Columbia Heights still has far to go

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.

And in that city block where the boy died are the District's most prominent Latino community organizations, a church, tenant-owned buildings, two well-regarded charter schools, a wonderful youth center, a health center, counselors, social workers, a mural with the planet Earth that reads "He's got the whole world in his hands" and a display of Chinese brush paintings by kids.

It looks like the very cradle of nurturing, activism, social services and faith.

"It's beautiful, like a little international city, with all the different kinds of people, different kinds of shopping," said Adrienne Edwards, 43, who has lived on this block for 15 years.

The playground near that church?


"What everyone forgets is that all this business isn't getting rid of crime," said Edwards, whose 4-year-old son bounced along the sidewalk and pondered climbing a fence. He never strayed more than 10 feet from her side, though, as if an invisible leash bound him to her. "It actually attracts the criminals."

According to D.C. police statistics, thefts, shootings and homicides jumped during the past year in the neighborhood.

As a police reporter, I'd visited the neighborhood frequently for various tragedies, which were typically accompanied by tears and vigils. Among the victims: Donte Manning, 9; Terry Cutchin, 13; Edwin Ventura, 18.

In the past year, I'd begun to visit more and more -- an Italian water-ice date with my boys, the fried chicken they love, a quick run for a garden hose and socks, a new computer cord.

"People are coming here with cash to shop. Most of the immigrants here carry cash, and the criminals come to rob them," said Edwards, who managed to shield her 20-year-old daughter from crime and now wonders what growing up in the neighborhood will be like for her young son.

"I waited a long time for all this," she said, pointing to the stores and restaurants. "I'm not going to be moving now. But I was hoping things would change."

Edwards made sure her daughter was home, inside, close to her for much of her young life. Her son walks by her side when they shop, but they don't feel very safe on the playgrounds, so he spends much of his free time inside.

Tattoo girl, who has tween siblings, said they're always inside. "Just like me. They don't go out. We just keep inside. That's what we do."

On Thursday, as Oscar's family was preparing his funeral arrangements and kids stayed away from the playground, the Prince of Petworth blog posted a reader's complaints about the neighborhood. The reader, who has lived in Columbia Heights since 2002, was devastated by the lackluster service at the sleek new coffee bar half a block from the building where Oscar was killed.

"I ordered latté and it was a disaster. The latté smelled and [tasted] so bad I only had one sip and that was it," he complained. He was also frustrated that there was never room to sit in the little shop.

There's plenty of room to sit at the playground.

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