Caroline Street is just one block and 26 tiny, tidy houses long. All that stands between it and the horrors of Washington's 14th Street corridor is a block of buildings -- and the determination of its residents to keep their street a nice place to live.
The street "is a tiny village," said Peter Manning, a 32-year-old architect who has lived there for four years. "Sometimes it feels as though we have gates to close at each end of the street."
For just over 100 years, the street's residents have been able to close those imaginary gates, protecting themselves somehow through the 1968 riots nearby, and the drug and prostitution traffic that followed on 14th Street in the 1970s.
Earlier this year, Caroline Street weathered a brief, but scary "crime wave" -- not much by Third District police standards but enough to draw the tightly knit neighbors even closer together to try to protect themselves.
Now, Caroline Street has been chosen as the pilot-area for a new police program called "Neighborhood Watch." The project, which has been successful in Canada, Detroit and Los Angeles, is "an awareness-type program where neighbors help neighbors and are aware of their block," according to its local mastermind, police officer Wilson Baretto.
Under the program, police officiers help neighbors organize block meetings to get them to work together to make their neighborhoods safer. Then the police get all the residents to apply an old crime-fighting technique -- marking their valuables with Social Security numbers so they can be identified.
Once that's done, the police will post 18-by-24-inch orange, and black and white signs on the street that say: "Warning: All items on this block have been marked for ready identification by the Metropolitan Police Department." The cost of the $20 signs, though, must be borne by residents. Eventually, the police hope to expand those blocks into larger zones of neighbors who will continue to do the job without direct police leadership.
Last Saturday, Caroline Street residents and local officials posted the warning signs.Police Chief Burtell Jefferson, City Council members David Clarke and Baretto spoke during brief ceremonies about community and police cooperation.
Baretto says Caroline Street was a natural choice for the program. "They really care. Everybody knows about everything and they all talk to each other."
Caroline Street dates to 1879, when developer Dillard Groff cut the block bounded by T,U, 15th and 16th streets NW in half and built the two-story, plainfaced houses that still line the street.
Norman Bland, 68, came to the street as a teen-ager 53 years ago. "It was a nice, quiet street," he said. "We've never had many problems here. Even the riots didn't touch us."
The same feeling attracted CIA employe Richard Busch six years ago. Busch, 42, president of the block association, calls the block "a real neighborhood with a small-town atmosphere."
The older, long-time residents, mainly retired black government workers, and the younger newcomers, mainly white professionals, founded the Caroline Street Residents Association last spring to celebrate the street's centennial in August. Despite a rainly day, there was singing and dancing, eating and drinking, speeches and awards. The two dozen families gathered again at Christmas for a moveable feast, a five-course meal served in five different homes.
But the tranquility of the village within the city was shattered in February and March when the much discussed "crime wave" hit the little one-way street.
By police count, there was an assault, an armed robbery, an attempted robbery and five larcenies under $100. But by the count of the residents, "something was happening every night."
Lawyer Sarah Collins, keeper of the street's telephone directory, came home from work in early February to find her front door kicked in. Earlier that same week, a pedestrian was robbed by an armed man and a car was broken into.
"I was very shaken," Collins said. 'It was as though everything was happening so fast on the block. We had enjoyed a respite and suddenly there was all this trouble."
"Our crime is not the big time to the cops but it is to us," said Melanie Mopsick, who has lived on Caroline Street three years. "If something happens to one of us, it touches all of us. There isn't the feeling that I'm glad it was him and not me.'"
All the trouble made the association less social and more serious. At one of several meetings called this year, Busch, the block association president, suggested setting up a night watch. Neighbors signed up to take turns watching the street from front windows or porches, calling police when a suspicious person was spotted.
The schedule was kept only a few weeks because residents found it hard to commit their evenings. But neighbors continued to keep an eye on Caroline Street on a more casual basis.
"I am home during the day and often up late at night so I always check the street," said Katy Mitzell, a retired civil servant. "Most times at night it is so quiet you could hear a pin drop."
One night the Mannings heard more than a pin drop -- they heard a window breaking. "Susie stayed at the door and shouted to me what was happening as I talked to the police." Peter Manning recalled. "We had a running commentary. "He's breaking the car window. He's reaching inside. He's taking a box. He's walking down the street. He's passing our house. You know the police took so long in coming that the guy was long gone."
Police say Caroline Street is just one of a number of streets in the Third District that is not considered to have a crime problem.
Sgt. Leonard D. Nickens of the Third District grew up a block away and used to play ball on Caroline Street as a child.
"The Third District is in the central city, the inner city, "he said." We have everything here, prostitutes, drugs, everything. It's those pioneers from the suburbs who call us about every little thing.
"Sure, we tell them to call when they see or hear stuff but those new Washingtonians can't distinguish between the neighborhood wino looking for a bottle to trade in for a few pennies and a real crook. Caroline Street is a safe street. If I were to move back to the Third District, Caroline Street is one of the streets I'd choose."
The Caroline Street residents' concern for better police protection brought them together with Baretto, who, with his partner James Lumpkin, had been trying to spread the gospel of "Neighborhood Watch" since January.
Baretto met with association members three times to outline the program and at one of the sessions unveiled the highly stylized street sign.
Residents' reaction was mixed. Elizabeth Davy took a close look at the sign's slit-eyed figure dressed in a black cap and peaked hat and said: "Looks more like a mountain than a thief." French journalist Nina Sutton, a newcomer to the block, said she thought it might call attention to the neighborhood and thus attract thieves. "If I were a criminal and saw that sign, I'd come here to snatch purses," she said.
But Baretto, a veteran of citizen meetings, particularly at Adam-Morgan's Spanish Community Center, was not deterred: "It takes guts to put a sign like that up and stick by it. That sign means the criminal is going to be aware of the program."
In the meantime, Caroline Street's "crime wave" has subsided. There have been no police runs or police reports filed for the past five weeks and residents say the street is quiet once again.
Says Melanie Mopsick: "There are a lot more [police] cruisers on the street and things are quieter now. Whatever they're doing and whatever we're doing, it's working."