Clyde Roach was stabbed in the face with a hunting knife Dec. 5, minutes after he had left a morning service at All Souls' Church in Northwest Washington. He was standing on a corner in the 1400 block of Harvard Street NW, just past his own house in Columbia Heights, when he was attacked. Several people in the neighborhood watched, Roach recalled, but no one helped him.
"They didn't try to do nothing," he said.
Roach, 68, said it wasn't the first time he's been victimized in his neighborhood, just a few blocks north of the illegal drug bazaar at 14th and U streets NW.
Last year Roach, who lives alone, lost five teeth after being mugged. Since then, he said, his home has been burglarized three times, his Siberian husky puppy was stolen from his yard, and the radio and the air-conditioner and chrome were stolen from his '75 pickup truck. Roach, a semiretired construction worker, has made his modest home into a prison-like fortress with heavy iron bars and gates at doors and windows. Stubborn and proud, Roach says he has a stake in his community, and he is not going to leave.
Installing iron window bars is just one approach that residents of Columbia Heights are taking as they brace themselves against a rash of street robberies and burglaries that is sweeping the area.
Last year's 17 percent citywide increase in crime has forced a community of opposities -- old and young, black and white, upper-middle class and low-income -- to recognize the need for unity and the strength in numbers.
Columbia Heights residents say they are banding together in hopes of forming a high-powered, politically active community organization that can influence city officials to keep old problems away and solve new ones quickly. Besides regular neighborhood meetings, the residents plan to initiate a community crime reporting system and a door-to-door voter registration campaign.
Residents say they are tired of being the "misunderstood, forgotten and neglected section east of 16th Street." And they would rather stay and fight crime, they say, because the stakes are too high to leave.
For families like that of Ethel Carnegie, a 30-year Columbia Heights resident who watched her children grow into adulthood here, the reason to stay is a matter of neighborhood and family roots.
Young professionals like Anthony Hillary, a librarian and the area's Advisory Neighborhood Commisioner, moved into Columbia Heights in the 1970s and invested in inexpensive property that soared in value with increased urban speculation.
For them, keeping their Columbia Heights property is a practical matter. For others, like Patricia and Peter Chick, a lawyer and an architect who have two small children and who moved here in 1978, the attraction is the love of inner-city living, convenient mass transportation and nearby shopping and jobs.
Although residents agree they need political clout, they disagree on how to get it. Some favor re-forming a short-lived armed citizen patrol that gained public attention in 1979. Others dismiss the plan as a publicity stunt that provides only temporary solutions. They favor working through the system with petitions and formal complaints.
Besides crime, Columbia Heights also suffers from a bad reputation that many say is a cause of some of their problems.
"Police and politicians view us as a low-income, crime-infested area so they ignore us," said Hillary. "There's nothing in it for them."
"They are pitted, police and powerwise, against the heavy hitters... of upper Northwest," explained Officer Larry Moss of the Fourth District Police Community Services Office. "Solid, stable homeowners" in Northwest's lush "Gold Coast" and North Portal Estates sections probably get more attention from city officials because they have strong civic groups, Moss said.
In Columbia Heights, he said, "You don't have a unified community to do some organizing."
But residents in Columbia Heights, a community bounded roughly by 16th Street, Clifton Street, 11th Street and Park Road NW, say that comradery and neighborliness are helping to unify the neighborhood.
On Christmas morning, for example, a couple attending service at All Souls' Church at 16th and Harvard returned to their car, parked in the same block where Roach was knifed. They found its back window smashed and their Christmas gifts gone. A family on the block saw the couple's plight and invited them in. Before long, a half dozen neighbors had gathered to console the couple with cookies, coffee and kindness.
"It was a shock to them that a neighborhood would come to their assistance that way," said Hillary, "It was a shock to them in this neighborhood."
Police say solutions to crime in Columbia Heights can best be gained through long-term cooperative efforts between citizens and police.But residents and community leaders, according to Moss, usually don't want to get involved until a problem becomes a crisis.
Police and city officials were not invited to a recent community meeting at which residents complained about increased drug peddling and crime in their neighborhood that followed a police crackdown on drug trafficking on the 14th Street strip. Residents said they wanted something done about the deteriorating, vacant buildings that house criminals and breed more crime. And some residents are upset with the city for allowing three halfway houses for juvenile offenders and drug addicts within a one-block radius of their homes.
