The mother held the white mattress with pink flowers against the window as shots were fired on a spring night in the alley outside her children’s bedroom in Northwest Washington.
Charley Randolph pressed with her back against the mattress, hoping the thickness of the foam would provide a shield from stray gunfire, and yelled for her three kids to hit the floor. “Get down on the floor and crawl,” she remembers telling them.
Eleven-year-old Phillis, terrified that her mother might get shot, cried, “Mommy, do you need help?”
“Don’t worry about me,” she says she replied. “Get back down.”
The shooting stopped, and Randolph, a 35-year-old housekeeper, slid the mattress down the wall and pulled it back onto the bed frame.
She peeped around the curtain in her first-floor apartment, surveying a landscape where a 6-year-old had been shot at the playground a year earlier, where a man would be gunned down, execution style, just a half-block away on Georgia Avenue NW several weeks later, where police and city officials would spend the summer trying to get a handle on a sudden spike of violence not only in her neighborhood but across the District.
The most sobering measure of that violence — homicides — has soared, with 128 so far this year compared with 105 for all of 2014. The psychological fallout is playing out from one side of the city to the other, from struggling Congress Heights to booming Brookland to gentrifying Park View, where Randolph and her kids live.
That night, she told her children — now 11, 5 and 3 — to sleep in the living room, wondering, once again, how soon she could afford to move out and calculating, once again, how she could keep her family safe until she did.
All around her, the people of Park View were making their own calculations: the newcomers, many of them young, white professionals; the longtime residents, most of them African Americans; the business owners who have installed surveillance cameras; and the community activists determined to keep their neighborhood moving forward.
For Randolph, the sound of gunfire is too familiar at her battered public-housing complex, Park Morton, where two of the 15 garden-style buildings are boarded up and where residents still await a revitalization promised by the city 10 years ago.
One autumn evening, she pushes the living-room sofa bed away from the patio window, positioning it as far toward the hallway of the two-bedroom apartment as she can. Behind her front door, underneath a cable wire, she has tucked a steak knife, high enough to be out of her children’s reach but close enough that she can get to it, just in case danger comes through the door. On the windowsill, she keeps a smooth, round rock, the size of her hand. “I have a pretty good aim,” she says.
She takes off her wig and lies on the sofa bed, sinking into the cushions. “If a bullet flies through the window, I’m probably lying too low for it to get me,” she says. “It will probably hit the back of the couch, here.” She points.
These are the physics of a single mother living with the threat of random violence. “It’s hell living here with kids,” says Randolph, still haunted by the playground shooting almost 18 months ago.
Amid the screams and chaos that followed, Phillis, now a sixth-grader at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, tried to help Khalia. The girl recovered, and she and her family have moved. But Phillis and her family remain. The shooter was never caught.
“I only feel safe if my mom is outside,” Phillis says, sitting on her sofa in a pink-and-white sweater. “This neighborhood is quiet outside now. But it’s not normal. Usually there are kids on the playground, playing basketball and tag and bike racing. But after the shooting, all the kids be scared.”
Until the slaying on Georgia Avenue, Laura Recchie says, it was “almost laughable how unfazed” she was by crime in Park View.
She lives just a block away from the public-housing complex, in a new building called Sidney on the Avenue, where the apartments feature granite countertops, polished hardwood floors and rents as high as $2,200 a month.
Like Charley Randolph, Recchie moved to Park View four years ago. She is part of a wave of new residents flooding into the neighborhood of brick rowhouses that borders Petworth, Columbia Heights and Howard University.
Recchie, 30, was aware of the drug dealers and heroin addicts who loitered outside her Georgia Avenue apartment building. But she got used to them, calling police with regularity to help move people who had passed out at Sidney on the Avenue’s back door.
She got so comfortable that she would walk her dog, McCoy, at all hours. A mix of shepherd and hound, McCoy had become a local celebrity.
“I had to come out at the end of the night before I go to bed,” says Recchie, the president of a public benefit corporation called Root+Branch that focuses on D.C. neighborhoods in transition, such as Park View. “And if I was out at the bars, I would have to walk him before I went to sleep. That could be 2 or 3 in the morning.”
Then, about 9:30 p.m. on July 30, a man ran into Georgia Avenue, firing shots. A bullet, police said, fatally struck 24-year-old Derrick Black, who lived in Northwest Washington. Black fell in the street in front of a Metrobus near Georgia Avenue and Lamont Street.
