Most of the little world I'm going to tell you about is no more. It's shut down, boarded up, enclosed behind a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. You can't go there. It died. R.I.P. Soon they'll be tearing it down. But it should also be noted that this place was built with all the fine intentions that proverbially pave the byways to hell. It didn't start off as a hellhole; it only ended up that way.
You could talk about Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis or Chicago's Cabrini-Green -- the huge, otherworldly horror stories about public housing. But pick an awful story about crime, poverty or wretched housing -- any story -- and it was likely to have echoes at Kentucky Courts, a little 45-unit housing project down C Street SE from my house. Most people never even heard of Kentucky Courts, though it seemed to have the woes of projects 10 times its size.
In the early 1990s, Tom Foley, speaker of the House, kept a Capitol Hill home just up the street from this deadly pile of bricks and reinforced concrete. Surely, he must have heard the nocturnal gunfire like the rest of us.
The D.C. Department of Public and Assisted Housing, or DPAH (pronounced "DEE-paw"), ran Kentucky Courts but exercised little control over who lived there and no control over who came and went each day. The cops didn't have much control, either. Most were wary of entering the Courts without backup; others entered with guns drawn; a few just stayed away.
Meanwhile, I was working as a journalist. In the early 1990s, I would walk by Kentucky Courts on my way to and from work in the sports department at USA Today. On one occasion -- one of a few occasions -- I walked past a scene with yellow police tape and emergency personnel working over a young man who had been shot. He was breathing out a bloody froth. The juxtaposition of such scenes in my neighborhood and my professional reality started to bother me. Something was drastically wrong at places like Kentucky Courts, and I was writing about games. Another shooting, in 1993 -- this time it appeared that it was police who had sprayed bullets across the neighborhood -- left me wondering whether there weren't wrongs that could be righted at Kentucky Courts.
Why couldn't the broken, battered, bullet-riddled doors be fixed? Why did it have to be that addicts were sleeping in the hallways and using them for public toilets? And why did it seem that little kids were so often abandoned to their own devices day and night? Once within the Courts, I found that many residents wanted to talk; they wanted to tell someone about falling plaster or strange stains growing on the ceiling -- and about their fears. A few residents had snapped Polaroids to prove that they weren't making things up or losing their minds.
Within weeks, I found myself in a delegation of residents and neighbors who took the Polaroids to DPAH headquarters, known as "eleven thirty-three," for 1133 North Capitol St. But immediately our group encountered an oddity about the elevators at 1133. When you pressed Up, the elevators went down; when you pressed Down, they went up. As a result, the doors kept opening on scenes of people who weren't getting anywhere they wanted to be. But that was DPAH.
In 1993, DPAH sank to the bottom of U.S. housing agencies, scoring a pathetic 22.38 on the Department of Housing and Urban Development's evaluation scale of 100, with 60 considered the passing grade. In 1995, DPAH was put into court receivership, and across Washington thousands of public housing residents said a quiet, "Thank you, Lord."
DPAH's mind-boggling dysfunction helped explain attitudes you found at places like Kentucky Courts. Living in surroundings that could normally produce anger, depression or despair, residents had long concluded that dysfunction was a way of life. The way of life could mean that when you skipped paying rent, not much happened. Or it could mean that when something was broken, it never got fixed. DPAH promoted a throwaway world in which nobody took care of anything.
Some residents at Kentucky Courts stopped paying rent when their ceilings collapsed. It was a classic DPAH mess: For want of a $25 screen -- or whatever it would have cost to cover the small vents to the open-air spaces under the roof -- pigeons were taking over, apartment by apartment. On August 20, 1994, a huge chunk of the ceiling in Vernell Moses's bedroom collapsed, dumping a disgusting mix of pigeon droppings, dead birds, feathers and rotten eggs on her bed. Moses immediately noted that it had been a year to the day since another chunk of ceiling had fallen, which had inspired her to stop paying rent. Third-floor apartments at Kentucky Courts were slowly being abandoned as ceilings collapsed, and the problem was spreading down inner air shafts to the lower floors, where pigeons would suddenly emerge from holes behind the bathroom sink.
DPAH officials generally insisted that if conditions at the Courts were so bad, surely the tenants council would have said something. But there was no tenants council. The Kentucky Courts seniors apartments a block away had a council, but at the family units with the pigeon problem, the council had died years earlier. So we got one going again and went back to 1133 with more Polaroids. This time, DPAH officials told us that dozens of projects in Washington were in much worse shape than Kentucky Courts; we would have to wait our turn.