Hillary also resides in the 1400 block of Harvard Street. His 15-room, turn-of-the-century row house is on a block where newly renovated "luxury" condominiums are for sale a few feet away from a halfway house and around the corner from subsidized apartments for senior citizens and low-income residents. A block away, burned-out buildings cast shadows in the neighborhood that was the city's second-largest commercial district in the 1940s and '50s.
Today, urban renewal plans to restore the area after the 1968 riots seem stalled as inflation and high interest rates slow construction of new housing and renovation of old buildings. And federal funding for Metro's proposed Green Line subway, which residents thought would give their area a needed economic boost, is now uncertain.
Although residents have sought increased police protection and attention from city officials, the only increase evident is in drug-related crime, Hillary said. He keeps a rifle, saber, chemical Mace and a handgun in his home, "because you never know," he explained. Hillary has not yet been a crime victim.
Ward 1 City Council member Dave Clark said last week that he is not surprised about the community concerns.
When middle- and upper-income residents move into a low-income community their prime concern is usually "more police," Clark said, "not education, not even cleaning up the damn place."
"I think we have a professional police department. I don't encourage citizens breaking the law," he said. Clark said that police often spend time that could be used catching criminals to monitor the kind of citizen patrols and vigilante groups proposed by Hillary.
In the past three months, Hillary said, there have been two murders, three serious muggings and several robberies, burglaries and acts of vandalism in the area. He sent a letter to Mayor Marion Barry asking for immediate help in curbing crime. But Hillary said he didn't expect much to happen; the letter is "a formality, to give us legitimacy once we do what we're going to do."
In his letter to the mayor, Hillary asked for more police patrols, the securing or demolition of vacant buildings, and relocating two of the three halfway houses outside the community.
At a recent community meeting, Hillary and others suggested resurrecting the citizen patrol that gained widespread attention in 1979 when residents walked the area at night with two-by-fours, baseball bats, two-way radios and guns. They got more police patrols for about six months, they said.
But other residents, like Patricia Chick, a Justice Department lawyer, said they prefer to seek action through petitions and legal alternatives. "I'm not sure the way to combat seriously unsocial behavior is with another form of unsocial behavior," said Chick, who also lives on the 1400 block of Harvard. "Anyway," she said, "I don't think it'll work. I think you'll end up with three volunteers."
After the meeting, Hillary said he was also in favor of putting pressure on city officials by jamming District Building phones, marching on the mayor's house and retaliating against young criminals. "We will vandalize them like they are vandalizing us," he said angrily.
"The last four or five months it's been very hairy up here," said Henry Childs, an Episcopal priest and volunteer minister at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Church. He disapproves of Hillary's disruptive suggestions but approves of a citizens patrol. "I don't see any other way," he explained, echoing the frustration of a community that feels crime has become a political issue that they are unprepared to fight.
"None of us is opposed to halfway houses," Childs said. "What we're opposed to is three in this area."
Gene Henry, a counselor at the halfway house in Harvard Street's 1400 block, said no one has complained to him about the conduct of the six juvenile offenders in his care or accused them of any crime. Henry said he believes community concern is not so much about crime as it is about money. "We're talking about finance,... property value. Why would they want a halfway house in the middle of a $100,000 neighborhood?" he asked.
Childs, 53, whose large corner house is filled with the dust and paint of renovation work, said he and his wife are more concerned about their safety than money. "This is where we're going to live and die. We're not worried about property values."
"Citizen patrols are useful to assist police in neighborhoods," Officer Moss said, "however, there's a real strong line drawn between observation and monitoring that's acceptable and the Guardian Angel approach." Moss said such citizen confrontations could be dangerous.
While his neighbors and city officials discuss and sometimes bicker over how to curb crime in Columbia Heights, Clyde Roach said he is going to replace the 16-gauge shotgun that an intruder stole from his house.
Roach, a bachelor, said the neighborhood is full of "a lot of nice people." But there are others, he said, who make life miserable for elderly, law-abiding citizens like him. Roach said he has little faith in the police and, if forced to, would shoot the next person who tried to rob or mug him.
Roach, a robust 240 pounds, remains outspoken and defiant in spite of the recent attacks.
"I ain't gonna move," he grumbled. "This is my home. I bought it to live here."