SE neighborhood's violent past clouds new residents' future

By Theola Labbé-DeBose and Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 14, 2009

Janice Gore wanted a back yard to host family barbecues. Gary Jones wanted a lawn where he could toss the football with his son. And Chiquisha Robinson just wanted to put down roots in a community where her home purchase could make a difference.

Their dreams brought them and dozens of others to Henson Ridge, a new development of townhouses in one of the poorest areas of Southeast Washington. The neighborhood of manicured lawns and new siding is a phoenix among the ashes of carry-out food joints and check-cashing places on a stretch of Alabama Avenue SE. Conceived and constructed as an antidote to the surrounding urban blight, the planned community replaced razed public housing projects in 2003.

But then cars were stolen. Homes were burglarized. And when stray bullets crashed through windows and walls, residents could no longer deny that the neighborhood's violent past had resurfaced like a stubborn ghost.

"When you pay market rate, you expect certain things in return, and it's just not happening," said Robinson, whose $306,000, three-bedroom home was pierced by bullets last year.

The violence has been a jarring wake-up call for newcomers, whose first-home down payments were a deposit on a dream. And the fear and uncertainty are déja vu for the returning residents of the notorious former Frederick Douglass and Stanton Dwellings public housing projects.

"I'm afraid at night when they said they were breaking into these glass doors," said Gore, 56, referring to the double porch doors she loved because they gave her home a suburban feel. Gore, a grandmother, once lived in the housing projects and returned to the area in 2007, hoping to host barbecues for family, including the 12-year-old grandson she is helping to raise.

"It ain't no better [than the project days]. It seems like they put the same people back in here. I'm sorry I moved back in," she said.

Neighbors old and new are so fed up with the increasing crime that they wrote letters to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and solicited money for a Segway that they donated to the 7th Police District. Lanier formally accepted the donation at a ceremony in August and pledged more patrols, and Fenty praised the residents' organizing efforts.

But resources to fight crime were not in the plan when developers tore down the public housing, part of decades-old federal HOPE VI program that has transformed communities across the country.

A squalid past

Assistant D.C. Police Chief Winston Robinson, former commander of the 7th Police District, said good people were living in squalid conditions. The buildings and courtyards were infested with rats and roaches and besieged by drugs and criminals so bold they'd fight the police.

"It was not a place you wanted to send officers if they didn't know the community," Robinson said. "It was terrible."

Robinson said he attended monthly meetings for two years to advocate for the HOPE VI grant and to show that D.C. police would support the new development.

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