At the same time, the 45 family units at Kentucky Courts were becoming a battlefield of another sort. Gunfights and car chases were almost nightly affairs on C and 14th streets SE; ambulances were regularly picking up bodies, dead or still breathing, off nearby corners. The complex, eight three-story buildings linked together around an interior courtyard, had been discovered as the perfect fortress for a drug gang. On that scale, it scored 100.
Actually, only seven people died violently in the immediate environs of Kentucky Courts in the 1990s, but there were also shootings from which victims survived. And other murders nearby were sometimes linked to doings at the Courts. Bodies were found, for example, on the Payne Elementary School playground diagonally across the street, and homicides elsewhere in D.C. and Maryland were suspected of being connected to the activities of a loose-knit gang called the Kentucky Courts Crew. "KCC" was scrawled all over the neighborhood, usually by younger admirers. Members of the crew could sashay into the city's go-go clubs with ever-increasing swagger; the band onstage might even announce that "the whole Kentucky Courts" was in the house. They were starting to get known.
Originally, the presumed mastermind was Coy Mason, an enterprising young man who had just turned 20 when the police shot him dead at Kentucky Courts on September 19, 1992. Mason had become an almost mythic figure in the neighborhood, and his death was a landmark event.
Then, on December 30, 1993, Officer Jason White was shot dead on the steps of a house across from Kentucky Courts, and a KCC associate whose aunt lived in the project was arrested and charged with the murder. All hell broke loose at the Courts; more than 30 search warrants were executed at locales in D.C. and Maryland, including 11 apartments at Kentucky Courts that were linked to the gang. At the Courts, police found guns, bulletproof vests, drugs and other tools of the thug trade. Shortly thereafter, a federal grand jury handed down indictments against seven additional individuals on charges including conspiracy to distribute cocaine and use of a firearm during a drug-trafficking crime. Other gang associates were charged in D.C. Superior Court. Suddenly, with that many KCC members absent, the Courts fell strangely quiet.
Yet soon there was another late-night ambush and gun battle involving still more KCC associates and their enemies. It ended in a car crash on 14th Street. Witnesses saw various individuals escape into Kentucky Courts; one even ran back to retrieve a shotgun out of the crashed car. An upset neighbor, whose house had been sprayed with bullets, started yelling at the investigating officers: "We live here, too! We live here, too!" The officers threatened to arrest him; the next day, he put his house up for sale.
The summer after White was shot, a few of us, including my wife, Deborah, and Mary Thompson, who later became president of the Kentucky Courts Tenants Council, opened a stand at Kentucky Avenue and C Street where the kids could sell lemonade, hot dogs and watermelons on weekends. Monday was payday. After deducting enough for supplies, the take was divided into pay envelopes for the 20 to 25 kids who worked the stand. Payday was beautiful; the workers would all line up, one moment when all the kids stood still.
Miss Mary is one of the heroes of the Kentucky Courts story, because this mother of two spent hours every week trying to find productive activities for the youngsters at Kentucky Courts. Sometimes, an agency like the Metropolitan Boys & Girls Club would give her a tiny stipend to work with the kids; often as not she did it totally on her own.
The lemonade stand lasted three summers, about as long as our general hopes that conditions at the Courts might improve. DPAH eventually beat all hopes down. It kept moving what were referred to as "problem" tenants into Kentucky Courts -- that was, tenants who soon proved to be drug users or associates
of drug sellers. And once these problem tenants were in, you couldn't get rid of them; often chaos reigned in and around their apartments.
If the new arrivals were drug users, that fact usually became apparent within days, even hours. In one case, gunmen showed up almost immediately to collect old debts from a woman who was moved in after her apartment in another project had been torched. In better times, we had speculated that if only four or five apartments where hustlers, addicts or gunmen swarmed could be cleared out, Kentucky Courts would be a beautiful place.
But DPAH couldn't do that.
At one point in 1996, a few residents counted up the number of apartments where they suspected one or more residents were using crack cocaine. The total in the informal survey was 14 apartments, and curiously, it also seemed that there were about 14 low-level, crack-selling street pharmacists coming around, a one-to-one ratio.
