Eula Cleveland is a watcher. She's one of those people Jane Jacobs wrote about in her book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" who care about their neighborhood, their block; who have their eyes peeled on the daily -- and nightly -- flow of life around them and who work to make their community a better place.
I know Cleveland because she was watching out for me when I meandered into her neighborhood late one night and almost got myself badly hurt, or worse.
I know, I know, it was stupid. I may be new to the city, but even the rankest rube knows not to wander around a strange place in the middle of the night.
Still, I've been in potential danger spots before over the years and nothing has ever happened, so I figured I would brazen this one out as well. It was only when the gaggle of teenagers heading up the hill toward me began to fan out like the Clanton gang at the OK Corral that my wariness turned to worry.
I had been in New Jersey visiting relatives over the weekend, and on Sunday afternoon decided to grab a Greyhound at Newark's Penn Station, rather than take Amtrak. The bus was leaving immediately, plus it was nearly $40 cheaper than the train. Coming into D.C., I didn't know that New Carrolton is the last-chance Metro station, not the downtown bus depot, so I stayed on until the end.
It was 10:30 at night. Instead of asking for directions at the station, I headed out into the street, the bright, white Capitol dome occasionally in view behind dark buildings. I figured I'd get to Union Station or to the Capitol South stop, or I'd be back in a part of downtown where I know my way around. Instead, I got confused and ended up on First Street NW.
The boys heading up the hill toward me, maybe eight or 10 of them, were pushing one of those buggies that day-care centers use to transport multiple children; they were using it for a soap-box derby down the hill. We walked past each other -- some of them on the street, some on the sidewalk -- without incident. Seconds later, something -- I still don't know what -- hit me unbelievably hard on the back of the head. I saw stars, literally. As I collapsed, I heard a weird noise, like an animal in distress. It was coming from me.
Struggling to get up, struggling to come to my senses, the back of my hand bleeding from the rough sidewalk, I was sure the boys would be all over me, rifling my pockets, hurrying off with my bag, doing whatever they wanted to do with the middle-aged guy dumb enough to venture onto their turf.
But they weren't. All I heard was maniacal laughter as they scampered up the hill.
"Are you hurt? Do you want me to call the police?" A slender, severe-looking woman, past middle age, was standing over me. She had seen what had happened in front of her townhouse and had come out to help.
That's Eula Cleveland's way. I didn't seem to be hurt badly, and I couldn't think what the cops could do, so Cleveland began trying to plot for me a safe course out of her neighborhood. When she decided that danger lurked around every corner, she had me wait while she went back into the house. Minutes later, she came back out, walking cane in hand. This proud older woman escorted me down the street, past a jeering crowd of youngsters in the concrete schoolyard, until she was sure I was out of danger and knew where I was going.
Across the street from Cleveland's house is Sursum Corda, the housing complex where a 14-year-old girl was gunned down earlier this year, apparently because she had been witness to a murder. Around the corner is an open-air drug bazaar that has thrived over the years, day and night. Across New York Avenue, abandoned buildings stand as hollow-eyed sentinels over a neighborhood that has seen too much crime, mayhem and despair.
And yet when I went back a few days later to Cleveland's block -- beige-brick townhouses on one side of the street, the housing project on the other -- I quickly discovered that there's more to the neighborhood than crime, poverty and despair and that Cleveland is not the only one who watches and works to make it better.
I sat in a lime-green chair in her living room, a room decorated in an Asian motif with a varnished-log coffee table as its centerpiece, and she told me about the monthly PSA (police service area) meetings she attends and the time not long ago when she journeyed to the police station seeking an audience with Chief Charles H. Ramsey. She told me about her daily trash-gathering routine, on the street and in the alley behind, and about lobbying Council member Sharon Ambrose for more lighting on Pierce Street near R. H. Terrell Junior High School.
Direct and outspoken, a woman who laughs easily, Cleveland asked me not to reveal her age or information about her professional life; she plans to write about herself and her late husband, so she doesn't want too many details divulged. She did tell me that she went to secretarial school in 1949, and that she held the same secretarial position for 43 years before retiring.
She moved into her newly built townhouse 10 years ago to be close to her church, Holy Redeemer. A neighborhood anchor since 1922, Holy Redeemer was the last Catholic church in Washington founded by African Americans. Cleveland is intensely proud of the congregation and admires the priest, the Rev. David Bava.
"I go to church every day," she told me. "I've gone to church all my life."
Across the alley, her old friend and neighbor, Dolores Williams, was working in a flower bed, knee-high lilies, zinnias and marigolds blooming riotously. She wasn't working in her own yard; the flower garden was on a tiny corner plot beside the parking lot behind the Perry School Community Services Center. She tends it for the benefit of the neighborhood; she's been doing it for nine years, since she moved into her own townhouse a couple of doors up from Cleveland's.
At the busy community services center on M Street, Cleveland introduced me to Paul Elligott, executive director of one of the city's most comprehensive social services agencies and a center for workers, volunteers and activists like Alverta Munlyn, who runs the after-school program at the Perry Center, and Annie Holbrook, who heads the Sursum Corda Cooperative Association and is working to preserve affordable housing.
As Cleveland and I walked back toward her house, she picked up random pieces of trash. She looked disgustedly at a pile of trash someone had left on an M Street corner near the Perry Center. It had happened before; she would try to get to the bottom of the problem.
Many of the problems of her neighborhood, she contends, are caused by outsiders -- whether it's people tossing trash on their way to several social service agencies in the area or whether it's drug dealers peddling their wares to customers who've driven in from Virginia and Maryland.
On her block, she said, everybody works during the day, except for three retirees -- and all three of them work to improve the neighborhood. It's the same, she said, with the older people who live across the street in Sursum Corda. They are anchors of stability. They are the watchers -- and the doers.
I was curious about my incident, but Cleveland had little to add. The kids, she said, were probably from the neighborhood, although she didn't know them.
She said she had been sitting at her front door enjoying the night air when she saw me coming down the street. The next thing she knew, she saw me on the ground. After she had escorted me out of the neighborhood that night, she looked around for a rock or a stick but found nothing. I told her again I was grateful.
Joe Holley is native Texan who became a Post staff writer in June.