Petula Dvorak: A sign of how little a D.C. area has changed

By Petula Dvorak
Friday, November 20, 2009

The kids? They know better.

You can put in all the fancy coffee shops, shiny big-box stores and warm fuzzy community centers you want.

"Ain't nothin' gonna change," one teenage girl with tattoos swirling up the nape of her neck told me. "It's been like this my whole life. Nobody surprised by this. People always be gettin' shot."

We were in Columbia Heights, standing across the street from a spot where balloons, flickering candles and a zoo of stuffed animals signaled the death of a child. These displays amount to contemporary urban anthropology.

A few days earlier, 9-year-old Oscar Fuentes was killed there by a gunshot through the front door of his apartment.

He was looking through the peephole at the commotion outside. Someone had tried to rob his family members as they walked home along Columbia Road, and the women ducked inside to get away.

"I can imagine my kid looking through that hole and me shouting at him: 'Get away from that door!' and him not listening to me," a cashier at a clothing store around the corner said as she thought about the shooting and folded sweaters that few of the customers browsing in the store could afford.

The kids standing around with tattoo girl rolled their eyes and laughed at me when I asked whether they were surprised by the shooting and whether it's made them more frightened to be out.

"Where are you gonna hide? Kid got shot in his place. With his family right there," a teenage boy with peach fuzz on his chin said.

They are pretty blind to the optimism that a billion-dollar commercial development along this stretch brought to adults.

It went from a neighborhood that had small ethnic groceries, check cashing joints and little else to a teeming commercial district that looks straight out of an urban planner's handbook.

There is public art, a pop-jet fountain, a restaurant that serves wasabi-crusted meatloaf. Some residents are taking an online poll to determine whether their new plaza should be adorned with a Christmas tree this year.

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