D.C. neighborhood's hopes destroyed by gunfire

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 3, 2010; A01

Bellevue seems perennially on the cusp of change. Residents of the neighborhood on the District's southern tip wistfully speak of multimillion-dollar developments that are on the way. They say the street car is coming soon. So is a new library designed by the same architect who has drawn up the National Museum of African American History and Culture that will soon grace the Mall.

On Tuesday night, four young men in a minivan sprayed a crowd of youths with bullets, killing four and injuring five, leaving residents to wonder whether their hopes for renewal were in vain.

When the first fancy new condominium development arrived in 2006, replacing an open-air drug market, the city optimistically hung signs on all the lampposts that read "Welcome to Bellevue: A Great View of the Future."

Jacquetta Wier, a 50-year-old logistics manager, bought one of those townhouses. But before she did, she drove in from suburban Ashburn late at night, parked her car and listened, waiting for the sound of gunshots. They never came. So she bought in, signing a mortgage in an area that seemed "the next best place, the next new place."

"I am happy to live in the District of Columbia," Wier said. "But I didn't sign up for this."

Bellevue is "seething with problems," according to D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who used to live a few blocks away.

The latest downturn in the economy has slowed or stalled the pace of redevelopment and made finding jobs difficult; Ward 8 has an unemployment rate of 27 percent, one of the nation's highest.

Teenagers have been especially hard-hit, Barry said, by the poor economy. A nearby Boys and Girls Club closed last year.

"There's nowhere for them to go," said Fahim Shabazz, 43, an event supervisor and resident of the area. "They don't have anything to do, no jobs, no activities."

In earlier years, the neighborhood was largely white, with middle-class residents who worked in the federal government and lived in the tiny, brick apartments or single-family homes, locals said. In the late '60s, more African Americans began moving in. The crack epidemic of the late '80s and early '90s devastated the area as it did many locales in urban Washington.

The 4000 block of South Capitol Street, near Wier's townhouse, sits in both Southeast and Southwest Washington, on the border of Bellevue and the Washington Highlands neighborhood. On one side of the block are a row of down-on-their luck townhouses. On the other side is a small strip mall where youths began gathering over the past few years, grabbing Chinese food or chicken from a carryout place, drinking, talking and laughing. The kids called it "Ground Zero." It was known as a "chill" loitering spot, where neighborhood turf wars and beefs could be peaceably set aside without reprisals.

Until Tuesday.

"All of those kids were neighborhood kids," said resident Victoria Jones as she stood near the crime scene this week. "They say 'no child left behind,' but these children were left behind. Most were being raised by single mothers. Now this has happened. They have finally shot up the last little place in Southeast that was peaceful."

Like Wier, Nardyne Jefferies had once believed in the dream of Bellevue's future. She bought a small townhouse a few houses from Wier's the same year. There, she home-schooled her daughter, Brishell Jones, 16, a petite teenager who loved to cook in the gleaming kitchen of granite and stainless steel. She dreamed of going to culinary school, maybe Le Cordon Bleu, after her schooling was complete.

"She only had a little bit more to go," Jefferies said. "My child would have been off to college and pursuing her dream." Brishell went out Tuesday and never made the two blocks home. "She was a beautiful little girl," Jefferies said. "It's senseless."

The bullet-scarred sidewalk and steps are a memorial now, the adjacent telephone pole covered in teddy bears, plastic red carnations, good-bye notes. Traffic rolls noisily by. For locals, it will now be memorialized as the spot where four young people died after a chain of events that started with a tiff over a gold-colored bracelet.

The surviving victims are recovering, but if or when the surrounding neighborhood will is uncertain. Wier's dream of one day walking to a brew pub or a coffee shop seems far away. "I think we're going to progress and survive it. We have some very good people up here in this area, and even now the families coming into the neighborhood are going to enhance it," said Theresa Howe-Jones, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who represents the area.

Miriam Jones, 50, a painting contractor, has lived in the neighborhood since 1969. She has frequented the shopping center since it was a strip of "community friendly" businesses, such as a Dart Drug, rather than the liquor store and carryout places there now. She had avoided the place of late because of the youths and traffic, until she stopped in at the library Tuesday. She was walking home when she saw the approaching van with the assailants and the hail of gunfire that erupted.

"I saw the bullets coming out of there. It looked like fire to me, and cannons going 'boom, boom, boom,' " she said. "I ran and never looked back again."

Now in the neighborhood where she has spent most of her life, she said she feels unsafe. "You're not at ease any more," she said. "Walking down the street thinking someone's going to shoot at you."

About a block away from the scene this week, the Rev. W.W. Flood, 94, pastor of Southeast Tabernacle Baptist Church, was planting turnips along his church's fence, with the help of his grandson, hoping for a harvest of greens. The neighborhood is as "different as the day is from night" than when his congregation moved into their new church in 1966, he said.

"It's getting worse," Flood said. "People have no concern or self-respect for nobody. They need some home-training."

He worked on the turnips all day in the warm sun, leaning on his walker, oblivious to the community leaders organizing a last-minute meeting nearby, police cruisers zooming by or the helicopters hovering. It was coming on spring and time for planting.

Staff writer Hamil R. Harris and staff researchers Meg Smith and Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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