The telephone call was from a woman who, along with another woman, had rented a house in our neighborhood in August. Four times since then, her home had been burglarized, and twice there had been attempted burglaries. Her roommate's pocketbook had been snatched on the street. Almost all their belongings were gone. The police had a suspect in the burglaries, a 13-year-old neighbor who was awaiting trial for anothr burglary. In fact, the woman said, the police had a witness, but the witness was afraid to testify.
The woman had been threatened by people coming and going at a nearby house. She had seen her neighbors loading a truck with boxes that she suspected contained her goods. She had notified the police, but the truck was gone before they arrived.
Her story was unusual in that she earned the minimum wage and had no insurance. She had been wiped out with no prospect of recovery. But her story was like so many others in that she was fed up and moving out.
As the person who struggles with crime problems on behalf of our neighborhood association, I tend to be the one people call when they admit the defeat of their urban experience. Most of us who live on the fringes of the changing inner city understand. We may not have been victims directly, yet the neighborhoods echo with stories of crime. In varying degrees, we live in fear. I especially understand, for once I too yielded to that fear.
Though born in the city, I spent my school-age years in the suburbs. The surburban life style taught me little about crime. Except for the time someone stole a tire off my parents' car, crime was just something that occurred on television shows. Just as there was no Gilligan's Island in my everyday life, there were no private detectives, no gangsters, no muggers.
As I grew older, I was drawn to the city. Like so many other suburban youths, I found Georgetown a sudden attraction at 18. Soon I was traveling into the city twice a day, once to my office downtown and once to the nightlife along L and M streets.
When I began to look for a home to buy, a close-in location made sense. Capitol Hill seemed a logical choice, as Logan Circle was yet to become fashionable and Georgetown prices were already out of sight. Still, it may have been history that dictated my choice. Both my parents grew up on Capitol Hill. A grandmother on my father's side of the family lived in the house next door over 60 years ago. A great-grand-father on my mother's side was murdered on the Hill before the turn of the century. Of course, I knew crime would be worse in the inner city, but I had yet to learn crime was real.
The realization came suddenly, as is usually the case. An arsonist destroyed my home while I was away one weekend. And looters had cleaned out what remained before I returned. The police suspected a youth who lived two doors away. Nearly a year passed before the house was rendered livable. However, when the time came to return home, I, Like the woman who telephoned me, was controlled by my fears. I rented out the house for a year, while I rented a surburban apartment. Fear subsided with time and renovatioin on the block continued. I returned to the house two years ago.
Since then, I have seen a man shoot at another in front of my home, witnessed burglars breaking into the homes on each side of mine, heard the screams of men and women being beaten on the street, and fled out the back as a man who chased me into my home kicked down the front door. This calendar year on my block alone several homes have been burglarized and there was one armed robbery; there have been two separate incidents in which women were hospitalized after being beaten with a brick; and my next-door neighbor was dragged into her home by an attacker, who was chased away by another neighbor. Only a block away another woman was murdered in her home by an unknown assailant.
The news media told the story of the murder. The plight of persons displaced by speculation and renovation receives continuing coverage. But the day-to-day crime facing newcomers to the city, the lingering fear and what it does to people remain largely untold. The problem receives little attention from our elected leaders. We live in a city where the mayor has yet to make a bold statement concerning crime. The latest budget involves a significant reduction in the police force. Council member David Clarke's Judiciary Committee has primary responsibility for the criminal laws. Yet he seems to spend more time protesting capital punishment in distant states than he does working to protect the citizens of this city. The Criminal Code is being redrafted, but that process has dragged on for years and there are no indications the final product willl pack more bite than the existing laws. The new code will leave intact the Bail Reform Act and the Juenile Detention Act. These laws have repeatedly been criticized for allowing known criminals to freely roam our streets. No relief is in sight.
The storm of renovation on my block has begun to subside. One hopes that signals a lessening of crime on the block. If not, I too will return to the suburbs. Most likely, the thunder and lightning have just drifted with the expanding fringe of renovation. History will repeat itself there as the struggle for the inner city continues.