IF YOU VISITED my block in Shaw, you'd probably see nothing wrong, unless you were a police officer, or a reporter like me -- one who covers the city's illegal drug trafficking.
On the surface, everything looks fine. The cabbage and tomato plants are flourishing in the backyard gardens. On any given day, one of the retired men on the block is out mowing his lawn and his neighbors' lawns. We share roses from ancient bushes that came with the houses. We'll probably celebrate the Fourth of July with the usual impromptu cook-out and store-bought fireworks display.
But things are going wrong in my neighborhood.
When I came home from work last week, for instance, two young men were sitting in a car across from my house. Neither the car nor the occupants belong on my block. They were hunched over, concealing something in their laps. They were getting ready to shoot heroin into their arms. And earlier in the spring there was the series of bold break-ins through the front doors or windows of four houses. Then an elderly woman was assaulted in the alley, and a young woman's purse was snatched, and then a kid's bicycle was stolen. And now we have these cars with the people hunched over, and dirty needles in our gutters.
Shaw stretches from Logan Circle to the Capitol, and parts of it are rightfully considered dangerous because of the drug markets that have dominated some blocks for years. But the part where I live has been a quiet and relatively crime-free block.
Now things are changing.
Did it start when four houses became vacant? The curtainless windows advertise uncertainty, even if the houses are being renovated. Was it when three of the block's older residents died? They were the kind of people who took responsibility for the block. They were quick to challenge strangers who lingered too long in the alley. They knew exactly who belonged and who didn't.
Maybe the drug users and criminals sense these changes. Maybe instinct tells them they can get away with things now that they couldn't before.
Before, everybody knew the rules. When I arrived on the block there was an unspoken agreement that there would be no loud parties at night, that you don't park in front of someone else's house and that appearances are important. If the grass gets too high, one of the retired neighbors will cheerfully cut it for you.
Now, the recent break-ins and petty thefts mean I had to buy a bicycle lock to secure the old barbecue grill on the back porch. When I weed my garden in the back yard, I keep my German shepherd next to me in case something happens in the alley and either I need protection or a neighbor needs help. When I go out on the front porch to grab the morning paper, I pause to look over the block carefully. I feel that I see my community through the dark lens of suspicion. Strangers are to be watched.
All of this on a lovely, well-kept block where the daily conversation usually centers on the speed with which the grass is growing and whether it will rain tomorrow.
But now there are the drug users, sitting in their parked cars. I know what happens next. I have written a lot of stories about the devastation caused by drug people in other neighborhoods.
Once the drug people are entrenched, it is close to impossible to get rid of them. One of the very few exceptions is the 400 block of Ridge Street NW where the residents and the police jointly pushed them out, and Hanover Place NW where the police are on guard duty, 24 hours a day, watching over the devastation the drug people left behind. We haven't reached the crisis stage where there are hundreds of buyers and users clogging the street as they did on Ridge and Hanover. We have just started on the downward slide.
There is a drug market somewhere nearby. The buyers of almost any drug are interested in using it right away, and so they look for the closest and safest place to put the drugs into their bodies by shooting, smoking or snorting it. They come to the street where I live. Drug people like a nice quiet street just as we do. They leave behind their needles and the small, empty zip-lock bags that held their cocaine and the crumpled tinfoil that kept their PCP fresh.
I've seen it happen on other blocks, but for all the stories I have written on the subject, I was always the detached observer, the reporter. I interviewed people. The old people told me they were frightened to leave the house, the young people said they wouldn't let their children play on the sidewalk. Sometimes they asked me not to use their names -- they were that frightened of the drug people. The police told me they couldn't do anything; they lacked the staff, they lacked support from the community, whatever. Then I'd write my story.
What I didn't know is how you feel when you see the way you have lived, the way you liked to live, your neighborhood, your home, your refuge, slipping away from you. You feel hopeless. It changes everything.
I love to sit in the sun on my old, iron stairway and drink a cup of coffee and read the paper in the morning. Now I keep a pen handy to scribble down license tags of cars with people in them who look suspicious.
There are fewer children riding their bikes over our lovely brick sidewalk because several bikes have been stolen and parents are less willing to let their kids ride unescorted
I'm told that it is no one's fault and eveyone's fault. Things just pile up. When a house becomes vacant, it seems to take longer now for someone to buy it. Abandoned cars sit on the street for months before they get towed away. People get careless about broken bottles in the alley. News of crime is sometimes slow to travel the length of the block. And the police can only be expected to do so much. After all, there are some very bad blocks in my police district and they get the attention.
But what about us? What about my block with the Fourth of July picnic and the pink, red and white roses everybody shares?
I did what everyone is supposed to do: I called my councilman and the police. I talked with my neighbors. I wrote a newsletter.
The police talk about cycles of crime and speculate that ours may be over. The people in the councilman's office say they will get the vacant houses boarded up but six months later, it hasn't happened.
Many of the residents on my block are older and quite genteel. The men still tip their hats and women always wear dresses. And unpleasant subjects, such as crime and drugs, are avoided. As though it was impolite to raise the issues. Many shake their heads and look away as though by shifting their attention from the conversation will make the unpleasant problem go away.
Most of the younger people, by which I mean middle-aged residents, are caught up in their careers, working long hours. It doesn't leave much time for community issues.
Like many of my neighbors, I get weary of having to continually call the police to take care of simple matters such as ticketing double-parked cars and cars parked by fire hydrants. But the usual response to requests for ticketing is that the police have more imporant things to do. That attitude and the lack of tickets just sends out the message to the crooks, that, hey, in this block, we can do anything we want -- look at all those illegally parked cars.
I have the unsettled feeling that I hold the script in my hand for the future of my block. We are in act one and no one is watching the play but me.
My neighbors aren't completely apathetic. The retired people and career professionals on my block did join together last fall with other neighbors from surrounding blocks to defeat a proposal for a half-way house for criminals a few blocks away.
And their response to the break-ins hasn't been entirely indifference or mere bricking up of basement windows. One neighbor in his 60s tried to run down the thieves who had broken into a neighbor's house. He succeeded in scaring them enough to drop the cameras and radio they had just stolen. Then again, he's always been like that. He limps now from the two bullets he stopped when he tried to break up a robbery years ago.
For a long time, I believed that same neighbor who fixes cars in the alley was our best crime deterrent. As he works on the motor of yet another aged car, he is there to see what is happening. He rarely calls the police. He chooses instead to stare strangers down and make them uncomfortable enough to move on.
But our recent string of break-ins has all been through the fronts of our houses, which is pretty bold stuff.
I am unable to shake the feeling that it is all hopeless. There are only so many concerned neighbors. And there are never enough police officers to handle problems anywhere in town. And we are are easily outnumbered by the drug people.
Will I move? Probably not. You can't move away from drugs. The epidemic that the mayor refers to is very real. Drugs are indeed everywhere. But more important, I like living in the inner city, its variety of people, experiences and attitudes.
What will I do? I'm not sure.
I think that the life on my block has been changed forever and that makes me angry. I could continue to confront the drug users I find and tell them to get the hell off my block. There is some satisfaction in that. I do it sometimes on impulse. They like to think they are invisible or that we don't care. Well, I care. And when I have confronted them, they know they have been seen and they do leave.
And I can do my job. I can write my story about the passing of another neighborhood, only this time it is my own.