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Fights, teens among challenges as D.C.'s Gallery Place entertainment area matures

Friday, August 13, 2010; A01

This article was reported and written by staff writers Christian Davenport, J. Freedom du Lac, Michael S. Rosenwald, Brigid Schulte, Ian Shapira, Annys Shin and Kevin Sieff.

Peering through his sunglasses, Spencer Johnson, the security guard at the McDonald's outside Verizon Center, monitors his post like a military commander awaiting insurgents.

From his stool facing Seventh Street NW, he sees clumps of teens purposely bump each other, hit each other, knock each other out. He sees young people steal sodas or tourists' wallets. "You know, it's pandemonium. It's ugly," Johnson says.

Gallery Place, Washington's newest retail and entertainment district, a product of the construction of a downtown sports arena and a decade-long boom, has become a meeting place that transcends the city's usual dividing lines. The Seventh Street corridor from Penn Quarter to Chinatown has attracted an unusually mixed crowd, a blend of races and ages, of urban dwellers, suburbanites and tourists, all drawn by the street's restaurants, bars, theaters and shops.

But recently, according to business owners, visitors and police, the night scene has grown increasingly tense. Large groups of teens clot the sidewalks, threaten passersby, and confront one another with harsh words and frequent fisticuffs.

Last Friday, Metro Transit Police say, dozens of youths were involved in a massive brawl. Although police remain vague about its details, the conflict spilled from the subway station onto a train, injuring four passengers, scaring scores of others and resulting in three arrests.

Every big city has a spot like this, where different races and walks of life come together in a chaotic but alluring stew. New York's Times Square is the classic example. In Washington, Georgetown and Adams Morgan have long attracted big crowds, there in part just to watch and be with each other. Such gathering spots inevitably develop tensions around crime and traffic issues. For Gallery Place, the street fights and clusters of teens that have become more common recently are growing pains -- a challenge to police, a frustration for business owners and a sign that the area is coming of age as an urban magnet.

The clusters of teenagers hanging outside the Gallery Place Station aren't gangs, police say, but some are members of looser, less hierarchical neighborhood crews.

Their misbehavior ranges from loud, obnoxious clowning to vandalism and muggings. In response, D.C. police officers who cover this piece of real estate, Police Service Area 101, have stepped up their presence. A patrol car, lights flashing, sits at Seventh and G streets. A police van stands outside the McDonald's. D.C. Housing Authority police stick close to a cluster of boys who hang outside the Gallery Place movie house. Increasingly, restaurants such as Clyde's and Ruby Tuesday hire security guards to cover their doorways.

The police cluster where kids do, such as on the National Portrait Gallery steps on Seventh Street. The steps are no random teen meeting place, police Lt. Eddie Fowler says, but an elevated lookout where young people can see who's coming and going. "It's like they're watching a game," Fowler says.

Why Gallery Place? Fowler isn't entirely sure but offers this theory: It's at the intersection of the Red and Green lines, allowing kids from all over to converge; there are hipster clothing stores; and there's the Regal theater, which became the city's main teen cineplex hangout after the movie houses at Union Station closed last fall.

At Gallery Place, the crowds especially swell on nights when there are games at Verizon Center. So watch your iPhone, the police say. "They'll rip it right off your ear," one officer says. (Police say there's a guy in Pentagon City who will buy them hot, no questions asked.)

Even with their enhanced presence, police are outnumbered. They say they could use a tighter curfew and stricter loitering laws. Hanging around doesn't qualify as a violation unless kids are blocking the sidewalk, in which case police can tell them to disperse. "So we break them up," an officer says, "15, 20 times a night."

'We saw that!'

Alton Barrett, 41, is chilling, slumped against a pillar outside the Metro station -- an insouciance he has refined at Gallery Place since 1985. He's been watching the kids since they started appearing here, disturbing his corner. They steal phones and wallets, he says, and they fight with each other, mostly on the weekend. He knows the crews: the gay kids and the Muslim kids and the rich kids from the suburbs. "I've seen them fight against each other. All sorts of fights: gay against Muslim, black against white, black against black."

