The other night, at about 11:30 p.m., someone was shot on my street corner, only 12 blocks from the Capitol Building.
My corner has a carry-out store and is often noisy late at night, but this time there had been no argument. Just shots so loud I knew that they couldn't be anything but gunfire. And so rapid. Pip, pip, pip, pip, pip, pip, pip. As I stayed low in my bed, I think I counted seven shots before I heard a car roar off. I heard a bystander say he counted nine; someone else said 10.
The police were there before I could even get dressed and out the door. Initially I was angry that the ambulance was taking so long to arrive and that the police didn't seem to be doing anything to summon medical help for the shooting victim. Soon, though, I realized nothing could be done. The shots had taken the life of a man nicknamed "Lil Poop." He was from my neighborhood, young, overweight, with a sweet face. The bottom of his shoes showed that he had stumbled in his own blood before going down.
While the medical examiner and his helpers poked and prodded and frisked the body, cops shooed bystanders back, away from the yellow police ribbon. Some onlookers were saying that the shooting was a result of a drug dispute that started in Potomac Gardens and continued the half-block to my corner. I joined a group of bystanders on the Potomac Gardens side of the barricade.
"Does anyone know him?" I asked.
In subdued voices they whispered among themselves. When I asked them directly, they responded with a shake of the head and a murmured, "No." I knew then how much of an outsider I was among my own neighbors. The distance we kept from one other, blacks and whites, was brought home hard.
Part of the distance, I know, is caused by economic disparities. Part of it is the result of the intimidating size of the Potomac Gardens housing project. But, frankly, part of the distance is because the races are uncomfortable about mixing. Even though Lil Poop and his friends grew up in my neighborhood, as a white woman I realized I had little knowledge of his urban black culture.
But now, with Washington's 423rd murder taking place at my corner, I want to make a timid proposal that might help us bridge that distance, help unite us in the fight against the drugs that are devastating our neighborhood.
When I was a Peace Corp worker in Peru, a road of dangerous curves stretched some 50 miles down the Andes mountains from Juliaca to Arequipa. At many curves, crosses with small shrines had been erected commemorating those who had died at the spot in car accidents.
Couldn't we as citizens, or maybe as church or community groups, do the same and erect small crosses, inscribed with a victim's name and date of death, at the spots where people have been murdered in our neighborhood?
It would remind young people caught up in the drug war to take a little extra care at that spot, to not be so quick with a gun or a knife to solve differences. And it would remind the rest of us to mourn and, maybe, prod us -- as we look at a sea of crosses -- into more creative and substantive ways of responding to the young men in our neighborhood who are feeling the peer and TV pressures of materialism and drugs. An urban planner named Kevin Lynch once said, "life springs up when you stretch yourself across the fences that have always divided you from your neighbors." It's past time that we followed his advice.
-- Viveca Black is a founding chairman of Neighborhoods International, which teaches people to help themselves in their own neighborhoods.