The area around the New York Avenue Metro stop is rapidly changing, with new government and commercial projects rising next to neighborhoods such as Bloomingdale, Eckington and Truxton Circle. Old houses there have been snatched up by waves of recent arrivals and made new again.
But one issue that isn't new is the persistent problem of crime in the community. While everyone is against crime, discussions on how best to combat it often give rise to tensions between recent arrivals and longtime residents. The newcomers are alarmed by incidents that veteran residents consider minor because they remember when things were much worse.
It's one more manifestation of the conflicting sensitivities that can develop between the old and new in a rapidly gentrifying city.
Community listservs in the neighborhoods bubble with news of condominium conversions, dog walking services and restaurants -- and, of course, reports of car thefts, house break-ins and shootings. "I heard two gunshots in quick succession coming from the area of the intersection of R and North Capital Streets," a resident recently wrote to a Bloomingdale listserv. "They were without doubt gunshots. Remember last December when someone was shot through the neck on the northwest corner of R and North Cap, in front of the Metropolitan Wesley AME Zion Church building?"
For longtime residents like Cleopatra Jones, such drama is part of the decades of struggle against crime, of residents fighting to keep an upper hand against those whose actions tear at the community's fabric. When she moved to the area more than 40 years ago, Jones said, most neighbors didn't bother to lock their doors. That was before heroin and crack, before fistfights became stabbings and stabbings became shootings. "We struggled to keep the community together," said Jones, 57, an advisory neighborhood commissioner.
As with many neighborhoods during Washington's recent economic revival, better times came to this corner of the city. Housing prices rose. Tree boxes, paid for and maintained by new residents, popped up on many streets. Builders and renovators constructed fancy new decks. And homeowners reclaimed streets and alleys.
But as change has come, Jones, also president of the Bloomingdale Civic Association, has become disenchanted with some of her new neighbors. It's unclear, she said, whether newcomers understand that community involves more than just renovating a home.
By her measure, residents ought to know the people who live on either side and across from them and, at a minimum, should exchange emergency contact information in case something happens. Increasingly, as new people arrive, they keep to themselves, Jones said.
"When you move into a community, you should try to find out what's here, how the community evolved to this point and what you can contribute to keep it going," she said. "You have to recognize that all of our kids are not hoodlums and thugs. They're not all criminals. Some are hanging on the corner, but that doesn't make them a drug dealer or a bad person."
Her issue is not that newcomers aren't getting involved; many are more active in community associations than longtime residents and are more vocal in their complaints, she said.
In fact, there were as many recent arrivals as longtime residents at a recent neighborhood walk alongside Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey and council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5). Residents pointed out a trash-strewn alley where a shooting occurred, corners where vagrants and drunks congregate and homes where illegal activity is suspected.
The chief paused to look at a back yard piled high with wood, as a housing inspector scribbled down the address to check later. He ventured into a store at the corner of First and R streets NW to chat with customers buying beer and other items -- momentarily scattering the people who loiter on the corner for hours at a time. And later he paused to answer questions, including one from a frustrated resident who theorized that calling the police was "a hopeless cause" because they either didn't show up when called or came after criminals scattered.
Ramsey promised to set up a special action plan and revisit the community during the second week of December. And he offered this admission: "We sometimes lose focus by chasing one hot spot after another." He told residents he doesn't favor the idea of adding 1,600 officers to the force, as Orange, a candidate for mayor, suggested earlier this year. Instead, he'd like to increase the force by 400 officers and buy new equipment.
"I'd rather have a smaller, better-equipped," force, he said.
With Ramsey on the tour was Robert Westover, who moved to Bloomingdale two years ago and joined with neighbors to purchase tree boxes and watch out for criminal behavior. He worries about people who loiter at a nearby gas station throughout the night. And a pet peeve of his is Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, across Rhode Island Avenue from his house. Its parishioners, he said, regularly take up street parking and litter after leaving church. "I see the trash and no parking, and I go crazy," he said.
Jones was incensed at the comment. For decades, she said, the church has been a good neighbor, helping out whenever asked and responding swiftly to complaints. If its members take up street parking, she said, that's just part of city living, sharing limited resources. The failure to recognize that, she said, siphons energy from the real threats.
"I was here when this was the wild, wild West," she said. "Because of the residents who were here, the new residents were able to move in. . . . We don't argue with churches about parking spaces because they're only there for a short period of time. Some residents don't know who is a threat and who is not a threat."
Differences in approach, said Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Tom Fulton, should not divide the community, because everyone wants the same thing. "The values are the same," he said. "What people really want is safe neighborhoods, a police presence, good schools and clean streets."
Capt. Melvin Scott, who is in charge of officers in those neighborhoods, said that high-crime areas on North Capitol Street and Rhode Island Avenue have had significant drops in crime.
In eight major categories, including homicides, robbery, theft and assault with a deadly weapon, crime along North Capitol is down 55 percent since last October, police said. There was a 31 percent overall drop in those same categories along Rhode Island.
But Scott said that many residents just don't see the reduction. "There has been a disconnect with the residents," he said.
Part of the disconnect comes from the influx of new people, he said, which is why it is important to hold regular gatherings to meet and talk with newcomers.
"We need to get them on board," Scott said.
None of the neighbors argues that litter allegedly left by churchgoers is the community's worst woe.
One of the problem areas that residents, old and new, talk about often is the corner of New York Avenue and North Capitol Street, which is derisively called the Bermuda Triangle. People shuttle daily through the intersection, between a methadone clinic, a social services center that provides food and services to the homeless, and a liquor store.
The area was a primary topic of discussion recently at the Harry Thomas Community Center. Old and new residents formed a small working group with business owners and police to identify problems and set 30-day goals to solve them. It was part of a process called Partnerships for Problem Solving, which was instituted by the police department several years ago to bring beat officers in closer contact with residents to exchange information.
At this particular meeting, residents were encouraged to pick small, easily attainable projects and then work toward larger goals. In this case, residents along Florida Avenue near North Capitol complained of suspected drug dealers sitting in cars along the street all day. The proposed solution: Post residential parking signs.
There were complaints about drug sales and use in a nearby alley, people running illegal businesses from their homes and persistent loitering. Residents identified the victims and people affected by each crime, set schedules to remedy them and divided up the tasks that each would complete before the next meeting. Jones, sitting in the front row, volunteered to contact the necessary city officials. Despite sometimes differing in approach, the newcomers and neighborhood veterans were working together to tackle common problems.
One commonly favored approach to addressing the crime problem is face-to-face contact with the city officials responsible for fighting it: in this case, Ramsey. During his tour of Truxton Circle and Bloomingdale, the police chief listened to a complaint about a store selling liquor out of a window. He promised to put a stop to the practice, to work with residents on an action plan and to come back out in three months to see if his officers have followed through as he promised. Jones plans to hold him accountable.
"I've been involved all these years. I'm going to be involved," she said. "This is my neighborhood. This is where we call home."