Half the homes are boarded up, windows are cracked, mattresses and beer cans litter the streets. The stories of the neighborhood are scrawled on its homes: "Mario R.I.P."
The 4700 blocks of Homer, Hudson and Huron avenues in Suitland are a thriving drug market, police say, an area so notorious that Prince George's County plans to tear down all the apartment buildings there.
Andre Patrick was fatally shot two weeks ago on Homer Avenue in what is still an unsolved crime. The 38-year-old from Temple Hills was the sixth homicide victim in the three-block area this year.
"It's the most deadly three square blocks in the county," said Lt. Robert Nealon, commander of the Prince George's police homicide unit. "Homer, Hudson and Huron have been extremely violent for years."
A major plan to revitalize the neighborhood has offered hope -- but also has added to the danger, for now. As the county buys properties and boards them up as part of the revitalization, the area has become more desolate, Nealon said.
And officials fear that there could be more problems, particularly for the neighborhood's youngest residents.
Several yards from the site of one of the killings, at the top of the block on Homer Avenue, is a new school, standing out like fresh laces on a ragged pair of sneakers. The $15.7 million Suitland Elementary School will open in three weeks as part of the revitalization.
To get to the school, some of its 600 students would have to walk through the violent stretch. The thought has prompted school administrators to consider busing all students to the school, regardless of how close they live.
"Safety will be a huge factor over there," Nealon said.
The county's revitalization plan for the area, called the Suitland Manor redevelopment, includes buying and demolishing all of the run-down apartments in a 33-acre area that includes Homer, Hudson and Huron avenues. Eventually, possibly by 2008, condominiums, apartments and retail will replace the blight.
Officials said they hope to have purchased all the homes in six months to a year. Then they will begin tearing them down. Within three years, they hope to have upscale housing and community services there.
The county has torn down several crime- and drug-ridden apartment complexes in the area in recent years, forcing drug dealers to relocate and battle for new street corners to sell their goods, investigators said.
Police say the homicides on the three Suitland roads stem from turf wars or drug deals. They have made arrests in three of the cases.
The county's first homicide of the year occurred on Hudson Avenue at 9 a.m. Jan. 3, when Shawn Chambers, 24, was fatally shot in front of his home. That case remains open. Chambers's neighbor, Wendy Clayborne, was killed Feb. 11 in the same block when she did not pay a $40 drug debt, according to police. Police have charged a man with first-degree murder.
Another killing occurred in April when a police officer fatally shot a man who had fired a gun into the air.
A Violent History
Prince George's has struggled this year with increasing crime, primarily in neighborhoods along the District border inside the Capital Beltway. There have been 98 homicides this year, up 26 percent from this time last year. Robberies have more than doubled, and carjackings have increased 45 percent.
Simmering tensions between rank-and-file police officers and the administration of County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) burst into public Friday during dueling news conferences. The police union argues that the crime-fighting strategy of Police Chief Melvin C. High has failed; Johnson counters that too many officers are unproductive.
Suitland has a history of violent crime, including the stabbing deaths in 2003 of two women in their seventies who were working at a florist shop on Suitland Road. No arrests have been made in the killings, which took place a block from the new school.
Elsie Jacobs, president of the Suitland Civic Association, is among the residents excited about the coming changes.
"We have hope, and we know that things are happening, so we just live with it for now," Jacobs said. "There's nothing we can do but pray and be glad when all of it is torn down."
Other residents are more desperate.
Tondrea London's 18-year-old daughter, Aisha, was shot in the neck, and London's cousin was hit by stray bullets June 21 on Huron Avenue. Aisha can no longer use her legs.
London sat on the front stoop of a friend's house on a recent afternoon, her voice rising as she talked about her daughter.
"This neighborhood is terrible," London said, shaking away a friend's comforting touch on her arm. "They have to do something about it."
County Board of Education Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro) said the school system is exploring whether to bus all students to the school. Board policy says that students who live in a 11/2-mile radius of the school are not eligible for bus service.
"If we have to bus them two blocks, we have to bus them two blocks," Tignor said. "We can't subject our children to danger and crime. They don't need to be exposed to needles and condoms."
Michael Dodson, transportation director of Prince George's public schools, said he needs to examine whether there are safe sidewalks for the children. "We are going out and assessing it," Dodson said.
High has said he will increase patrols and provide extra crossing guards at Suitland Elementary. Police also are about to open a Community Service Area substation in the neighborhood that will be staffed by officers and community members.
Raze, Then Rebuild
Although Homer, Hudson and Huron avenues have high concentrations of crime, some of the surrounding blocks are much calmer and have well-kept, ranch-style brick homes. Officials are not targeting those for demolition.
One of the defining features of the community is the sprawling Suitland Federal Center, which houses the Census Bureau and other agencies. The complex is separated from the rest of the area by a tall, iron fence. New multimillion-dollar headquarters are planned for the Census Bureau and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and officials discuss with pride the recent completion of Windsor Crossing, the first new multifamily apartment complex in the town center in recent memory.
The county does not have an architect, builder or specifications for the Suitland Manor redevelopment project, said Thomas R. Thompson, executive director of the county's Redevelopment Authority, which is overseeing the project. Still, he is enthusiastic.
"This is a project that's a bold step in the right direction for Suitland," Thompson said. "It's mixed-use, mixed-income. It's designed for people who want to live and work in Suitland."
Prince George's has spent $15 million acquiring properties and has relocated 131 families. It has $20 million left to spend, and 200 more families to relocate.
"One of the biggest tools against crime is revitalization," Thompson said. "Crime is on our radar. We want to make sure we get the bad guys out as soon as we can.