On paper, the decision made perfect sense. Kimball Elementary, which opened during World War II, needed to be modernized. Everyone agreed on that. So the D.C. school district, which is renovating all of its aging buildings, scheduled an extensive $51 million makeover.
The plan called for the school, on Minnesota Avenue SE near the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy and the Fort Dupont Ice Arena, to shut down for two years beginning this summer. Its 350 students would move to an empty school a mile away.
That’s still the plan. But as the move date approaches, it’s running headlong into a formidable obstacle that didn’t show up on paper: fear.
Many parents say they don’t want to send their kids to the temporary location, Adelaide Davis Elementary School. They don’t have anything against Davis. But they don’t want to travel through an area with which their neighborhood, known as “37th,” has had a long, often bitter and occasionally deadly rivalry.
The “swing” school sits in a working-class Southeast neighborhood of well-kept single-family homes. But it is a block from a public housing complex, Benning Terrace, that for decades has been plagued by crime and regarded as one of the city’s more dangerous places. To locals, it’s known as Simple City. Or Simp. Or Baby Vietnam.
For parents, the proximity of Davis to Simple City is unnerving.
“It’s territorial,” says Jeanelle Swiney, 37, who went to Kimball and has two children at the school. “Simple City has had confrontations with everyone. We want to stay in 37th. It’s a village here. I’m not afraid to come out here because I know my community and my community knows me. We don’t want to move out of our comfort zone.”
The parents are scared for their children — and for themselves. Simple City is nearby, but it’s a destination they’ve always been careful to avoid. Likewise, residents of Simple City steer clear of 37th and other areas with ongoing turf battles. Navigating perceived no-go zones is part of the daily routine for many residents in the poorest parts of the District.
Kimball parents say their kids may be safe on the school bus. But, they ask, what if a parent or sibling has to go the school to pick up a child? What if they want to visit their child’s class or attend an after-school activity? What will happen when it starts getting dark early?
To date, just half of Kimball students have re-enrolled for next school year. Danita Walker sent her three children to Kimball. Now Walker, whose children are grown, works as a community liaison with families at the school. She thinks up to 40 percent will choose not to make the move to Davis. Some have already signed up for charter schools elsewhere.
“Violence, guns, safety,” Walker says, listing the reasons. “All of the concerns are about safety. They just don’t feel safe going into that community.”
Even as parents are deciding what to do, the Kimball renovation has begun. And work continues to get Davis ready for however many show up for prekindergarten through fifth grade when school starts in August.
School officials expect pushback whenever schools are closed, even for renovations. But the concerns at Kimball are a reminder of the unexpected challenges D.C. Public Schools encounters as it tries to upgrade campuses across the city, including in neighborhoods racked by violence.
To quell worries, school and police officials say they have met often with parents and community members to share busing and security plans. But the history here is deep, and decades of disputes and turf wars won’t disappear easily — even if many who live in the area say they no longer know what the beefs are about.
During the height of the District’s drug wars, Simple City was an epicenter of violence. The Washington Post noted that at least 65 people were killed there from 1987 to 1997, an average of one homicide every other month. Neighborhood gangs were known to fight with crews from across the city — including ones from 37th.
The origin of the neighborhood’s name is obscure. Even many residents don’t know how it came about. For some, the name Simple City is a source of pride. But for others, it’s an unwelcome stigma.
The area remains a focus for law enforcement, even as activists have brokered truces to calm the volume of gunfire in Benning Terrace.
D.C. police often patrol in and around the complex of low-slung apartments and townhouses. Investigators continue to recover illegal guns and ammunition connected to shootings, carjackings and robberies.
In 2015, federal authorities indicted seven people they said were involved with the Simple City Criminal Organization, a crew responsible for car thefts, identity thefts and other crimes. Officials said the organization operated from about 2009 to July 2015.
Still, there are signs of improvement.
“That place is nowhere as violent as it once was,” D.C. Patrol Chief Robert Contee said. “Yes, there have been shootings. Yes, they have had homicides. But by and large . . . a lot of folk have put in a whole lot of effort to bring that nonsense down.”
