On a rainy February evening three years ago, police found the body of Deborah Iracks lying in a grassy field next to St. Thomas More Catholic Church. Iracks, 43, had been stabbed to death, and her slaying remains one of the Metropolitan Police Department's unsolved crimes.
But in a gathering of city, religious and community leaders on the same spot last week, the focus was not on death, but on the future. In the very place where Iracks died, a recreation center is scheduled to open in fall 2005.
"This is only the beginning," said Susan Newman, senior adviser for religious affairs to Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), as officials broke ground for the new Mary Virginia Merrick Youth Recreation center, adjacent to St. Thomas More, at 4265 Fourth St. SE.
"I'm glad to be able to come to this community when it's not for the funeral of one of our community members," she said.
The center, a project of Victory Youth Centers, an agency of the Archdiocese of Washington, is the second such effort for the group, and the first in the District.
The recreation center project shows that government entities can work together with faith-based organizations and others in the private sector to improve neighborhoods, Newman said.
"We know that this has to be God's will," said Council member Sandy Allen (D-Ward 8). "This land used to have a negative connotation, but it doesn't anymore."
Such a change is long overdue for his neighborhood of 38 years, said O.V. Johnson, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission representative.
When the crack cocaine epidemic moved into the District in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it wreaked havoc on many neighborhoods, including Washington Highlands.
Killings like Iracks's and other violent crimes became almost commonplace. Furthermore, the drug epidemic drove a wedge between the area's foundation of older people and the younger population moving in, Johnson said.
The center will bring activities that will unite the neighborhood, he said.
"It would be good to get the community centered around a rec center," Johnson said. "When you get all the neighborhood rallied around sports, all the youngsters get to know each other. They develop a respect for each other."
Many residents have moved away from the place where Margarine Neal raised her six children. But she said she wasn't going anywhere. "This is my neighborhood," Neal said. "There's no point in running. This is my heart."
To the Rev. Charles Pope, St. Thomas More's pastor, the center's creation is part of God's plan.
After Iracks's death, Pope said, he prayed, asking what could be done about the situation around the church.
"God said, 'You can't just pray; you have to do something,' " Pope recalled.
After Pope asked his congregation to pray as well, the church became affiliated with the Washington Interfaith Network and solicited the support of Allen and Williams.
The District gave a $2 million grant from the Department of Housing and Community Development, and the interfaith network helped raise the remainder, including $1 million from the Christ Child Society, which Merrick founded. Merrick, a Washington resident who died in 1955, has been nominated for sainthood.
"God can bring victory out of very painful circumstances," Pope said. "I want to see our young people have alternatives to the gangs, the drugs and violence."