Debra D'Agostino brushed off concerns about safety when she moved to the District neighborhood of Mount Pleasant after law school nearly two years ago. After all, she figured, she had survived New York City, where a man once tried to steal her knapsack off her back as she walked to the subway.
"I felt like if I can live in New York, what's Mount Pleasant?" she said.
D'Agostino soon found herself embracing the neighborhood's distinctly urban rhythms, the mix of Latinos, blacks and whites on its streets, the deli where she buys her newspaper and the owner knows her by name. But, she said, she also has endured the indignities of city life: a bike stolen and the leers and crude mutterings from men loitering on the sidewalks.
Six months after she moved in, an apparently deranged man stabbed her in the back and throat as she walked to the bus for work, an encounter that put her in the hospital for more than a week.
Then, about a week ago, as she returned home from a dinner with friends, she saw police cruisers a few hundred feet from her front door. A man had been shot and killed as he walked his dog after what detectives suspect was a botched robbery.
"It feels like a neighborhood," D'Agostino said of the vista of rolling streets, with their handsome rowhouses, lush trees and front yards. "At the same time, there have been some incredibly violent incidents. And it all happens in the same place."
Once a hardscrabble pocket dominated by the working class and the poor, Mount Pleasant has become a magnet for professionals and affluent families, with condominiums selling for as much as $600,000 and rowhouses for more than $800,000. Two months ago, a buyer paid $1.2 million for a five-bedroom house on Lamont Street NW, a few blocks from the shooting.
Yet for all its burgeoning opulence, the neighborhood's sidewalks retain a raffish and at moments criminal edge, particularly along its main thoroughfare, Mount Pleasant Street, which is lined with convenience marts, liquor stores, bars, cafes and modest restaurants. Even as overall crime in the neighborhood has declined in recent years, residents endure a steady drumbeat of burglaries, muggings and car thefts.
Nevertheless, the shooting Sept. 17 of Gregory C. Shipe, 34, a financial analyst who had moved to an apartment on Kenyon Street a few weeks ago, stunned the neighborhood. On Tuesday, a crowd of more than 200 residents assembled for a candlelight vigil, where D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said police and community leaders need to "ensure that someone at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night can walk their dog."
The homicide also has added fuel to a long-standing debate about the way police patrol the area, a debate that has tended to foster divisions along racial and economic lines, between homeowners and renters, new residents and old. During impassioned exchanges on the neighborhood's community Web site, residents have complained that public drinking and loitering on Mount Pleasant Street convey, as one recent home buyer wrote, "a level of permissiveness with regard to crime that could have contributed to this tragedy."
"You want to help deter violent crime in Mount Pleasant? Deter public drunkenness," wrote another resident, Brody Burks, 24, a Catholic University law student who has rented an apartment in the neighborhood for two years. "Want to deter muggings? Deter graffiti. Want to deter sexual assaults? Deter loitering."
Responding to the complaints, Jack McKay, an advisory neighborhood commissioner for the area who has resisted public calls for "zero-tolerance" policing, countered that Mount Pleasant suffers not from a permissive street culture, but from criminals drawn to the area "because they know they can find easy victims here."
"That's a far more serious problem than the disorderly conduct on Mount Pleasant Street," he said in an interview. "And the two problems are not connected."
The groups of largely Hispanic men who cluster on Mount Pleasant Street, he said, are a familiar sight to longtime neighborhood residents. "We're more understanding than the people who arrived more recently, and who have suburban expectations instead of urban, inner-city expectations," he said.
Gregg Edwards, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years, said the newcomers "say they want to live in a mixed community; they like the idea of it, but it's not what they want.
"They want something like a cultural Disneyland," he said, "where the well-ordered natives come out in their brightly colored costumes and there's management to enforce respect to their betters."
Just after dark Thursday night, a handful of men sat outside a convenience store on the strip, some of them eyeing passing women and talking among themselves in Spanish. Across the street, sitting outside his apartment building, Walter Martinez, 48, a construction worker, said the men cluster outdoors because they live in "small apartments with no air conditioners. They're having coffee; they talk about issues."
"It's part of our community," said Martinez, puffing on a cigar. "If you go to Potomac or Georgetown, you won't see it. You see rich people together but at the tennis club. That's what they do."
His friend Ricardo Ruiz, 51, a contractor, said he views complaints about the neighborhood's street culture as an "effort to run us out. They want to find excuses to discredit our livelihood."
Mount Pleasant has long been the domain of a wide cross section of residents, from professionals and their families, to artists and students, to the poor and the working class.
Over the years, the neighborhood's reputation as a crime haven has been burnished by two notorious episodes, including disturbances in 1991 that were triggered when a black police officer shot a Salvadoran man who was being arrested for disorderly conduct. Two years later, a gunman known as the "Shotgun Stalker" terrorized residents in the Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights areas.
In 2002, overall crime in the neighborhood increased by about 20 percent, with large increases in the number of robberies and car thefts. Since then, however, there have been declines in several categories, including thefts, which have fallen by 27 percent this year, and robberies, which are down 14 percent, according to police.
"Awful is awful, but this awfulness isn't to the nth degree," said Marika Torok, a homeowner and community activist who helped lead last week's vigil. "The people coming in now, they don't know. They think it's horrible, but this is way better than it was."
Ellen Banakis, 21, who graduated last spring from the University of Wisconsin, moved with five friends into a rowhouse on Kenyon Street three weeks ago. The slaying is a cause for concern, she said, but she knew the neighborhood's reputation when she moved in.
"If I wanted to live in Bethesda or Arlington, I could have," Banakis said. "But we chose not to because we wanted to be in the city. The payoff is fantastic ethnic restaurants and cool movie theaters. It's a lot more dangerous but, then again, you don't have to deal with Bed Bath & Beyond, the Cheesecake Factory and all those suburban chains."
In recent days, D'Agostino said, she has found herself checking the real estate listings for a new place, although there's nothing that makes her want to give up her $750-a-month, one-bedroom apartment. For that price, she said, she would have to move to the suburbs, which, as she pointed out, are not exactly crime-free.
"I'm staying," she said. "For now."