From atop the highest hill in Anacostia, the rooftops of the historic district of Old Anacostia give way to the slow-moving Anacostia River, and on the horizon emerges the Capitol, Washington Monument and Washington Cathedral.
The splendor of this vista -- one of the best in town -- is lost on many District residents, because to see it means traveling into Southeast Washington. For many in the city, going into most neighborhoods in the Southeast quadrant of the city is taboo. Many believe that violence and drugs permeate the area, but the reputation of Southeast Washington belies its true essence.
Southeast Washington, across the Anacostia River, is a patchwork of neighborhoods -- some affluent and some poor -- where many of the 106,000 residents have lived for years. While admitting that drug trafficking is a problem on some streets, several residents point out that Southeast is not a monolithic community rife with problems.
Ask the people who live in the diverse neighborhoods that make up the D.C. police department's 7th District and they will say life can be very good within the 11 square miles bounded by Pennsylvania and Southern avenues SE and the Anacostia River. And on streets where drug trafficking is common, residents are working to make improvements.
"We are worn and weary with people who only see the negative," said D.C. Council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8), who lives in Washington Highlands. Her colleague in Ward 7, council member H.R. Crawford, who lives in Hillcrest, as does Mayor Marion Barry, said he "shrugs off the negative impression."
"Many people do not understand the various neighborhoods that make up Southeast," Crawford said, speaking primarily of the area composed of the city's 8th Ward and parts of the 7th and 6th wards.
Unlike other parts of town, the neighborhoods there often are thought of as either "Southeast" or "Anacostia" and the area is viewed as one big, poor neighborhood across the river. So strong is the feeling of alienation from the power base of downtown Washington that the police officers in the 7th District often jokingly refer to themselves as the "Anacostia Sheriff's Department."
For years, residents have endured the stigma of living in an area that has become known for its illegal drug markets, high homicide rate and large number of public housing complexes. Now the image of their area is being tarnished further by current events, which include a turf war between local and outside drug dealers.
Last month, two unrelated shooting sprees -- the first said to be a racially motivated revenge shooting and the other an allegedly revenge-tinged peeping Tom shooting -- cast a harsh light on Congress Heights and Washington Highlands. Then two weeks later, two women were found living in a squalid apartment in a far corner of Southeast near Barry Farms with a baby kidnaped from the Prince George's Hospital four months earlier.
Many residents contend it is unfair to characterize all of their Southeast neighborhoods by the recent news events that highlight drug and other crime problems. Take each block and examine it: Decent, law-abiding people will be found, they say.
"I almost feel as though I will have to fight when I tell someone I live in Southeast or Congress Heights," said Ester Farmer, a longtime resident of Congress Heights and a small-business owner. "They say, 'How can you live there?' Well, I choose to live here and I like it."
At the end of the Civil War, much of the area was still farmland and today there are still open stretches of undeveloped land and hundreds of acres of federal and city parks. Developers gave the emerging neighborhoods names that reflected the country atmosphere: Hillcrest, Woodland, Bellview and Buena Vista.
The majority of homes in the area are detached, single-family houses ranging from stately brick houses in Hillcrest to frame farmhouses in Old Anacostia to small bungalows in Congress Heights. Along the rolling hills stand traditional row houses, multistory apartment buildings and institutional-looking public housing complexes.
Most people interviewed trace the decline in reputation of the Southeast neighborhoods to either the civil rights riots of 1968 or the "dumping" of public housing complexes in the area in the '60s and '70s. Both events led to an exodus of middle-class whites and to the flight of some blacks from the area to suburban Maryland. Along the way, many of the area's small businesses closed, leaving whole neighborhoods with few services.
In the past year, the tranquility of several neighborhoods has been shattered by what police call an invasion of Jamaican gangs from New York City who have muscled their way into local drug markets.
The arrival of the Jamaican gangs, known as posses, is reflected in an increasing number of homicides in the Southeast neighborhoods -- 50 so far this year -- and complaints from residents that the gangs will shoot up a neighborhood to gain control.
Last month, police responded to a call from the 3400 block of 14th Place SE in Congress Heights and found the ground littered with casings from armor-piercing bullets. Cars and buildings on the street had been pierced by the shots fired from a semiautomatic weapon.
The escalating drug violence has changed how O.V. Johnson, a 21-year resident and advisory neighborhood commissioner in Washington Highlands, deals with trafficking problems in his neighborhood.
At one time, he said, he knew all the youths on the street and would talk to them directly. But now strangers have come, he said.
"Those people don't apparently value life," he said. "I would like to get rid of the drugs in this area but I feel it is up to the police. They are the professionals. The violence and shootings have escalated to a point where it would be foolhardy for us to confront them."
