Deanwood Heights is the kind of place mayors and police chiefs visit when something even more horrible than usual happens. Not when drug dealers saunter across the streets like they own them. Not when prostitutes ply their wares in front of the same vacant lots where neighborhood children play. Certainly not when people go 30, 40 years living without sidewalks, curbs or the most rudimentary of services.
Ah, but when a good churchman like Walter Coates is gunned down on New Year's Eve by a rifle-toting cretin with the word "Thug" tattooed on his neck, don your finest, because the mayor and his minions will hustle right over to display their deep concern for the Deanwood Heights they know and love.
After they get decent directions, of course. Because Deanwood is in far Northeast, so far that concepts such as alley-paving, sidewalks, police patrols and code enforcement haven't quite made it here yet.
When Coates was murdered a year ago, he was laid to rest under a blanket of promises from the city.
But the men and women of Beulah Baptist Church, where Coates was a trustee and member since 1946, chose not to forget their friend. So a few weeks ago, they invited Mayor Williams back. Thanks to a growing pressure group called the Washington Interfaith Network, they could make the invitation mandatory.
WIN is a coalition of 45 congregations from all over the city, united by radical organizers in the tradition of the late Saul Alinsky, who famously married old-fashioned lefty agitation with the moral authority of the church. WIN does not ask politicians to do the right thing; it marshals thousands of churchgoers to demonstrate by their numbers that elected officials must act.
WIN organizer Martin Trimble, Beulah Baptist minister Marcus Turner and church members showed the mayor around: the sprawling housing complex owned by the federal government but boarded up for two decades, the drug shooting gallery across from a school, the shopping district that is no more, the abandoned houses the city ignores. Even after the city sent its advance squad of police to push the pushers of Field Place NE out of sight, Williams could see that Deanwood's in the dictionary under "ignored."
Here's where it gets intriguing, because this is the same mayor who intends to lure 100,000 new residents to Washington. There's no way he fits all those newbies in already booming sections near downtown. He must turn to places like depopulated Deanwood, where, as Beulah member Venida Brown says, "the people who were going to be the first-time homeowners got caught up in the drugs, and the ones who didn't get caught up in it moved to the suburbs."
She's one of them, living in Prince George's County, but hoping to move back, if the mayor ever comes to see Deanwood as a hidden gold mine -- an easy 15-minute commute to center city, land galore.
Beulah also invited planning chief Andy Altman, and he has agreed to take time from remaking Mount Vernon Square and the Anacostia riverfront to think about Deanwood.
The Williams administration has already remade neighborhoods not far from here, adding both market-priced and subsidized housing, but has done a miserable job of persuading residents that revitalization need not mean removal of low-income families.
So even as Beulah's members insist on their fair share, they worry, because, as Harold Whitten, an advisory neighborhood commissioner, says, "Upgrading is in the works for this community. It's whether we're in the upgrading."
The mayor has pledged to return, and residents say the city has started to deliver, installing sidewalks, cleaning up some lots, boarding up a few eyesores. But can a Deanwood be revived without exiling those who have stayed and struggled?
Yes, says WIN, which has built a townhouse development at Fort Dupont with the city providing the land, churches kicking in a subsidy and houses priced on a sliding scale for people making $15,000 to $60,000.
But there's a long way to go. "We lay in our bed every night and hear the bullets, like a machine gun," says Beulah Patterson, and she makes the noise. "Every night, I lay and just pray, talk to God. For a long time. I pray that we can live here like regular people."
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