Not many communities would jump at the chance to be called a high-crime area.
But when the designation comes with promises of state funding and other resources to help rid communities of illicit behavior, well now, that's something different.
So say leaders from Prince George's and Montgomery counties and Takoma Park who are banding together to bring adjacent sections of their jurisdictions--where New Hampshire Avenue meets University Boulevard--back from the brink of economic and social despair.
Leaders from the three areas recently learned that their common boundary was among 26 Maryland communities--and the first cross-border one--selected to share $6.2 million in crime-fighting grants under the state's three-year-old "HotSpot" program.
The program targets high-crime and troubled areas by paving the way for communities to establish specialized law enforcement and other initiatives such as youth or substance-abuse programs.
In the case of the two counties and Takoma Park, officials will use their share of the HotSpot grant--$68,000--to hire a bilingual community organizer to coordinate crime-fighting efforts in and around the intersection that has become known as the "crossroads."
The job description for the new coordinator is still being written, but Takoma Park Police Chief Thomas W. Anderson, whose office will oversee the new position, said duties will include devising a way for police from the three jurisdictions to keep in touch about shared crime issues. In addition, the HotSpot coordinator will compile and track the various community outreach and social programs that might help law enforcement officials do their jobs.
Such crime-fighting initiatives have proved successful, particularly in Baltimore, where violent and property crimes in HotSpot communities have decreased by 22 percent since 1997, according to Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Office of Crime Control and Prevention.
To become a HotSpot, a community must demonstrate that its crime issues--including recent increases in open-air drug sales, public drunkenness, theft, burglary and homicide--need special law enforcement attention.
Erwin Mack, a retired Langley Park businessman who helped write the application that won the multi-jurisdictional grant, said the award will go a long way toward reducing crime and erasing the perception that the Langley Park area is a place that people should avoid rather than visit.
"Nobody likes the term HotSpot because of what it implies: drugs, prostitution and all of that," said Mack, executive director of Takoma-Langley Crossroads Development Authority Inc. "But if it brings money, we don't mind. Let's face it. We have an image problem."
Once a thriving community of mostly single-family homes and major retail chain stores, the New Hampshire Avenue corridor at University Boulevard has turned into a troubled enclave of dilapidated commercial buildings and low-rent high-rises.
"It's a very transitional place, which is the reason why there are problems," said Bill Stagg, director of an outreach program that serves Hispanics living around the crossroads. "But it's also full of diversity, and that's what makes it unique."
People familiar with the crossroads say the changeover started several decades ago when middle-class whites began moving out and such stores as Giant, Kmart and Hub Furniture followed. In their place came recent arrivals to the United States, many of them poor. Soon ethnic restaurants, markets and shops began to crop up.
Today, diners can choose from any number of ethnic restaurants, from Chinese and Vietnamese to Peruvian and Jamaican. For shoppers, the crossroads is the perfect place to pick up an Indian sari or Latin liqueur. Two elementary schools in the area--Langley Park McCormick and Carole Highlands--reflect the changing face of the now-multicultural community. Combined, students at those schools are said to speak at least 33 languages.
It's that international flavor that public officials, business leaders and community activists would like to capitalize on. Some people have even talked of trying to give the crossroads a feel similar to that in Adams-Morgan.
To do that, leaders say, the crossroads must first do away with the nagging perception and problems that have kept people away.
Prince George's County police, whose Hyattsville district patrols many of the crossroads' problem areas, could not provide comparative crime data last week. But people who live and work in the area say the problems exist.
"Be it real or perception, there is a feeling that the area is problematic," Anderson said.
Many of the 150 business owners in the crossroads area say they believe their livelihoods have been hurt by the crossroads' seedy reputation.
It is not unusual, for example, to see large numbers of cars stripped and abandoned in parking lots and at dead ends. Garbage often spills out of Dumpsters, and some say they can spot a drug sale as easily as they can a wandering child. The killing of a young boy who was struck in a shootout between police and criminals in Langley Park in the mid-1980s is often cited as the start of the community's downward spiral.
"I've had customers call me and tell me that they would like to come out to the store but won't because they're afraid to drive through here," said Mack, whose son runs his store, Denis Sleep Shop, at New Hampshire and University. "They're afraid they're going to get caught up in something."
The manager of a convenience store, who declined to give his name for fear of further lost sales, said his business in the crossroads area has suffered because dozens of laborers, many of whom speak no English, wait in front of the store day and night for somebody to come by and give them a job.
"Nobody wants to walk past them," said the manager. "They're afraid."
While Prince George's, Montgomery and Takoma Park law enforcement officials say they have always worked well together, there are times when patroling their shared border has been difficult.
"It can get like a cat-and-mouse game if someone knows he is being followed and all he has to do is jump to the other side depending on which jurisdiction is after him," said Cpl. Steve Pacheco of the Prince George's County Police Department. "The communication is not always there between us even though we are that close."
Business owners and civic leaders have high hopes that the HotSpot money will help improve that communication--and the neighborhood's image.
"As diverse as we are, this is a community with an identity," said Marc "Kap" Kapistan, general counsel for Quantum Cos., which owns a number of commercial properties in the crossroads area. "What we want to do is put our stamp on the area . . . clean it up and create jobs and opportunities, so that will make people want to live here, work here and entertain here."
CAPTION: "If it brings money, we don't mind" being a HotSpot, says Erwin Mack, of the Takoma-Langley Crossroads Development Authority. Above, he discusses the program with Carmen Oleinik, of Capital Stores II on New Hampshire Avenue.