Early last month, more than 200 people voiced their concerns about the increasing violence at a community meeting called by council member Rolark in Congress Heights.
"The message was clear, very clear," said Assistant Chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. who fielded often hostile questions from the audience. "They want service and they want protection."
He said later that several people approached him, including a lawyer who said she did not like the way their neighborhood was portrayed by either the police or the media.
"The lawyer said to me, 'Chief, I am mad at you. When you say murders in this area are drug-related, that implies that we are all involved in drugs.' "
Sixty percent of the 50 confirmed murders in the 7th District have been drug-related, said Fulwood, who once lived in Congress Heights. "We have here a community which is locked into the problem of drugs," he said. "Many of the drug users live there."
Fulwood, the architect of the city's Operation Clean Sweep program, which works to get drug sellers and buyers off the street, said 6,000 of the 26,000 people arrested during the 13-month-old program were picked up in various Southeast neighborhoods. And 5,000 of those arrested in Southeast gave addresses in the 7th District, Fulwood said.
Police have identified 12 drug markets in Southeast neighborhoods where they say shootings have become common. Other neighborhoods, particularly in the upper end of the area, go largely unscathed.
A growing number of young men and women who are involved in drugs are finding their way to Sam Foster's drug abuse counseling center at 3115 Martin Luther King Ave. SE. In business for nine years, the Concerned Citizens on Alcohol and Drug Abuse regularly counsels about 100 people.
"They see their neighbors get killed or they get busted themselves and then they see that is not the life they want," Foster said.
Foster recently bought a house in the neighborhood west of South Capitol Street. Although he has a Southwest address, Foster says his neighborhood is considered part of Southeast. It is officially called Bellview.
"My neighbors tell me there used to be a lot of shooting on my street but now it seems to have moved a block away," he said. "It seems like people want to put fear into other people. Well, I'm just not going to let them run me out."
One of the tactics police have used to disrupt the entrenched drug markets is to park a trailer or bus in the middle of the activity and use it a mini-police station complete with a detention facility.
Within view of the police bus at 15th Street and Robinson Place SE, Terry McCrea washed his car. He had taken a day off work as a photographer for the Smithsonian Institution to get ready for a trip with his family.
Raised in Stanton Dwellings, one of the area's eight public housing projects, McCrea remembered what a pleasant place it had been until the heroin dealers and then later the cocaine dealers moved in.
"We used to play football in the street when we were kids," he said. "But then all that changed when the dealers took over in 1979. Now the kids stay inside. The parents are too scared to let them out."
McCrea is still fond of Southeast and plans eventually to buy a house there. "Southeast is a good place to live," he said. "I won't want to live anywhere but over here."
Philip Pannel, a former Advisory Neighborhood Commission chairman, lives in a suburban-style town house complex in Washington Highlands.
"One of the greatest thrills was being elected chairman of the ANC because I found out that people are accepting of me," said Pannel, who ran as a gay candidate. "We had members from public housing and from my neighborhood. Everyone thinks the liberals live in Dupont Circle. Well, I have found Ward 8 to be very enlightened."
Fulwood said he believes that a strong neighborhood is the ultimate defense against crime. And in every neighborhood in Southeast, someone is working to make it better.
Eighty-year-old Laura Goldsmith of Barry Farms spends her time counseling youngsters in her public-housing neighborhood and keeping the drug dealers off her block. "My neighborhood seems like a big family to me," she said. "I take care of my block. If the drug dealers come in here, it is after I am in bed."
In Congress Heights, Patricia Carroll, along with other residents, has begun to survey and document the neighborhood to prepare for applying for a historic district designation. Her neighbor Ester Farmer helped organize an appreciation day for her block on Brothers Place SE for the police and fire departments.
When Muriel Chambers moved to Condon Terrace in the Washington Highlands public housing complex, it was known as "the meanest street in town" because of the aggressive drug sellers who ran a PCP market in front of and inside the apartment buildings. Things are slowly improving, Chambers said. She and others are keeping the grass cut and repairing the windows.
Rolark, a booster for her ward, looks forward to the opening of two Metro stations in her area as well as the development of the old Camp Simms National Guard grounds near Shipley Terrace as a much-needed shopping center. Recently, she and other city officials celebrated the opening of a newly rehabilitated, 80-unit building at 130 Irvington St. SW in Bellview. "There are too many nice things and nice people in Southeast for us to be ignored any longer," she said.
And Carroll, who is working on a history of Congress Heights, said she intends to continue to improve the quality of life there.
"I am dedicated to making this a safe neighborhood because I intend to be a senior citizen here and I don't want to be housebound," she said.