D.C. neighborhood's hopes destroyed by gunfire

The area of the District where four youths were fatally shot Tuesday night, in the Bellevue and Washington Highlands neighborhoods, looks forward to promised development but has been hit hard by the economy.
By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 3, 2010

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.

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