A witness on the bus told police that the shooter then stood over the man and shot him two more times. “Straight-up execution,” the witness later told The Washington Post, “right in the middle of a main thoroughfare of Washington, D.C.”
An hour later, police were called to another shooting, about two blocks away, at Manor Place and Warder Street NW.
“Not a good night for Park View,” lamented one resident on a local blog, PoPville, noting that “we literally had a meeting last night with police, a rep from our council member, a rep from the Park-Morton redevelopment task force. This meeting was literally less than 100 feet from the bus stop and we talked at length about needing to police this stop and whether we could have the bus shelter taken away because it added an [air] of legitimacy to the people hanging out there.”
Last week, police arrested a suspect, Sean Green, 24, and charged him with first-degree murder while armed in the slaying.
The killing shattered Recchie’s sense of security. It occurred right outside her apartment building, which is tucked on a block of Georgia Avenue that includes an all-night Chinese carryout,a religious-candle store, a Bikram yoga studio and a market facing the bus stop, where men often congregate and make some residents uneasy.
“Once guns are in play, it’s just a whole other level of terrifying,” Recchie says, sitting in a cafe owned by an Ethiopian family. From the window, she could see the men hanging around the bus stop outside the market. “It’s all of a sudden scary to be outside, because you don’t know what is going to happen.”
The night of the shooting, her younger sister Anna, 21, was visiting from Columbus, Ohio.
“I was going out of town that weekend, and she was supposed to stay in my apartment that weekend and take care of my dog,” Recchie says. “But I wouldn’t let her. I made her go stay somewhere else for the weekend, and my neighbors took care of my dog.”
She told her parents what had happened, assured them she would be okay, then began adjusting her routines. For the first couple of weeks after the shooting, she walked her dog accompanied by a neighbor.
“We would be going out at night for our last walks,” she says. “I would always make sure to go with him. So then there was safety in numbers.”
She became comfortable again. Part of that was because of the police car sitting at Georgia Avenue and Lamont. The parked police car became another factor in her dog-walking plans. The officer usually left at 10:30 each night.
She told herself, “I can wait until the show is over or go out when the police are on the corner, so maybe I could just go now.”
She also began working more intensely with a neighborhood public safety task force, made up of residents determined to recover their collective sense of security.
Park View’s activists gather on a Wednesday evening in the mint-green community room of 32 Thirty-Two Apartments, a high-rise on Georgia Avenue owned by developer Adrian Washington.
“Last week, we formed committees,” Washington begins. “Each committee has a committee head. Are there questions?”
A voice in the back of the room: “Has anyone heard about the senior citizen that got beat to death? You’ve probably seen the older guy who walks slow through the alley? He’s dead.”
“Was it outside?” someone says.
“In the home,” says Romeo Morgan, who owns Morgan’s Seafood on Georgia Avenue and was planning to attend the funeral. “He was beaten to death in his home.”
Around the room sit about 25 newcomers and old-timers, white and black — each with a sense of urgency. Rashida Brown, a member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission and a tireless advocate for revitalizing this stretch of Georgia Avenue, says she has launched a study on developing a nearby park. An aide to D.C. Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) announces an upcoming Neighborhood Watch training.
The group discusses loitering, drug markets, the bus stop that has been the target of concern and the constant calls to police. Why, they ask one another, haven’t these problems been solved?
Recchie rises for her public safety report.
“I had a really enlightening discussion with an officer who informed me about vice narcotics units,” Recchie says.
The officer suggested that the task force continuously send e-mails to police administration. “He said just go for the MPD-admin e-mail box and cc,” she says, “specifically requesting that the narcotics unit be allowed to do police work on our corner. He said the more often we do it and the more we do it, the more likely it is to trickle down.”
Nadeau will say later that police have stepped up their patrols around Georgia and Lamont, but there are limits to what they can do.
“I know there are concerns about loitering,” she says. “But loitering falls under First Amendment rights to assemble. The reality is we don’t want to be a place where neighbors can’t hang out. When people are loitering and doing something illegal, we do have tools to arrest them. One of the challenges is police can’t walk up to a crowd and arrest them.”
Inside Morgan’s Seafood, Romeo Morgan sits behind the counter, under a black chalkboard listing the menu: chitterlings by the pound, soft-shell crabs, lobster, baked chicken, pigs’ feet, pork chops, minced barbecue. And “FROG LEGS $5.00.”
Morgan’s family has owned this restaurant at Georgia Avenue and Kenyon Street for more than 80 years, and he has no intention of being run out, not by new development or the shootings up the street.