Many of the skirmishes between rivals in this part of the city happen along Minnesota Avenue SE or at the Benco Shopping Center, where Benning Road SE meets East Capitol Street, Contee said. But they rarely involve elementary students.
Police leaders say the patrol sector that encompasses Benning Terrace and 37th can face spurts of violent crime in any given year, but nothing on the scale of what occurred decades ago. So far this year, police say there have been two homicides in the sector, compared with 11 in the same period last year, and overall crime is down nearly 10 percent this year.
In the past several years, police have sought to help neighborhood youths set aside feuds of prior generations. They believe the school relocation offers a chance to expand on those efforts. They also plan to ensure safe transit for Kimball students, monitoring and reacting to threats as they emerge. The school district says it will bus the students straight from the ice arena to Davis, and it promises enhanced security at the campus.
“We would not move students to an area that we did not think was safe,” said DCPS spokeswoman Michelle Lerner. “We have been surveying the community on security and transportation. We’re confident that this is going to be a good transition and that all staff and all students and all families will be safe.”
But for many parents, these assurances aren’t enough. Memories are long, and they can shape perceptions of safety as much as recent trends.
Freddie Williams, whose daughter Princess will enter first grade, said he isn’t comfortable with Davis because “I used to stay around that neighborhood and there’s a lot of violence that I know of.” He and others are clamoring for the school district to make space available at Sousa Middle School, near Kimball, which has many unused rooms.
But the school district says Sousa doesn’t meet federal requirements for early-childhood classrooms and can’t accommodate all the Kimball students. For now, Davis remains the only option if they don’t want to transfer to another school.
Robert L. Woodson Sr., a civil rights activist, helped the Alliance of Concerned Men negotiate a truce between warring factions at Benning Terrace in the late 1990s after the gang-related slaying of 12-year-old Darryl Hall made national news. He agrees that the Kimball parents’ concerns are well-founded, and he worries about daily interactions that could spark trouble.
“When they are making these decisions they never consult the community or consider this as a factor at all,” he said. “It’s all professional planners, educators and politicians who don’t realize these decisions can have lethal ramifications for kids.”
The school district says that it worked extensively with the community on the relocation plan. But parents say the choice of the swing school was made without any input from them.
Woodson said city and community leaders should approach young people from Benning Terrace to help prepare for the arrival of students and parents from another neighborhood.
“There are young adults in that community who are very influential with these kids,” he said. “I would convene a meeting with some of these people and get some intelligence from them on how a smooth transition can occur.”
The rivalry between Benning Terrace and 37th is one of many turf battles in this part of the District. People who live here know not to cross unmarked boundary lines, said the Rev. Anthony L. Minter, the pastor at First Rock Baptist Church on Alabama Avenue SE, across from Benning Terrace.
If outsiders are afraid to cross into Benning Terrace, Minter says, those who live there are similarly afraid to set foot near 37th or sections of Alabama Avenue and Ridge Road SE.
Minter, 60, has been a member of the church since he was 9 and has watched the community struggle with poverty, broken promises and violence. While there have been intermittent truces, they eventually fall apart.
“The peace that had been brokered is not there anymore,” Minter says. “There’s a whole new group of people, and it has gotten progressively worse.”
Minter said that if the children are bused from Kimball to Davis, there won’t be trouble, but that “if they have to walk through the community, there’s a good chance there could be a problem.”
Minter and others know the neighborhood beefs go beyond the issue of Kimball’s relocation. And they are frustrated that disputes linger and fester, becoming ingrained in daily life for the vast majority of people in the neighborhoods who want nothing more than to live in peace.
“It’s a problem that we say, ‘It’s not safe,’ and we just leave it at that,” he said. “As adults, as community leaders, we have to do something to fix that problem. I mean, it’s crazy. This is really all one community. I still believe that we can come together as a community, that peace can be restored. It’s easier said than done, but it’s doable.”
School begins on Aug. 21.