On this night -- a Tuesday in mid-August -- as on most nights, the teens come from District's eastern neighborhoods and parts of Maryland, Arlington County and Alexandria, according to security guards along the street.

Tracey McBride and five other girls are hanging at their regular evening perch, on the steps of the Portrait Gallery, and the people-watching options are meager: parents herding small children, white-sneaker tourists, office workers on extended happy hour.

McBride, a 16-year-old from Temple Hills, and her friends make do with what little material they have. When a female passerby reaches around to adjust bunched-up underwear, the girls on the steps let out a collective cry of "We saw that!"

Many of the kids on the museum steps are openly gay, and police and security guards say gay and lesbian teens find safety in numbers here. In McBride's group, some say they are into girls, one says she's bisexual, and McBride says she is straight. She says sexual orientation is no big deal among her peers: "It used to be like, 'That person is gay?!' And now it's like: 'Oh, that person is gay. Okay. And so is that person and that person.' "

McBride, who is about 6 feet tall with short, straight hair and a nose piercing, went to high school with a couple of the other girls. The rest she only just met. She used to hang out at the Boulevard at the Capital Centre, then at Union Station. She started coming to Gallery Place a couple of years ago, especially on Fridays, when the Portrait Gallery steps fill up and fights are a regular event.

Her group knows the other regulars well enough to say hi to and to roughhouse a little. One night this week, they share the steps with a posse of boys. One starts trash talking a girl, Lucy: "I'll pull that [weave] out of your hair."

When Lucy talks back, the boy suddenly reaches over and tugs a few strands. She squeals loudly, and he takes off. She chases him, stopping briefly to abandon her four-inch wedge heels on the sidewalk. But he's faster and she gives up, picking up her shoes and returning to the steps.

'Like a D.C. Times Square'

Malik Monroe, 19, wears skintight, stone-washed capri jeans, a tight T-shirt and ice-blue Air Jordans. Half of his long dreads are dyed flaming red, and all are bundled into a knot atop his head. Gallery Place, he says, is like a second home.

"It's like an addiction to come down here," he says, laughing. He hangs out here nearly every other night in the summer, at least when he doesn't have to babysit for his 2-year-old son.

He lives "across the bridge," on Minnesota Avenue NE, he says. On nights he's drawn to the lights, commotion and excitement of the unknown, he'll stay until 1, 2, sometimes 3 in the morning, when Metro trains stop running.

"It's been like this since I was 14," he says. "You see your friends and stop and have a chitchat. And there's different people all the time."

John Johnson, 19, saunters over wearing a bright yellow T-shirt with a scoop neck, a blond wig with dreads hanging down into his eyes, giant earrings in the shape of gold stars and bright green tennis shoes. By day, Johnson and Monroe attend Luke C. Moore Academy, an alternative high school in the District. ("We're known for our second chances for youth," its Web site says.) Monroe works at a McDonald's near his house; Johnson, at a Starbuck's.

But the night belongs to the raucous strip that runs from the noisy Jumbotron near the Chinatown arch to the museum steps. Back and forth, they walk the noisy strip among throngs of tourists and restaurant-goers, people handing out "Truth About Drugs" pamphlets and fans heading to the arena. Sometimes the teens go to the movies. Most nights, they eat something, usually at Chipotle. They shop.

More friends come by. One, smoking a cigarette and calling himself Lemon Meringue Pie -- "they say I dress so colorful, like a lemon meringue pie" -- shows off the leggings and tunic he just bought at Forever 21.

Keeona Calvines, 19, who lives in Upper Marlboro and has his ex's name, "Gary," tattooed on his arm, says the lights and scene around Gallery Place are "basically like a D.C. Times Square. It's just fun."

An ambulance screams by. A corner preacher cries above the screeching feedback from his sound system, "Sing it loud and strong! Sing it all night long!" A tattooed couple hands out 20 percent-off gift certificates to Topp Dog Tattooz. Calvines squeals, "Ooooh!"