They were not drug lords with jewels and fancy cars; they were ragtag hustlers who for the most part didn't even have a bicycle or a beat-up car, referred to as a "hoopty." Still, the shooting soon started up again. On June 4, 1997, Derek "Fray" Williams was ambushed and shot in the head next to a wall in the courtyard. The housing agency, renamed the D.C Housing Authority under the receivership, immediately responded by knocking down the wall. Then housing officials announced that Kentucky Courts was next in line for "occupied unit rehab," a federally funded "modernization" effort. First, the housing authority planned to remove the mountains of pigeon feces, at a projected cost of nearly $500,000.
According to the plan, hazardous materials teams would clear the ventilation spaces and air shafts while tenants were still living in the apartments. But when workers in hazmat protective suits started work, clouds of dust and pigeon feathers drifted across the neighborhood.
Sam Ford, a WJLA-TV reporter who lives on Capitol Hill, happened by. The next day a crew from WJLA captured video of the scene -- the hazmat workers in their suits, the dust and little children below. The story was broadcast that night. Ford also contacted the health department. The following day, DCHA and health department officials met in the Kentucky Courts courtyard and agreed that the tenants should be relocated. The plan was to give them all Section 8 certificates, rent subsidies that most tenants considered a better deal than public housing because it would allow them to choose where they would live.
DCHA officials may have been angered that their plans had been upended publicly, but at least one saw a bright side. "It's an opportunity to get rid of those problem tenants," he told me.
Bizarre, but true -- to get rid of problem tenants, finally, they would close Kentucky Courts. By late September 1997, all the tenants were gone. There was talk of demolishing the place to make way for a "mixed-income" development, public housing's new model, wherein you intersperse subsidized and market-rate units so you can't tell the difference. One aim of mixed-income sites is to avoid isolating poor people in one place.
I was one of the neighbors who negotiated and worked with the housing authority on the idea of replacing the family units with a mixed-income development. Other neighbors were thrilled merely to have the family units shut down. The windows and doors were boarded over; the surrounding chain-link fence went up. Quiet enveloped C Street at last.
II: LET THERE BE LIGHT
If you know how a story ends, it's harder to view its beginning with an open mind. In the 1990s, no one in the neighborhood could imagine how it once might have been considered a good idea to build Kentucky Courts at the place where it ended up. Yet building Kentucky Courts was hardly controversial at the time. It was not even a "liberal" proposal, as many assumed; the impetus for the project came from the Eisenhower administration. In the late '50s, the National Capital Housing Authority, as it was then called, was searching for sites to build new public housing. The tenant waiting list had topped 5,000, including families displaced by slum clearance and other public works.
By 1957, two sites near Kentucky Avenue and C Street were among five under consideration on the eastern end of Capitol Hill. Documents referred to all five as "slums"; building a project on any one of them could be pointed to as "slum clearance." By 1959, the housing authority focused on two sites near Kentucky and C -- a large plot to the southwest of the intersection and a smaller one on the northeast corner. The southwestern site included Harrison Place, an interior alley with four occupied dwellings. For decades wretched alley dwellings had been considered Washington's great shame. Hence, it would also be considered a positive move to eliminate the alley dwellings. But much else would be torn down, including the oldest houses in the immediate area, six narrow wood-frame buildings on C Street that dated from the 1870s.
Most of the other buildings to be demolished were modest and occupied by black families. Several black businesses would be lost: a barbershop run by a minister, a newsstand that sold the then-illegal daily numbers, a small takeout eatery, a beauty parlor and a house on the north side of C Street that sold bootleg liquor. A small grocery and a Chinese laundry would also disappear. But there was no major outcry against the proposal. On March 11, 1960, D.C.'s commissioners held a hearing on the plan. (There was no elected D.C. Council or mayor then.) The Evening Star later reported: "James Ring, NCHA director, said the dwelling units would be designed for elderly persons and for small families."
Also backing the project were the Washington Urban League, the National Capital Area Council of Churches, the District League of Women Voters and the Washington Housing Association, founded by Eleanor Roosevelt to promote public housing as an alternative to alley dwellings.
The Star listed one opponent: "Opposition for the most part centered on arguments that the area is more suitable for private restoration than public housing. A representative of the Capitol Hill Southeast Citizens Association Health and Welfare Committee protested that the new units would clash architecturally with restored homes in the neighborhood."
The Southeast Citizens Association was an all-white group. In the absence of elected local government, "citizens" and "civic" associations sufficed as the voice of the people, but these groups also were relics of racial segregation. Citizens associations were white; civic associations were black. Only weeks before the Southeast Citizens Association opposed the building of Kentucky Courts, a bid to remove the association's Caucasians-only requirement for membership was defeated by a vote of 93 to 86.
