Freeman Harris heard the gunshots in the 2 a.m. darkness. Another young life taken on the 1400 block of Monroe Street, in the Columbia Heights section of Northwest Washington.
That was Sunday, Aug. 15. The next morning, when Harris went out on his porch, he saw them: the drug dealers, back already. Just 29 hours after a hail of bullets killed Kerron "Cam" Pinkney, 20, a student at the University of the District of Columbia, and wounded two friends.
"Someone gets shot Sunday morning. The drugs are back by Monday," Harris said. "It's been that way for years on this block."
Days and nights on Monroe Street give a glimpse of life on a struggling Washington block, a place of contrasts, where drug dealers stash their wares beneath the daisies in homeowners' gardens, where the sound of drug market bickering invades recently renovated row houses. Where residents--and the police--keep searching for solutions.
With a new Metro station scheduled to open in Columbia Heights later this month and shopping and commercial developments in the works, the neighborhood has been touted by city officials as one on the path to revival.
Yet gunfire sometimes breaks out in the hours after midnight. Residents say that they still see suspected drug dealers most mornings. Given the recent shootings--including two execution-style slayings in the neighborhood--police say they fear drug trafficking has returned to Columbia Heights.
Residents say they never left.
As with many blocks in Washington and in cities across the country, frustrated residents of Monroe Street wonder how they can liberate themselves from the drug trade. They ask: Does a police officer need to be stationed on every street? Barricades? Checkpoints? Crackdowns on routine misbehavior?
Visitors to Harris's home see what planners call a block in "transition." There are restored row houses, some with potbellied stoves inside and gardens outside. Occupants reflect the city's diversity. They include longtime residents who are black, and young people of all colors attracted by affordable rents.
Not so obvious at first glance are the block's most persistent troubles: drugs and shootings. The drugs buried in gardens, the graffiti memorials to the dead--"RIP Little Ant" is painted in one alley--tucked away in the corners of the block.
"It's a deceptively peaceful block," said Michael Wilkinson, vice chairman of the Monroe Street Block Association. Wilkinson bought his house two weeks before the Aug. 15 shooting.
When the dealers roll up, usually in the early morning or late at night, the block with aging ginkgo trees turns into an open-air drug market, residents said. It usually happens this way: One person arrives, sometimes in a car. Another person comes, then another. Sometimes, residents say, they watch silently from windows as the dealers go through their gardens, looking for their merchandise with the intensity of botanists searching out rare species.
Then the dealers and customers meet in an alley. Packages and money are exchanged.
Finally, as quickly as they came, they leave. That's the way it works on quieter nights. Other times, one resident said, there is so much late-night arguing between those he suspects of being drug dealers that the block reminds him of "The Jerry Springer Show."
Many transitional blocks in the District and in other U.S. cities are struggling with the same issues, said Paul Kelsey Williams, who researches the history of houses and has written a history of Columbia Heights.
The houses are desirable, although sometimes fireplaces need repair and walls need painting. But crime keeps rents and sale prices lower than in other nearby neighborhoods, such as Adams-Morgan.
"There is always an interesting contingent of the population that is interested in these old homes and see themselves as urban pioneers," Kelsey Williams said. "All it takes is one or two houses for a neighborhood to become better. But it's a tricky balance to do something about crime and not be calling too much attention to yourself from the drug dealers."
Wilkinson, while carrying golf clubs into his new home on a recent night, stopped to chat with other residents hanging out with police officer Anthony Washington. In front of an abandoned home and wearing a bulletproof vest, Washington had set up a mini-substation, one of many popping up around the city.
He is there from 4 p.m. until about 11 p.m., but not every day. Residents say they want him there 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When he's there, they say, the dealers move to another block.
The crowd gathered on this night is made up mostly of older residents, such as John Patton, 64, and his wife, Dorothy, 74. Some have homes that have been in their families since the turn of the century. There also are younger folks, such as Rita Burns, 31, a dance and aerobics teacher who moved into the block in 1994.
Residents have varied concerns and interests, but they are united over one thing: getting the drugs and violence out. After Pinkney's shooting, almost everyone on the block--including students, cabdrivers and Web site designers--attended a candlelight vigil for Pinkney at which they prayed and sang "Amazing Grace."
Wilkinson, a thin man with brown hair and glasses, said he went to a block association meeting the week after he moved in and was elected vice chairman.
"I am concerned, but I want to do something about it," said Wilkinson, who owns a three-bedroom row house. "Before the shooting, I had just gotten an estimate to fix my bathroom for $7,000."
Wilkinson said that he remains hopeful and that he wants to know how to get the drug dealers to go.
It is not clear whether anyone can offer an answer. Some residents suggested a solution that David Silber, a professor of psychology at George Washington University and a specialist in crime issues, calls the "New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani approach."
Also dubbed the "zero-tolerance" program, it includes arresting and checking the court record of anyone who spits, urinates or sprays graffiti in the city. It may involve barricading blocks so that only residents who live there can come in and out. But some D.C. officials and criminology experts say the answer has to be deeper than that.
"It takes a sense of community vigilance that outlasts a week or two, or three months after a shooting," Silber said, "and it takes the police presence being there and working with the community."
Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer agreed. Community policing and crime prevention are the solution, Gainer said, but it does not mean stationing an officer permanently on every neighborhood street or setting up roadblocks and turning the city into "an armed encampment."
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said it would be "irresponsible to say we would have police on every block." He said the answer, in addition to increased patrols, includes drug treatment programs and crime prevention plans such as after-school activities for teenagers who otherwise would hang out on the streets.
Police have stepped up patrols in Columbia Heights in the wake of the recent shootings.
Still, John and Dorothy Patton said the patrols are not enough. John Patton said he can remember at least a dozen shootings in his neighborhood over the last five years, including the death of "Little Anthony," a 13-year-old boy who was shot in 1994. The block still has a memorial to him on a corner, where a faded T-shirt with his picture is tucked into a metal gate. The words "We Will Miss You Ant" are nearby.
Dorothy Patton remembers them all. But it is the shooting of Pinkney last month that keeps replaying in her mind, she said.
"This last shooting, there was this 'bang, bang,' " she said, recalling how she was awakened by the gunfire. "I hope I never have to experience that again. I came down the steps and just heard all this crying."
The Pattons have lived in their home for 30 years. Dozens of pictures of their 13 grandchildren hang from the walls.
"We don't care who moves into the neighborhood," John Patton said, "as long as we get these drug dealers out. It was bad when we came. We don't want it to be bad anymore."
Columbia Heights, a neighborhood of an estimated 25,000 residents, grew slowly over the decades after the years-ago introduction of the trolley line on 14th Street NW, Kelsey Williams said. After the 1968 riots, many homeowners left the neighborhood.
Once owner-occupied, many houses were rented out and often were not kept up, he said.
Over time, many Columbia Heights residents once again are homeowners, having fixed up the old houses. Harris and his neighbors say they have grown tired of the mayhem, of the small things and the big things.
Harris said he had to chain down the plastic chairs on his porch after one was stolen. Lounging in one of the chairs, Harris looked down at his young son, who was teetering on his lap. "We don't want him dead," he said, looking again at his son. "That's the bottom line."