improving property values are only a part of the narrative in Trinidad, a sloping neighborhood bounded on the west by Gallaudet University and Bladensburg Road on the east; by Mount Olivet Cemetery to the north and Florida Avenue to the south.

Nearly two thirds of Trinidad's apartments are rental units, the 2000 census shows. The number of people receiving food stamps grew by 25 percent between 2000 and 2005, before declining slightly. Residents talk of witnessing drug sales, although they say the dealers have grown more discreet. The 5th Police District, which includes Trinidad, recorded 12 homicides during March and April, compared with three during the same period last year.

"The perpetrators come out at night," said James White, 41, a Navy veteran, who was smoking a cigar as he sat outside the apartment he has shared with cousins since moving from a housing development. "You don't want to walk the alleys, you don't go to the ATM machine and flash money."

Former D.C. Police Chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. led the department from 1989 to 1992, when violence in Trinidad was a constant. The recent rash of homicides was stunning, he said, because the whole city is far safer than it was during that era. "When you get seven or eight homicides, it's like 'Great God almighty, what's happening?' " he said. "It's not in the magnitude of the 1980s or '90s, but these are significant problems."

Once more than 100 acres of farmland, the area got its name from 19th century speculator James Barry, who had once lived on the Caribbean island, said Patsy Fletcher of the District's Historic Preservation Office.

In the early 1900s, builders constructed homes that still stand today, porch-front rowhouses that drew mostly white working- and middle-class residents, who left for the suburbs in the 1950s and were largely replaced by blacks.

The 1968 riots propelled the area's decline, a gradual process that gathered explosive speed with the onset of the crack epidemic in the mid-1980s. Signs of a revival did not emerge until the early 2000s, drawing new residents including Elise Bernard, 29, a Georgetown University law student, who bought a rowhouse and started a Web site chronicling life in Trinidad and on H Street.

"People didn't know where it was," said Bernard, an advisory neighborhood commissioner, sitting on her Florida Avenue porch.

Clearly, something has changed. Across the street, a sign advertises the near-complete "Capitol Hill Oasis," which includes spacious town homes priced at an almost whiplash-inducing $1.5 million.

Willie Dorn, 67, a retired corrections officer, doesn't need a map to find Trinidad. He bought a Montello Avenue rowhouse in the late 1970s, and was there a decade later when the police erected a roadblock during a crackdown.

Offended that he had to explain his presence in the neighborhood, Dorn soured on the District and moved to Maryland. But he held on to his Trinidad house. Excited by the neighborhood's recent evolution, he renovated the property last year and moved back in -- in time for this year's blockade.

"If I hadn't seen all the changes, I would not have come back," he said, waving to passing friends from his porch on a Friday afternoon. "It's great to be in the city."

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