Meanwhile, whatever black neighbors thought about the proposed new housing did not make the news. One neighbor who remembers the discussion says with great surety, "If you went up and down C Street back then, you wouldn't find anyone for it."
As conceived, Kentucky Courts was an abrupt intrusion on a small black community that had existed on streets near Payne Elementary for half a century. The neighborhood wasn't fancy, but some residents had government jobs, which had a certain status, and the era before integration and open housing is often still recalled in the community with affection. For one thing, it was the era before everything seemed to go topsy-turvy with drugs, guns and lowdown behavior.
On March 21, 1960, D.C.'s commissioners approved the project; the news made the front page of the Star. Eventually, 50 separate parcels were purchased for a total of $530,300 and cleared. Most properties sold for more than double their assessed value. One neighbor recalled that her uncle sold a "tiny" house at 266 Kentucky Ave. "They weren't happy they had to move," she says. But the property, assessed at $2,842, brought $8,000, and the uncle ended up in a bigger house in Northwest.
A Georgetown architectural firm, Deigert & Yerkes, was hired to design the Kentucky Avenue project. On November 20, 1962, a construction bid of $1.78 million from HRH Washington Inc. was accepted. HRH was a famous company; under an earlier name, it had built the Empire State Building.
Deigert & Yerkes was an emerging firm. The American Institute of Architects guide to Washington lists David Yerkes among those who "nurtured Washington's modern movement to its full flowering." Yerkes, now 89, shrugs off the compliment. "I would not think of myself as a pioneer in modernism," he insists.
One notable Deigert & Yerkes project from those days is the administration building at the National Arboretum, built in 1963. Sunlight fills the interior, and from some angles outside, the building appears to float on a surrounding pool with fountains. Kentucky Courts, however, was a more Spartan commission; at its two sites, three-story garden apartment buildings would surround interior courtyards, so that the "front" doors would open on the courtyards and the "rear" doors on the street.
The site southwest of C Street would have 118 apartments, most of them one-bedroom units designated for seniors; the northeast site would have 45 one- and two-bedroom units designated for families.
Today, devotees of preservation and restoration of old homes might ask what possessed people in 1960 to build garden apartments on Capitol Hill. But the preservation/restoration movement was relatively new then, and many city dwellers were abandoning cramped and dingy Victorian row houses for the spacious suburbs. That's how many houses became available for preservation. Garden apartments were also part of the new suburban world that people were choosing. Of Kentucky Courts, Yerkes recalls, "We hoped it would be a pleasant place to live, with a good deal of light, as much as we could try to provide." The concept rings with good intentions. Light and space were the very elements that
the cramped old houses in the neigh-
borhood lacked. I know; I live in one.
Some longtime neighborhood residents remember that the lots cleared for Kentucky Courts -- and the trenches for pipes and sewer lines -- were briefly inviting to local youths for war games. The John B. Kelly Co. of Philadelphia was subcontracted to lay the bricks. Kelly, an Olympic oarsman, was the father of Princess Grace of Monaco. Even The Washington Post, in its way, looked favorably upon the results in a 1964 article about three new projects. The headline said, " 'Prison Look' Avoided in New Public Housing."
"Each of the three is designed to become an asset rather than a burden to the community where it stands," The Post said. "Not one fits the traditional image of public housing as a vast complex of depressingly ugly buildings that sprawl over helpless neighborhoods and blight them." In the same article, housing officials predicted that "neighbors from surrounding private dwellings will probably be drawn in" to the green areas at Kentucky Courts.
Geneva Layne, one of the Courts' original residents, remembers that she had a new job as a domestic when she found out in September 1960 that her chance for an apartment had come. She left work early and got to the office just before closing. "I almost didn't make it," she recalls. "I almost didn't get my apartment."
Over the years, I've asked Miss Layne more than once what the new Kentucky Courts was like. She has always said, "It was beautiful."
And the rent was $33 a month.
Miss Layne raised three kids in the Courts and stayed on until the project was closed. No matter how wretched-looking the outside became, her apartment was always immaculate, as were many others. Even in the worst years, Miss Layne said, she found peace of mind there, because she knew that if she lost her job or fell ill, the rent, based on a tenant's income, would be adjusted and she would still have a home.
