The strip of Kennedy Street sandwiched between the upper Northwest neighborhoods of Petworth and Brightwood always has been a hub of activity. Neighbors exchange gossip in the bars, liquor stores and doctors' offices, and watch passersby through the picture windows of barber shops and beauty salons. Interspersed among the small businesses are apartment buildings and houses with porches perfect for sitting on hot summer evenings.
This is one of Washington's backbone communities, not a poverty-stricken, rough area like 14th and U streets or 7th and T streets where residents have grown accustomed to seeing people hawking drugs on the street. Yet, police say, marijuana, heroin and some cocaine can be had on Kennedy Street.
It is not uncommon, in the stretch between Georgia and Missouri avenues, to see small knots of people gathered on the corners. Every now and then someone approaches a double-parked car, exchanges hand signals with the occupants, reaches through the windows and returns to the curb with money.
Police say their crackdowns on narcotics traffic in areas like 14th Street have scattered some of the drug merchants to other parts of the city -- like Kennedy Street -- that were, until recently, relatively unscathed.
"You can't hardly get off the bus" for fear of the drug sellers, said one middle-aged woman. Area merchants, many of whom declined to be identified by name, said they feel the drug pushers scare customers away.
Responding to citizen complaints, police made 58 arrests on Kennedy Street on various charges between March 8 and April 6 and say the situation now is stabilized. But many residents say they still are angry and frightened.
A.J. Costello, a 63-year-old retired flooring man and self-proclaimed marshal of Kennedy Street, gnawed on a stumpy cigar and nodded toward several men near a business in the 300 block of the street. "See, see . . . there go two more," he said. "Look at them over there, they come to buy stuff."
Costello, who lives in a small apartment building across the street from an old movie theater, now the Calvary Life Center, said that drug addicts make noise in the alley beside his home and take up his parking space.
He said that on many nights he perches in his window and takes copious notes on the activity across the street, which he passes along to police and to City Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis, who represents the area.
"I've got a big mouth and I know it," Costello said. "I"d like to straighten out this area before I leave it."
Costello shares the sentiments of many of his neighbors, who said at a recent community meeting that the addicts and pushers return soon after the police chase them away. The police point out that there is not much more they can do since many of these individuals are released from jail on bond pending trials that may be months away.
Deputy Police Chief Clay Goldston, commander of the 4th District police station, said that while actual criminal actvity against residents has been minimal, confined to a few purse snatchings, the situation nevertheless is "creating uneasiness among the citizens."
Jarvis said that some citizens in the area suspect that two shootings along Kennedy Street in recent months were narcotic related. "It is unusual to have drug traffic so close to a residential area," she said. "It was a problem that was getting a toe-hold on Kennedy Street."
Some of the pushers are from other parts of town, Goldston said, but many are young men and women in their 20s who grew up in the Petworth area. Drug addiction is no stranger to the area, Goldston says. "The 4th District led the city in narcotics overdoses for a time last year . . . Before, local addicts would buy outside of the area."
At first, Goldston said, the drug activity in the stable, predominantly black neighborhood involved a few local youths selling marijuana. Since the beginning of this year, residents say, the problem has gotten out of hand.
In February and March, citizen complaints poured into police headquarters and Jarvis' office when the crowds of strangers grew particularly thick in the parking lot of a new convenience store on the corner of Fifth and Kennedy streets.
The complaints stirred the police into action last month. Patrol cars rolled through the area more often, leading to the 58 arrests. Police officers picked up the unruly, ticketed those loitering in their cars and arrested dope sellers.
"The problem is under control now," Goldston said, but he acknowledges that it's a game of "cat and mouse" and that some of the pushers return as soon as the police are out of sight. Police say some of the selling has moved indoors or around the corner to Jefferson Street. And evening still draws young crowds to the neighborhood, particularly to the 300 block.
"Sometimes they spend big money here," the owner of a convenience store in the neighborhood said of the drug merchants. Then he rolled his head and closed his eyes to mimic someone high on drugs. "But when they are like that," he said, "they push us away and steal things."