When the crime rate around Alabama Avenue and 22nd Street SE tripled last fall and drug traffic became more conspicuous, outraged residents of the quiet Garfield-Douglass Heights section blamed their neighborhood shopping center and its now-closed video arcade.
Clay Plaza, which consists of a Bojangles fried chicken franchise, a liquor store and a 7-Eleven store, has long been an irritant to some citizens, who say it attracts loiterers and criminals to their otherwise residential neighborhood.
But developer Ozzie Clay, whose company also owns several older adjacent business sites, contended that residents have made his properties "scapegoats" for the crime problem.
Last summer, when Clay leased a former fish market in the older part of the shopping center to two 7th District police officers who converted it to an unlicensed video arcade with 25 machines, residents said the level of vandalism, drug trafficking and purse snatchings increased. The throngs of teen-agers who crowded into the arcade from 3 to 10 p.m. were to blame, they reasoned.
"We thought it was ironic that police officers would engage in a business that was clearly contributing to crime," ANC commissioner Brenda Jones said.
The officers, David Israel and Harold (Jesse) Smith, declined to comment on the arcade.
Their attorney, John McDermott, said the business had incorporated in October and the owners were taking steps to seek a zoning variance and to apply for an arcade license when the D.C. Department of Licenses and Inspections fined the business $625 for being unlicensed. The arcade closed Feb. 24. McDermott said the officers do not plan to reopen the business at that site.
"We're glad it's closed," ANC vice chairman Mary Ross said, "but our crime problem is not going to go away overnight."
Commissioner Marie Patterson, who has lived in the neighborhood more than 40 years, said: "Things have gotten a hundred times worse since the shopping center opened up. But Clay keeps saying there's nothing he can do about it; it's just a problem with the neighborhood."
To fight what they consider a persistent crime problem largely drawn by the shopping center, Patterson and 25 neighbors met last week with police information officer Shawn Johnson to organize a neighborhood crime watch program.
Johnson said, however, that although a crime watch program can help reduce burglaries and purse snatchings, it has little effect on shopping-center loiterers.
"There really is no loitering law in D.C.," Johnson said. "The people who own the businesses can ask loiterers to leave, but the residents cannot do anything if it is a public place."
Clay, a former Redskins football player whose real estate management and investment company has handled properties in Anacostia since l969, said his stores have long been used as scapegoats by a community that refuses to recognize that its drug traffickers are youths from the neighborhood itself.
Jones argued that the crime has moved to the area from elsewhere in the city. "The police have chased the drug pushers out of the Northwest and 14th Street," she said at a recent ANC town meeting. "They come down here to sell their stuff, and they hang out at that shopping center."
But Clay insisted: "These are kids who were born and raised in the neighborhood. Everybody knows everybody else. You've got gangs down there; they protect their turf."
The arcade controversy, he said, was "just another case of those people trying to lay their problems at somebody else's doorstep."
Ross said relations with Clay have been "rocky" since l979, when plans were under way for the newer commercial buildings. The ANC presented him with a survey of residents calling for a food co-op, medical center and drugstore in the new buildings. The project was funded in part by a Department of Housing and Urban Development block grant, which requires community approval of the funded project.
She said the ANC remained opposed to Clay's project until he said he could build the center with or without HUD funds. The community's relations with Clay had improved somewhat in recent years as Clay attempted to implement security measures in the stores, Ross said.
Among his other security efforts, Clay said, he leased the fish market to police officers because he hoped their presence would deter crime and pacify the ANC. "I honestly thought it would be a good thing for the community," he said of the arcade.
Owners of adjacent businesses, who include a barber and a beauty parlor proprietor, also initially welcomed the police officers.
But crime incidents worsened after the arcade opened, the merchants said. The barbershop was burglarized, a beauty parlor patron was accosted leaving the shop and residents told a reporter they were afraid to walk past the shopping center.
Malcolm McFadden, manager of the Bojangles, whose fast-food establishment has never been favored by the ANC, complained that arcade patrons were "hanging out" in his restaurant and discouraging customers.
Although police spokesmen have not directly linked the crime problem to the arcade, the department's statistics reveal increases in the two blocks occupied by the shopping center.
Nine of the 12 crimes reported during the past two years in the 3200 block of 22nd Street occurred after the arcade opened, as did 38 of the 57 incidents in the 2200 block of Alabama Avenue reported during 1982. This year, there have been 19 reported incidents in the Alabama Avenue block, including three drug offenses.
Police department statistician Verna Olszewski said those numbers are "pretty low . . . . You should see some of the other blocks where we have pages and pages of 'hits.' "
But Ross, who said she receives frequent calls from residents who have been approached by drug dealers in the middle of the day, scoffed at that assessment. "What they're saying is that just because we're dying slowly, they're not supposed to care that we're dying," she said.