The original tenants differed from the later ones in other ways, too: In '60s city directories, men were listed as heads of households in almost half the apartments at Kentucky Courts; their occupations were listed as elevator operators, warehousemen and stockmen. One man shined shoes at the Statler Hilton Hotel. Many of the women who were shown as heads of household were also listed as "Mrs." Female residents of Kentucky Courts were employed as maids, housekeepers or "attendants," directories say. In 1965, members of the Georgetown Garden Club made a surprise visit to Kentucky Courts to plant dogwood trees, azalea bushes, pansies, tulips and crocus bulbs. At a 1968 White House ceremony, Lady Bird Johnson awarded the seniors tenants council a certificate for its beautification efforts at Kentucky Courts.
III: WAR ZONE
By the 1980s, the population in public housing was changing. Kentucky Courts had opened in 1964, the year before the Moynihan Report on the breakup of black families was published. Then, nearly one-quarter of black children were being raised by a single parent; today, the figure approaches two-thirds.
Similarly, the number of fathers in residence at Kentucky Courts had declined over the same period. Some attribute this to changes in the welfare rules, because if a father lived in the home, whatever income he had would end up diminishing a welfare check. By the late 1980s, many of the men who hung around the Courts had homes elsewhere. Some had aunts, grandmothers and girlfriends who lived in the apartments, and they spent many hours in the courtyard. Eventually, some of them virtually took over the place.
On December 27, 1991, the streets nearby suddenly swarmed with police as an emergency response team crept up, parked car by parked car, and a helicopter hovered nearby. A man had been spotted shooting an AK-47 assault rifle from the roof. "A gunman being sought by police fled into the Kentucky Courts public housing complex in Southeast Washington yesterday, causing a three-hour standoff," The Post reported. After those three hours, the search was called off.
" 'He's gone,' a police spokesman said. 'They searched the whole building. He's not in there.' "
On that day, Kentucky Courts had been turned into the perfect fortress; you could elude police by running in almost any door, because the locks were always broken. Then you could climb the stairs to a confederate's apartment or climb a ladder to an open roof hatch. Once on the roof, you could run to another building and go down other open hatches leading to more apartments.
And the police couldn't find you.
For the rooftop gunman, that December day must have been a heady moment. But action at the Courts didn't always end in magical escapes. Less than a year later, the same fellow, at least according to what many residents believed, was gunned down on Kentucky Avenue. At times, anarchic warring regularly brought police and ambulances to the neighborhood. Sometimes KCC associates warred against enemies from other projects; sometimes the violence was intramural, because some KCC associates suspected treachery everywhere, even among those closest to them.
Across the city, across the nation, exaggerated notions about "respect" produced violence over slights real or imagined. Many warriors had little to claim as accomplishments other than warring, but they assumed their very existence entitled them to "respect." Movies like "Scarface," "The Godfather" series or "Menace II Society," very popular around Kentucky Courts, taught that respect comes to the ruthless. The movies showed, too, that it helps to be volatile and crazy-acting; people will give you a wider berth. And such concepts can be truly deadly among individuals who, in some cases, don't even trust their own mothers.
All these behaviors showed up around Kentucky Courts, but warring can be exciting, too, compounding the sense that Kentucky Courts was the place to be. The courtyard was a fine place to set up a movable basketball hoop, another excuse to gather there. Usually the hoops got wrecked within a few weeks, but you could get a new one at Toys R Us and play on all night long. Plus the pavement next to the concrete benches was always a good spot for craps games.
Understand that craps games can be vulnerable affairs. Robbers can easily sneak up while you're focusing on the dice. In the early 1990s, thousands of dollars were robbed at craps games in the neighborhood, including a game that was apparently robbed at Kentucky Courts in the summer of 1992.
For that reason, Coy Mason had a Smith & Wesson M-11 semiautomatic pistol tucked in his belt on September 19, 1992. A craps game was in progress in the courtyard as Mason, according to police documents, told an associate about the gun. "I always carry this joint," Mason said. "You never know what is going to happen."
Mason was not alone in this uncertainty.
Kim Sheppard, who lived with her two children in a bottom-floor unit, once told me that you never knew when you would have to "take a bullet to protect your kids." The abruptness of the idea was startling, but it was clearly a possibility. In November 1989, a bullet unexpectedly flew through Nici Moses's bedroom window on the third floor and lodged in her bedroom door. Nobody was hurt. But still.
