Two red foil balloons, long deflated, dangled from the bare branches of a small tree on Chesapeake Street. Below was a ring of stuffed animals, soaked by Friday’s rain and secured to the trunk by a white chain.
The tattered memorial remained as a tribute to Aubrey Dansbury more than two weeks after the 27-year-old was gunned down on the afternoon of March 9 during what police said was an argument with an acquaintance along the residential street in Southeast Washington.
But the items placed beneath the scrawny tree to mark Dansbury’s death recall even more violence that has hammered the Washington Highlands neighborhood since Feb. 29: five shootings, two fatal, several in daylight and one mere steps from an elementary school playground filled with children who rushed inside at the sound of rapid gunfire.
Police said that the shootings appear unrelated and that most involved people who knew each other. Police have arrested suspects in both homicides; the latest arrest occurred Thursday.
“Many of the people involved in all this aren’t from around here,” said Olivia L. Henderson, the area’s longtime advisory neighborhood commissioner. “People are popping into our community and think they can call these hangouts their homes. They’re new faces.”
Washington Highlands stands on an elevated plot laid out in a tidy grid of streets lined with apartment buildings and a smattering of townhouses near the southern tip of the District. Commuters on the Anacostia Freeway streak or crawl, depending on traffic, by the community every day. Washington Highlands and adjoining Bellevue have some of the District’s highest homicide counts and are among the most economically depressed parts of the city.
Henderson, who has lived in Ward 8 for 42 years and much of that in Washington Highlands, said the community has long been “overlooked.”
She wishes she could clear away memorials such as the one on Chesapeake Street. To her, the empty malt-liquor and whiskey bottles and the soggy stuffed animals only add to the existing blight and are “an eyesore to the community,” reminding people of desperation and death.
She said that frightened or frustrated residents long ago retreated into their homes and away from community life, leaving unchallenged what happens outside their front doors. Adding to the residents’ angst, she said, is that one of the homeless shelters the mayor is proposing is targeted for Sixth and Chesapeake streets, the same block that is home to the school and the site of one of this year’s fatal shootings.
Henderson has been a commissioner under three mayors. “Each one has had a community walk-through here,” she said. “They take the same route, and each says what they’re going to do to fix this. We still have empty lots. We still have abandoned buildings. We still have cars left on the streets.”
District officials in the administration of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) cited a list of job programs, grants and efforts to raze vacant buildings and restore empty lots. D.C. police have assigned two extra officers to patrol the area between 2 and 10 p.m.
“I think all of us are heartbroken about communities anywhere having to face the trauma of such significant violence,” said Courtney R. Snowden, the deputy mayor for greater economic opportunity. She said that one key to curbing violence is employment: “The way to fight crime is to give people a fighting chance.”
On March 17, the administration held what is called a “Results” walk through Washington Highlands. District officials documented firsthand blighted properties, code violations and piles of trash. Other officials registered residents for job programs and health services.
“I see the frustrations she sees,” Snowden said of the neighborhood commissioner’s concerns. “What seems to be a list of endless promises that result in very little change.” The deputy mayor added, “This administration is focused on doing things differently.”
As those efforts go forward, so do the shooting investigations.
Eight days earlier and two blocks from where Dansbury died, Rudolph Garris, 25, was fatally shot in a car at Sixth and Chesapeake streets, near Hendley Elementary School and the Sunshine Early Learning Center. Garris, from Suitland, Md., was shot at 3:10 in the afternoon of March 1.
D.C. police arrested a suspect in that case Thursday. Tavon “Juice” Stewart, 24, also of Suitland, was charged with second-degree murder. Police said the shooting occurred after Garris was seen arguing with a woman in an apartment building. A witness told police that Stewart warned Garris to leave, according to an arrest affidavit.
Police said that on March 1, the two men met again — Stewart carrying a gun and Garris a hammer. Garris dropped the hammer and dived into his car — where his 7-year-old son was in the back seat — as Stewart fired, police said.
The other recent shootings in Washington Highlands occurred on Third, Fourth and Atlantic streets.
On Friday, Dave Holland, 57, a disabled Army veteran who has worked as a line cook, made his way from his Anacostia home to a medical clinic in Washington Highlands, a four-mile journey he made by bus and foot.
“All this is crazy,” Holland said as he walked by the Chesapeake Street memorial. “You can be walking down the street, and you look at someone the wrong way and they shoot you.”