Henry Dent blows leaves as Lawrence Dozier, Thomas Rice and Antonio Smith follow. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
Columnist

When a van stopped in front of a house on Capitol Hill a few days ago, I watched five black men exit the vehicle and retrieve their lawn maintenance equipment. They entered a gated yard and went to work, undeterred by the prospect of arousing suspicion in a neighborhood racked by an increase in crime.

“We want people watching us,” said Antonio Smith, 34, co-manager of the Clean Green Team landscaping service. “When we see them peeping through windows, we just want them to keep watching. When we’ve finished the job, we want them to come outside and ask, ‘How much will it cost to make my lawn look like that?’ ”

I had interviewed the men earlier, at Little Lights Urban Ministries, a small nonprofit on Capitol Hill that supports their lawn service operation. Didn’t want to disturb them at work, but I did want to see them in action.

Capitol Hill, largely white and one of the District’s wealthier neighborhoods, was experiencing a surge in street crime — stickups, car thefts, muggings. “A reign of terror,” as one resident called it at a community meeting last week. Thieves in a recent string of armed robberies had been vaguely described as “black males in a minivan.”

The landscapers’ work van was not much larger than a minivan. And the occupants certainly fit the description of the robbers, such as it was.

“Sometimes, we’ll see people giving us ‘the look,’ ” said Henry Dent, 35, the team’s other co-manager. “One lady yelled out of her window, just speaking but also making herself known, letting us know she was watching. When she saw that we were cleaning up her neighbor’s yard, she seemed more relieved than anything else.”

Smith’s notions of turning suspicious looks into a business opportunity struck me as bold but risky. Just a few weeks ago, a 911 caller reported seeing a “potential robber” standing near an ATM on Capitol Hill, and as a result of that bizarre claim, an innocent black teenager was forcibly detained by D.C. police.

In a climate that is thick with fear, a black man with a long-barreled leaf blower might want to tread lightly.

But Clean Green Team was far more focused on reaping the rewards of work than on any perceived risk. Being unemployed and trying to survive on the streets — that’s what they called risky.

Little Lights Urban Ministries helps the team drum up business, much of it on Capitol Hill. There are 22 team members. D&A Dunlevy Landscapers provides the job training.

“It’s a small-scale operation, but people need to see that there are practical ways to create job opportunities,” said Steve Parks, who founded Little Lights 20 years ago. “You have to make it a priority, though. It takes more than just being concerned.”

The U.S. Capitol, looming large on the hill, could be seen as a symbol of such concern-without-commitment. Year after year, a Republican-led Congress says jobs matter but never puts its money where its mouth is.

The Green Team members are among the lucky ones who got the kind of opportunity that should be more widely available. No doubt that high unemployment among black teenagers and young adults is driving that spike in crime on Capitol Hill.

“Knock on the door and people answer, and you can tell when they are shocked to see black guys at the door,” Smith said.

But there’s another kind of look that the men say makes up for all the wary stares — the ones they get after work, at home and in their neighborhoods.

“When I first started working, the kids in the community would sort of mock me: ‘You just a grass cutter’ and ‘All you do is blow leaves,’ ” Smith said. After weeks of seeing him going to work, however, they began to notice that he was prospering. “They’d say, ‘How do you get a job like that?’ ”

Smith soon realized that the youngsters weren’t attracted so much by his job as by the change that the job had made in him.

“I wasn’t that same angry, frustrated person,” Smith said. “I had become a serious, responsible man.”

On Capitol Hill, the team approached their work methodically, with patience and precision. If new customers could be made by turning a sourpuss into a smiley face, they were the ones to do it.

The way they turn heads at home, that was payoff enough.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.