At 8:30 p.m. on September 19, 1992, two plainclothes police officers were inching through a Kentucky Courts hallway, planning to burst out on the craps game, when they heard Mason say he had a gun. By then the police believed that he was a key leader of the Kentucky Courts Crew, and he loomed big in their minds for other reasons, too. According to police documents, informants had told police that he was regularly buying four or five kilos of cocaine from one supplier, and that at one point when cocaine was in short supply, Mason had paid $800,000 for a shipment.
Was this true? Who knows? Mason's only arrest as an adult was on a pending gun charge involving a weapon found in his car outside Kentucky Courts. As a juvenile, he had been arrested as a passenger in a stolen car that police stopped outside the Courts.
And that was it. Many people may have had other suspicions about Mason's activities; he drove new cars. He knew how to shape his reputation, and he had syncopation to his walk that people noted, too. But he was also known as polite and respectful to his elders. Mason had a daughter, and a son on the way. When young mothers at the Courts ran short of money, Mason bought Pampers for their kids, sometimes sending underlings to the store with a snap of his fingers. Mason, at least, had cornered some respect.
That September night the two cops jumped out, guns drawn, shouting, "Don't move, police," and ordered everyone on the ground. One of Mason's cousins initially refused and taunted the police, but the cops were focusing on Mason because he had spoken about a gun. Officer Thomas Webb, his weapon drawn, ordered Mason to stand up. "When I patted the front end of his waistband, I felt the butt end of a gun," Webb later said in a signed statement. "I knew it was a large gun because I felt the length of the slide. Just then he bolted. He ran across the courtyard."
The distance Mason covered was about 40 yards; after about 25 yards, he passed the mailboxes, then 10 yards farther on he turned right through a breezeway tunnel that exited onto C Street. Webb ran behind. "Just before he got into the breezeway [Mason] turned at the waist toward me . . . I saw the gun and suddenly I saw the muzzle flash and heard the shot. I then fired my weapon while running, and I continued to fire until he fell."
Other accounts of the shooting disagree on when -- and where -- Mason may have dropped the M-11. Webb said it was in the breezeway, but Mason's associates said he dropped the gun near the spot where he started to run away. One of Mason's friends insisted that he heard the gun clank on the ground before any firing began. But this version of events does not explain how Mason's gun was fired, and police said it was fired once before it jammed, or "stove-piped."
The autopsy on Mason's body said he had been shot seven times -- all in the back, consistent with claims that he was fleeing. Wounded, Mason staggered through the tunnel to C Street, where he fell and died. Webb fired a total of 12 shots, and his gunfire left bullet holes in Kim Sheppard's living room window. A bullet lodged head-high in the wall over her sofa. There was also a bullet hole in the front window of the house across C Street from where Mason died.
From her window upstairs, Nici Moses saw Mason fall; as others ran toward the body, an outcry immediately emerged from the upstairs windows: "They shot him in the back. They shot him in the back." As this outcry continued, police shouted back that they would arrest anyone who said that, and one woman was detained. Her statement to police includes this account of the shooting:
Coy broke loose and started running across the courtyard, the white policeman started to run after him with his gun drawn, telling him to stop. I ran after him, and Coy's cousin Antoine was running right behind me. As Coy got to the mailboxes, he kind of half-turned and yelled, "I don't have nothing," but when he saw the police officer still running after him with the gun drawn, he turned and kept running. As Coy got close to the arch and started to turn to run through it, the police officer chasing him started shooting at Coy. Antoine and I started yelling, "Don't shoot, don't shoot." But he continued to run after Coy, still shooting.
Police documents also describe subsequent attempts to recover all the bullets and shell casings from the incident. For example, officers noted "two apparent bullet holes" in the window of Kim Sheppard's apartment. But whoever came to the door when police knocked refused entry to the investigators.
"There ain't no bullets here," a woman's voice said, "and you [expletive] ain't coming in here, either."
A grand jury and the police department eventually cleared Officer Webb of wrongdoing in the case, but an alternative version of Mason's death survived at Kentucky Courts: The police had assassinated him. Within days, according to police documents, informants told police that Mason's friends planned retaliation for his death, but no retaliation came as more than a year passed.
Then, on the evening of December 30, 1993, Officer Jason White, driving on 14th Street, saw a KCC associate named Donzell McCauley exiting a car and climbing the steps of a house near the Courts. White's instinct was to investigate; he got out of his car and approached McCauley from behind.