'They block the doors'

The McDonald's at the sports arena is no ordinary McDonald's, according to Johnson, the security guard, who is a 21-year veteran of the D.C. National Guard and U.S. Army. The eatery has been the hub of teen fights in Gallery Place at least since he began this job early last year. From his stool at the entrance, with a .38 special holstered on his right hip, Johnson says he has pushed most of the trouble outside, although fights sometimes spill inside.

Other businesses also routinely feel the impact of fights or thefts involving young people. Tom Hughes, owner and manager of the Smoothie King and Haagen-Dazs shops next to the cineplex, says he sees kids stealing snacks, especially when he leaves the doors open in nice weather. Up the block, Charles Cook, a security guard at Urban Outfitters, says he has caught kids caught stealing sunglasses and jewelry. He has also watched 13- or 14-year-olds ride their bicycles along Seventh while tossing objects and expletives at strangers.

At Clyde's restaurant, two hostesses -- who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of violating company policy -- say teens "shout at people and intimidate them," as one puts it. "They block the doors."

Johnson, accustomed to mockery from teens, is hardly reluctant to show he can be tough. "I follow them into the bathroom, and if I catch them [writing graffiti], I'll lock them up and break their hand," he says.

He walks to the back to check the bathroom. The mirror is scratched in illegible graffiti. Asked what the markings stand for, Johnson heads back to his stool without an answer. He hasn't deciphered the codes.

'Where was the security?'

Nationals fans clad in red pour off the Green Line at Gallery Place, creating a massive bottleneck. The crowd headed outbound to Branch Avenue is much smaller, and when the train arrives, six women in baggy shorts and polos with oversize collars board the same car. One starts doing pull-ups on the train's metal bar. Another marches down the aisle, shouting "Check me out!" Other passengers -- Nationals fans, people heading home from work, couples returning from the movies -- smile and laugh.

Then the scene gets tense. One of the young women, who won't give her name, starts mocking a 58-year-old woman named Carol who is studying a physiology textbook in the middle of the car.

"You look like my teacher, Mrs. Wright," the taunting woman says. "You can't fail me anymore!" The crowd laughs, more hesitantly this time. Then the barrage of insults starts. The woman puts her nose in Carol's hair. "You smell like cat piss," the woman says.

Carol looks down at her book, trying to ignore the assault.

"It's because of you that I'm gay," the woman continues. "It's because of you that my children are mentally retarded." The woman gives her friends high-fives after each insult, and they laugh together. A family in Nationals uniforms moves to the other side of the car.

Five Guardian Angels arrive. They stand at one end of the car, arms crossed, silent. The woman in the baggy shorts looks at the youngest Angel, who appears to be in his teens. "What are you, 12?" she screams. "What are you gonna do, skateboard?" The Angels, in trademark red berets, do not respond.

"Ha!" the woman exclaims. "These Angels ain't guarding [expletive]."

After a few minutes, the Angels leave the car. The woman continues to viciously mock Carol.

Carol, her tormentor and the rest of her group get off at Suitland. One of the women tells Carol, "I'm sorry, it's just that we've been drinking." She puts her arm around Carol.

Carol walks toward a cab. "You know, I wasn't scared by what happened in there," she says. "I was embarrassed that everyone, especially the Caucasians, had to see one black woman insulting another black woman like that. Still, what if things had escalated? The Angels were there, but they didn't do anything. Where was the security?"

'Let's go start a fight'

Back at the museum steps, the street grows more deserted and McBride gets up, straps on her backpack and reaches into the dregs of her McDonald's sweet tea. She starts lobbing ice cubes onto the pavement, nearly grazing a tourist's ankles. When another tourist glances back, McBride tucks her cup behind her back and looks innocently into the distance.

She sits down. "Let's go start a fight," she says. "Just joking."

The girls head toward the Metro station. McBride is about to enter her senior year. Danyell Johnson of Southeast, who is trying to graduate this coming year, is starting night school.

They'll be back. Even in the winter, Johnson says. "We'll be down here in our peacoats."

The individual reports on the Gallery Place scene are available at http://washingtonpost.com/storylab.

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