For years District police have waged war on the drug dealers in their entrenched marketplaces in the city, using all the usual methods of surprise raids, undercover investigations and street confrontations. Yesterday they tried a new weapon: chain saws.
Tackling the newest and boldest of the city's heroin sales centers, at Eastern and Kenilworth avenues NE near the Prince George's County line, they began cutting down a stand of trees that has become a hideout for dealers and an open-air shooting gallery for many of their customers.
Police said the one-acre stand of poplar, oak, beech and gum trees helps to shelter what has become the number one market in heroin for its size, for the purity of the drugs sold there and for its low prices -- $25 to $30 for a packet marketed as "First Edition," "Dishrag" and "M.D."
"This area is inundated with drugs," said Capt. Nelson Grillo, who led the tree cutting project. "They sell everything here, but mostly it is heroin. We get crowds of 200 people out here at night. We have had dramatic increase in drugs but not in other crimes usually associated with drugs. That is because of the tremendous support we get from the people who live here."
Grillo said eight police officers have been injured while chasing drug dealers through the wooded area in the past year.
Police were given permission to cut the trees on the privately owned land between Kenilworth and Eastern. The woods are near the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens and Kenilworth Courts, a tenant-managed public housing project whose residents support the tree-clearing project.
Three off-duty officers and two friends showed up at 7 a.m. to start felling the trees, and four city public works employes came with a front-end loader and a dump truck to haul away the tons of discarded furniture, garbage, broken toys and beer bottles that littered the wooded area. All volunteers, they were aided by Kenilworth Courts residents who swept clean the back yards and alleys near the woods.
Yesterday the men cut down four large trees and sliced them into logs. Officials estimated that it may take as long as six months of Saturdays to clear the area.
Kimi Gray, chairman of the housing project's board of directors, said cutting the trees was her idea.
"When the city fathers decided to move the dealers out of 14th and W Street, they came right over here nine months ago," she said gleefully, taking snapshots of the volunteers working in the woods. "And now we have an epidemic of drugs. We found four bodies in the last year, two of them in the woods. None of them even lived here."
Gray pointed to the spot between her complex and the woods where an unidentified man was found dead Friday. Police attributed the death to a drug overdose.
"When the police come, all the drug people yell, 'Run for the woods,' and they hide out here," said Gray. "We decided we had to get rid of the drugs, and that means we had to get rid of the trees."
Pathways thread through the woods and end in little sitting areas where abandoned tires and furniture are used for seats by the drug users, who leave behind cookers (bottle caps), discarded needles and wrappers.
"They don't know what they are talking about. There ain't no drug problem here," said one man who watched the work from atop the hill next to Kenilworth Aevnue with intense interest. "Those are nice trees. They shouldn't be doing that."
Grillo says that there always has been some drug dealing at Kenilworth and Eastern, but the crowds grew rapidly when the heroin dealers were pushed out of the area around 14th and W streets NW, near the almost completed city Muncipal Building.
Officer Donald Snyder, an administrative worker at the 6th Police District, was one of the woodcutting volunteers, who were allowed to take away firewood in exchange for their work.
Det. Larry Andes, head of the 6th district vice unit, said he came to help cut wood but did not intend to keep any of it. The 17-year veteran of the police department said he has spent the past two years working in the neighborhood.
"Everything the police do is viewed as negative," he said. "We lock people up, we lock up your sister or brother. At the end of 20 years, you have nothing to point to but a lot of arrests. This [cleaning up] is something different. We might be able to improve life for the people who live here. Like the artist with his canvas, we can step back and point at something and say, 'Hey look, we cleaned up this park.' "
The only resident of the wooded area is "The Bicycle Man," who calls himself Jerry. He lives on federal land outside the area where the trees are being cut down.
He makes a living fixing bicycles for neighborhood children outside the tiny sheet metal shack where he has lived for four years.
"Those guys cutting down those trees are going to cause a flood in here. The trees suck up the water and when they are gone, everything will be water around here," said the gaunt man, as he patted his chest and complained of a cold.
"But I don't have no use for those heroin guys. I see the police chase them through here. They sometimes run right around my house," he said, chuckling at the memory. "I guess those police know what they are doing with them trees."
Kimi Gray said she will miss the cool breeze from the woods in the summer and the shade of the trees.
"We will miss those pretty trees," she said. "But we understand you have to sacrifice sometimes, and we want to be rid of those druggies."