McCauley, 23, was a regular at the Courts; his aunt lived there, and his brother, Jamal, had been murdered outside the courtyard the year before. McCauley was also an admirer of rapper Tupac Shakur, especially the lyrics that glorified violence against police. Friends said he played them repeatedly.
But just as significant, McCauley was part of a group at Kentucky Courts who believed that cops would shoot you in the back. And McCauley was also carrying a gun that night, a Glock .40-caliber semiautomatic loaded with deadly Black Talon bullets, which were specifically designed to tear huge holes in human flesh. As White approached from behind on the porch, McCauley turned and fired, knocking White backward down the steps; McCauley then leaped after White, firing four times into his head. White died on the steps. Within a few minutes, McCauley was arrested hardly four blocks away.
Initially, McCauley seemed to believe he had acted in legitimate self-defense. He wrote to one KCC associate that he'd refused to let police shoot him in the back as they had Coy Mason. "When I looked and I saw how [White] looked at me, like he was scared too. He was tensed up," McCauley told police. "I felt he was ready to pull the trigger. I felt my life was in danger. I didn't think he was going to lock me up." But McCauley's claim of self-defense was, in effect, a confession that he had shot Officer White. Facing the possibility of a death sentence, McCauley pleaded guilty to murder in exchange for life without parole.
IV: ANOTHER DAY
There were 2,500 cars in White's funeral procession; his widow received 4,000 condolence cards. President Clinton mentioned White's murder in the 1994 State of the Union Address. At Kentucky Courts, White's death is still marked with a crudely drawn hieroglyph on a hallway wall. The drawing shows a gun, labeled "Glock .40," with a bullet exiting the barrel toward a head, above which a cartoon-style balloon contains the words, "I don't want to die."
But residents of Kentucky Courts also recognized that White's murder affected the way outsiders viewed them (many residents had always suspected that outsiders looked down on them). Some would grumble that the police officer's killing didn't really happen at Kentucky Courts at all but across the street, as if that were another world entirely.
To some, it was.
The cultural Grand Canyon that surrounded Kentucky Courts grew ever wider after the shooting. Most neighbors never set foot in the place; many didn't dare. And some residents hardly ever left the Courts, except to walk to a check-cashing liquor store down the street. One woman was so bound to the world of the courtyard that others teased, "You'll break out in hives if you ever leave."
Some residents watched soap operas, but others recognized that Kentucky Courts was its own soap opera, or that the courtyard was the stage for a theater-in-the-round. Some residents spent hours watching events in the courtyard from the upstairs windows; it could become an addiction. But one father kept the curtains permanently drawn because he did not want his kids to model their lives on the spectacle below.
Other images of daily life come to mind: One mother was known for yelling and cursing her kids to begin each day. "It's like the rooster that crows at dawn," another resident noted. Another woman was known for playing music that reflected her mood. As a day progressed, everyone knew whether she was in love or lovelorn, joyful or despairing. But one of my favorite residents was Velma Jones, Coy Mason's grandmother. She had a favorite pronouncement: "Don't even make no sense," she would say. And she said it often.
Outsiders sometimes assumed that the residents of Kentucky Courts preferred idleness or were content to live off handouts. The outsiders were, in many cases, wrong. You could learn at the Courts that captains of industry rarely spend as much effort in pursuit of money as do those who don't have much.
In 1995, about a third of the residents reported that their income was from a job; another third listed public assistance; and a third, including elderly persons living in the family units, were on Social Security. Many found it tough to survive on the income they had; they had little money for anything extraneous.
Yet there were countless ways of making things easier. Some had part-time jobs they did not report. Some residents took in boarders, maybe a woman with a child who could then get a welfare check if she had a fixed address. One woman took in a boarder who paid rent in crack rocks that she got by trading her favors to hustlers. Another woman planned to find an unwanted baby and get a welfare check that way. One day she reported that a baby was to be dropped off at a Metro stop. But on the assigned day, the deal fell though.
A few residents allowed their apartments to be used to stash or cut drugs. One woman had extra locks on her door and a safe installed. But drug dealers had access to other apartments for free; some apartments belonged to drug users; others to girlfriends.
A few families sent their kids out begging. One form of begging, called "baby dolling," was a Kentucky Courts specialty. In baby dolling, the kids carried a folder with typed pages explaining that they were seeking money for football or baseball uniforms "to keep kids off drugs and crime." The sheet, signed by a fictitious coach, asked for a donation of $2 or more, and often the kids were given much larger donations. A few kids made more than $100 on occasion; for a time, one 11-year-old was sent out every day to baby-doll on the Metro.