“I ain’t afraid of anything,” says Morgan, who is coy about his age. He is a stout man with bowed legs and rum-colored eyes. From a cubbyhole, tucked near his grill, Morgan monitors four surveillance cameras he’s installed.
“I can see everything on the block. You can see what people are doing and where they are doing it at,” says Morgan, who was born in Trinidad but moved to Washington when he was 3, and speaks Trinidadian patois, Spanish, French and “street English.”
He takes up a green fly swatter. “Pow,” he says, landing on a fly. “People say flies aren’t smart. But when they see me pick this up, they scatter.”
It’s the same approach he wants the police to use against the people congregating by the market and bus stop. “If you allow it to fester, it can become deadly,” Morgan says.
Business has been slow since the shooting, he says, with some people too frightened to park and walk inside. Over a long afternoon, the only customer is a young woman with a taste for frog legs.
“The drug boys told me, ‘Hey, Mr. Morgan, if you let us post up at your building, we can get you a lot of business,’ ” he says. “I was like, ‘Hell, no!’ ”
One night this month, Morgan says, one of the young men issued a threat, telling him: “Yeah, we know you’re snitching on us to the police. We got something for you.”
“I told him I say what I want to say out of my mouth,” Morgan says. “I’m not scared of any of you fools around here.”
A few minutes later, he found the man urinating on his building, and they scuffled. Morgan says the man threatened him with a knife. He reported it to the police, he says, but he doesn’t think the young man has been charged with anything.
He called the district commander and left a message, he says. If he doesn’t hear back, he plans to call D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier. Through a spokesman, Lanier declined to be interviewed for this article.
Every morning, Morgan, who lives next door to his restaurant, patrols the alley behind his building, sweeping up used needles, trying to command the block.
He walks through an alley leading to Lamont Street, emptying at the spot where Derrick Black was slain in July. On Georgia Avenue, he turns the corner and sniffs a strange smell riding the breeze.
“That is that Scooby Doo smell,” the smell of synthetic drugs, he says. “They sit there at that bus stop all day long. They are like, ‘This is our corner.’ ”
He opens the door to Gray’s market, which sells cold soda, beer and wine. The store’s manager, Biniyam Thesfa, tells Morgan that business is slow “because everybody is scared after the shooting.”
“That is where the shooting happened, right here?” a customer says. “You got to be kidding me. I saw that on TV.”
“Right outside,” Morgan replies. He notes that the victim was carrying a gun, too — a fact later confirmed by police.
It is a Saturday afternoon, and Randolph is mopping her floor with a solution of bleach and hot water. A black rotating fan blows the still air, creating a slight indoor breeze.
Randolph’s children are restless. They haven’t returned to the playground where the 6-year-old was shot and where, until recently, there was still a bullet hole in the steps leading to the slide.
Two-year-old Nevaeh, whose name is the word “heaven” in reverse and who loves to peel off her clothes and run bare, climbs into Randolph’s lap. “Mommy,” she says. “We go bye-bye?”
Her son, David, 4, says he wants to go outside to play. Randolph glances outside through the checkered kitchen curtain. The courtyard is clear. She decides to take the children out to play on the basketball court adjacent to her building.
Before they leave the apartment, they pray. She holds her oldest daughter’s hand then tells her: “Grab David’s hand. Now, close your eyes.”
The children stand in a circle squeezing their eyes shut.
“Say, ‘God,’ ” says the mother.
“God,” the children repeat.
“Bless us when we go out this door.”
“So we can be safe.”
“So we can be safe.”
She looks out the peephole to the hallway, where heroin addicts sometimes slump in the stairwell. There is nobody there. She opens the door and herds the kids onto the basketball court, which is surrounded by a high chain-link fence.
A red sign on the side of the building warns: “THIS IS NOT A PUBLIC PLAY AREA . . . THIS AREA CLOSES AT DARK.”
The children play with a ball. Phillis sits on a bench and punches at a game on her phone. Nevaeh takes a stick and draws in a pile of dirt. Randolph stands guard at the gate.
On the other side of the alley are the renovated rowhouses, some worth as much as $700,000, where the gentrifiers live. But their lives feel distant to her. “They have choices,” Randolph says.
The children run on the court but soon become bored. They start climbing the chain-link fence, squeezing between the poles. Randolph tells them to get down before they fall.
Her son grabs the pocket of her jeans, and she begins to spin him, twirling as if she were carefree.
For a moment, she forgets to watch. Then she catches herself.