As far as housing projects go, Potomac Gardens looks pretty serene, with nicely landscaped courtyards, a recreation center for kids, and lush trees that hang over the parking lots. But looks are deceiving, and it takes only a nightime stroll through the compound to find abject poverty in that shining part of the city known as Capitol Hill.
I expected to find the social ills that often accompany life in low-income housing when I visited the place, but to watch them fester in the shadow of the Capitol suggested a raw deal. Walking past a cluster of courtyard trees, I heard a voice call out in the dark. "You want some? You got $5?"
It was a girl's voice. Two girls, who couldn't have been over 18, were hiding behind a tree trying to sell sex. And this with all the rapes that have been occurring. I couldn't believe it. "We need money," said a scarfaced child with a dreary, obviously drug-induced nod.
A group of older women stood in a nearby parking lot, drinking beer while listening to a Jackie Wilson tape playing out of the trunk of a car. I made the mistake of asking them what was going on. "Look, if you want sex baby, you better go ask one of them young girls because we don't play that," one woman shouted at the top of her lungs.
Embarrassed, I stood there while another woman looked me up and down. "He must be looking for some 'lovely' PCP ." Either way, they insisted, I'd better move on, because it was not safe for them to talk to strangers.
Fear and trembling in the projects was nothing new, but this was ridiculous. PCP smoke waffed through the courtyard. Young men were hunkered down in doorways and staking out parking lots selling the stuff. Girls were selling the stuff. At the rental office, property manager Constance Love said, "A lot of these people are just trying to make easy money. But of course we all know that for those persons on welfare, the monthly grants are not sufficient."
Something had gone dreadfully wrong here, and those familiar with the problem knew that it was not Potomac Gardens' problem alone. A tenth of the city's population -- about 60,000 people -- live in these places. Designed as temporary shelters for poor people who were expected to move up and out, they are now permanent homes for two and sometimes three generations. The apartments were never intended for families with eight and 10 members, but somehow they had all managed to squeeze in.
At Potomac Gardens, located at 12th and G streets SE, roughly 800 people live in 352 units, or so the rent book says. Visits to several apartments revealed serious overcrowding. Yet, some tenants boasted that their apartments had been passed down through generations -- as if they had inherited property.
Property manager Love, who gets high marks from some residents despite the problems, says she thinks Potomac Gardens is probably better than many other housing projects. "We do have a number of people who are employed; not all are on welfare."
Those who did have jobs seemed particularly perturbed as they sat on their front steps gossiping about how suspected burglars preyed on the complex while they were at work. One boy recalled seeing a man beaten to death two years ago with a tire iron outside his bedroom window. "I could hear his head go crunch, crunch," he said.
His mother recalled that she had to spank her son for playing doctor with discarded syringes. "When we first moved out here it was like heaven. Now it's like hell," she said.
And it had been worst just a few months ago, before police, responding to repeated overdoses, robberies and complaints from the residents, began raiding the complex and using what neighbors called the "Mod Squad," a group of undercover agents posing as drug buyers. Then came a contingent of U.S. Marines who were assigned to trim the overgrown foilage around the parking lot that was providing easy cover for robbers. Things began to look better for a while. Then, like weeds in a sidewalk crack, the problems came back.
And now, with more cuts in housing and welfare programs expected, it looks like the weeds of social injustice will have a strangle hold on Potomac Gardens, and low-income residents, for at least another four years.