Even being a witness in a court case or before a grand jury was considered a job, because witnesses got checks. Regular jury duty, however, was to be avoided because it paid only $2 for carfare.
A few residents "sold" their kids to others as dependents for income tax purposes -- and claimed that the ruse worked for those who needed the deduction. Food stamps generally were available at half their face value, and "Mother's Day," the first of the month, when checks came, always seemed to draw men who knew there might be beer or a cookout in the courtyard.
For a while in the mid-'90s, a busload of prisoners from Lorton regularly came to Kentucky Courts to rake and sweep. When they suddenly stopped coming, it was said that some women at Kentucky Courts had treated the inmates too well, inviting them in for beer and soft music. Was this crazy? Probably not. There often was a shortage of healthy, clear-eyed men at the Courts; the prisoners were young and fit; by and large they looked better than the bunch that hung around day and night.
When it came time to vacate Kentucky Courts, there was such a rush of activity -- finding new places, moving -- that there was little time to reflect on what was happening. Many residents were eager to move into homes that were less cramped and theoretically less beset with problems. Only the few who had lived there most of their lives sensed that they were stepping off into a great unknown. But soon stories got back, one by one, that people were doing well. Word was that Kim Sheppard was getting married, and that others had jobs. Sometimes I would see former residents working at Safeway or McDonald's, and I briefly wondered what caused the sudden burst of initiative. Was it welfare reform? I asked. "No, we're not telling welfare we've got work," one woman told me.
The economy had improved, too. But it seemed that closing the Courts had stirred the pot, and some residents had been stirred away from old habits, much for the better. Still, they also began to say they missed Kentucky Courts. They would immediately list all that they didn't miss, too -- the shooting, the fighting, the drug scene, the falling ceilings -- but still come around again to insisting that they missed something. They settled on the idea that it was a sense of community.
V: PARADISE LOST
The hulk of the Kentucky Courts family units sits there empty, its windows boarded and painted a blind battleship gray. When Geneva Layne drives by on her way to church, she still always thinks, "There was the best building I ever lived in."
Stillness reigns, except for leaves that swirl in the wind and the pigeons -- always the pigeons -- pecking and scratching at the holes up high along the eaves. The holes were finally closed off, but still pigeons come.
When David Yerkes visited Kentucky Courts earlier this year, he peered into the still courtyard from outside the chain-link fence. "It's so sad," the architect said. "Isn't there some way it could be saved?"
Across the street from the empty buildings, small groups of men regularly gathered in the shadows, sometimes for hours. Some were the same men that had ruled the courtyard when Coy Mason was alive. A few came to stand outside the Courts when they got out of prison. Night after night, the survivors returned as if they would find the Courts open and alive once again. But the theater stayed dark.
Last July, 20-year-old Paul Cabbell, who grew up in the Courts, was sitting in a car with two other men near his old house when something went drastically wrong. Maybe one in the group tried to rob the others, or a dispute arose over drugs. Suddenly, a gunfight broke out -- inside the car -- and all three men were seriously wounded. Realizing this, they made one rational decision: They drove themselves to D.C. General. Police found the car outside full of bullet holes and blood.
Two of the men recovered; but Cabbell is now paralyzed, in a wheelchair. Was he the last casualty of Kentucky Courts? We won't know for a while; the lost sons of Kentucky Courts still congregate in the shadows.
Sometimes, Mary Thompson says, she wishes people didn't know she ever lived at the Courts. But more than anyone, she keeps track of the others, visiting and talking to them on the phone. One afternoon, I persuaded her to go to the National Arboretum, wondering what she would think of the headquarters building that Yerkes designed. She immediately took to the place. We walked out to the patio with its concrete benches next to the pond and fountain. The sun was bright and the day was fine; the only sounds were birds and spouting water. "What does this place remind you of?" I asked.
She hardly paused. "It's like the courtyard at Kentucky Courts."
Two weeks later, on February 14, 2001, the directors of the D.C. Housing Authority voted unanimously to demolish the empty Kentucky Courts family units and replace them with a 40-unit, mixed-income town house project designed to look like the older homes in the neighborhood.
Jim Myers is a Washington writer. His most recent book is Afraid of the Dark: What Whites and Blacks Need to Know About Each Other. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Monday on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.