The most common topic of conversation up and down 14th Street these days is speculation about the effect of the new District government building under construction at 14th and U Streets NW. What will happen when 1,000 city employees converge on this neighborhood every day? Most people wonder what will happen to the drug traffic, which for more than a decade has flourished on the corner that the mayor envisions as the key to redevelopment of Washington's inner-Northwest ghetto.
Changes already have occurred in the blocks surrounding this large building that rises like a phoenix from the ashes of the "riot corridor." A concerted police presence has sent the drug dealers scurrying for the side streets. Where we seldom saw a drug transaction on Belmont Street, three blocks north of 14th and U, now we've grown accustomed to waves of dealers who come and go from our neighborhood, exchanging heroin and cocaine for cash and sending the "runners" out in search of customers.
The other day I watched from my second-floor window at 1417 Belmont as a young man I judged to be in his late teens exchanged his drugs for a handful of bills. From my vantage point, I could see the customers in the car open the small package, inspect the white powder and put it away before driving off, apparently satisfied. What's unusual is that it's not unusual now. In this crowded neighborhood, where the sidewalks are often full of people, the dealers sometimes outnumber the residents.
We call the police. The response is erratic at best. We hear that the police are too few and overextended to respond to every complaint. We have been warned, though, not to take matters into our own hands. These drug dealers are dangerous, we're told. We know that. We've seen the violence. In the meantime, we're caught in the cross-fire, impotent in the face of a battle we seem to be losing.
I walked down 14th Street one day to greet several of my merchant friends. There are not many left now. Dottie's grocery at 14th and W was closed this day for some reason. Soul Liquor was open, but empty. Proprietors tell me that few people will walk through the drug dealers to make a purchase. The used car dealership at 14th and Florida folded a few weeks ago. I stopped for gas at the Exxon across from the empty car lot and was told that it, too, soon would be shut down. Everywhere it seems the same. Few can survive in this environment.
Chapin Street, a block north of us, has had a reputation for marijuana transactions. A while back, the police turned the 1400 block into one-way traffic to frustrate the flow of drivers cruising through for curb-side purchases. This tactic served only to redirect the flow of drug customers. Young teens still stand on the curb with their hands outstretched flashing the "five" sign, an advertisement for the "nickel" ($5) bags of marijuana they're selling.
Through the years we've watched the movement of the hard-drug traffic edging its way north on 14th Street. It moved from T to U; then to W; and now to Florida Avenue. The area around the new District Building is relatively drug-free now. "Operation Brightside," a coordinated effort by police, fire and other code enforcement agencies has been initiated to rid the streets of undesirables, raze abandoned buildings and clean up vacant lots. But just beyond the boundaries of this target area, a neighborhood that has been free from open drug sales is threatened. The traffic from 14th and U has not been removed, just moved.
Our primary concern is not the loss of the small businesses. There is a more serious threat: The damage that occurs when a neighborhood falls prey to an invasion of drug traffic is primarily to its youth. Children and teens are the first to experiment with drugs and the most vulnerable to abuse. They are the most likely to be arrested. There is no shortage of replacements when some are convicted and imprisoned.
Among the dealers, I see young men I've known since they were children. The temptation of quick, easy money is irresistible for them. I listen to parents who feel helpless when their children have more money offered to them for selling drugs than they could ever expect to earn on a job.
Our neighborhood is held hostage by this invasion of drug dealers. We are unable to fight back or even protect our own young people from being corrupted. As the police and drug traffickers vie for control of the streets, neighborhood residents can only stand by and wonder. Is this the effect of the new municipal building at 14h and U? Our neighborhood survived the riots, but can we live through this? No one knows. It's getting harder.