Memo to Mayor Tony Williams:

You'll notice that I've been trying to stay off your back while you get the hang of running the mare's-nest known as the District of Columbia government. And so far, you haven't done too badly.

But I do want to talk to you about those two new graffiti-blasting trucks you've just bought for, I hear, some $170,000. I hate graffiti as much as you do, but . . .

Let me tell you a little story. You know most of it already -- the part about the Alliance of Concerned Men putting themselves on the line to see if they could help bring peace to Benning Terrace. It was quite an undertaking. Killings among the warring "crews" were a regular occurrence in the public housing complex, gunfire so commonplace that small children played indoors even on hot days, and their mothers were afraid even to stroll the grounds or gather for idle chatter.

The short version is that the Alliance invited the "crew" leaders to Bob Woodson's office at the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and, after several false starts, got them to enter into a truce. Nobody knew whether it would last, but -- cross your fingers -- there hasn't been a crew-related death out there in 2 1/2 years.

And what does this have to do with your graffiti trucks? Your public housing man, David Gilmore, understood something about human nature. The way to sustain peace, he said, was to take the people who were willing to change and reward that willingness with what was quite rare in Benning Terrace at the time: employment.

He hired the youngsters at minimum wage (though many of them had made serious money in drug trafficking and other illicit hustling) and put them to work cleaning up the property, laying sod on what had been hard-packed dirt and -- finally the point of this memo -- cleaning up the graffiti, most of which had been put up by the "crews" themselves.

It was quite a sight, this graffiti removal. Some of these once stolid young men were in tears as they cleaned the walls and sidewalks of what I had thought of as nothing more than the scars of vandalism or, at best, a marking of turf. Sometimes that's what it was, but a lot of it consisted of tributes to fallen comrades -- and warnings to other crews. You could get killed messing with their graffiti, Gilmore understood. But they could take it down with no loss of respect.

They took it down, even put up a little stone marker -- lighted -- that says Benning Terrace. It was a way, I imagine, of saying how proud they were of what they had accomplished. And just what was that?

Well the clean grounds, for starters, with their still-nice grass, roses and azaleas, watered, often as not, by some kids who get up an hour before work time just to keep it nice. A quick drive through the place reveals not a single bare patch on the lawn. A hundred units that were slated to be torn down have been reclaimed, and there's now a waiting list to get into Benning Terrace. The place glows with peace, pride of ownership and ordinariness -- an extraordinary thing at Benning. And there's no graffiti in sight.

You want to accomplish that result by tackling the graffiti directly. And you're wondering why some of the crews of your wonderful new trucks have been chased away from their tasks with threats of bodily harm.

You ought to talk to the Alliance and get them to explain to you the facts of a life you and I -- blessedly -- managed to avoid. They know how to explain these things. Woodson's National Center helped them, in effect, to take their show on the road -- just to prove it could be replicated. As part of that effort, the center brought gang leaders from five different cities to Benning Terrace to check out what a normalized public housing community could look like. Some of the gang leaders and their adult sponsors have gone home to replicate Benning Terrace in their own hometowns. I'm looking right now at a story from the Dallas Morning News about the success of local activist Omar Jahwar's work with the Dallas housing authority. Similar projects are at various stages of development in Indianapolis, Hartford and Los Angeles.

And you're buying anti-graffiti trucks. By my calculation, you could put about a dozen young people to work full-time at minimum-wage jobs for a full year with what those trucks cost. And if you did it the right way, you'd have a decent chance not just of cleaning walls but of transforming lives.

Do yourself and the D.C. community a favor. Call 518-6500. Ask for Bob.