The graffiti that fill the walls of the vestibule at the New Dragon Carryout tells the story: R.I.P. tributes to young people killed right outside, boastful tagging by the crews that sell drugs on the corner, and this evocation of an all-too-local address: "16th and Death Row."
The New Dragon is hard by that place, at 15th and C streets SE, on a block of Capitol Hill where house prices have shot up from $120,000 to $500,000 since 2001, without much of a decrease in the shots fired outside.
As the bass thuds from car stereos, young white people in vehicles with suburban tags exchange cash for tiny envelopes from young black guys on the corner. The Chinese immigrant family inside the New Dragon cowers behind bulletproof plastic while drug crews do business in their vestibule.
"It's shootings, fights, the throwing garbage around, blocking traffic -- it's loud and it's unsafe," says Corey Buffo, who lives down the block.
The other night, a dealer stopped a neighbor walking his dogs and warned, "Don't come here again, or it'll be target practice."
For many years, neighbors have sought to clean up the corner. The police added patrols, and the National Guard mounted stage lights to chase the bad guys away. Each night when the cops left, the drug trade resumed.
In 2000, Jim Myers, a dynamo of a local activist, and dozens of others argued to the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board that the New Dragon attracted drugs, violence and trash to the corner it shares with Payne Elementary School. The board stripped the shop of its beer and wine license.
But the crews were still in business.
So Myers, 64, this summer organized a dine-in: One evening a week, he and about 20 other neighbors bought dinner at the New Dragon (egg roll, $1.10; turkey sandwich, $2.30) and ate right there on the corner.
"We realized that through all these years, with all the blood and the shootings, somebody was inside the New Dragon chopping broccoli," Myers says. "It didn't compute with this whole cosmos of negativity." (Myers, a writer, was a consultant on the CBS crime drama "The District"; when producers asked what a bad block should look like, he created characters modeled on the New Dragon crowd.)
For a few hours each week, the bad guys ceded the corner back to the neighbors. But the beef-and-broccoli rebellion waned: The effect lasted only as long as dinner, and many older residents stayed home, feeling vulnerable to retribution by the crews.
New strategy: Buffo, Myers and six other neighbors have sued the New Dragon, demanding it be closed for violating the zoning code by running a fast-food place with no tables on a block zoned for sit-down restaurants.
"It's a long process, but if we win, I won't have to be picking up garbage and have all those people on the corner," says Buffo, 38, a D.C. government lawyer. "We'd love a little cafe instead."
The carryout's owner, Zhen Jian Lan, has no lawyer and no plans to get one. Lan, who lives upstairs with his wife and mother, came to this country 10 years ago, worked in restaurants and bought the New Dragon from another Chinese immigrant after the beer license was lost.
Lan, who stays open from 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. every night, fears his customers and his neighbors. A man shouts, "Mama-san! Where my fries?" through the thick plastic. Lan flinches.
"It's all big trouble," says Lan, 40. "The people around here, they say too much people in here, too much drugs. I don't know how to say to people they can't come here. All the white people living here don't want the drugs people. But it's up to the police to do something, not me. What can I do?"
Lan rents from a family trust that includes Sylvia Levenson of Chevy Chase, who told me, "I don't want to discuss things like this," and hung up, and Norman Pisner of Silver Spring, who said, "I can't talk about that," and hung up.
So the homeowners fight the enemy they see, the shopkeeper, even as Myers notes that "it's an interesting moral dilemma, because you ought to be able to run a business on the corner."
Lan wants out, a better place to live. But he lacks the money to move.
The neighbors sympathize but see the New Dragon as a crime magnet. "It's 'do something, do anything,' even if it doesn't work," Myers says. "The fact that we are suing is a result of systematic failure on everybody's part."
Next week: Neighbors rally for cake.