It is one of the District’s busiest intersections, sidewalks filled with people and lines of cars, brake lights ablaze, inching along the streets.
The dome of the U.S. Capitol can be seen to the south, but the focal point at North Capitol Street and New York Avenue NW is the landmark four-story turret that stands over the entrance to Big Ben Liquor Store. Amid the bustle, police say, an illicit business thrives.
“Obviously, that corner is a long-term, open-air drug market,” said D.C. Police Cmdr. William Fitzgerald, who runs the 5th District station.
On Wednesday afternoon, a man wearing a black mask and faded jeans shot and wounded four men in front of the liquor store, littering the corner with bullet casings and staining New York Avenue with the blood of fleeing victims. Police said one man was targeted and seriously wounded; the others were bystanders struck in the legs. As of Saturday evening,no one had been detained in connection with the shooting.
Thursday night, residents who live near the intersection sounded off as they faced Fitzgerald, a D.C. Council member and an assortment of city employees making notes to take back to those in charge. For them, the corner’s nefarious reputation is not a revelation. What residents said is surprising is how long the illegal activity there has festered.
“We know what the problem is,” said Leon Braddell, vice president of the Hanover Area Civic Association, which is part of Truxton Circle. “We know when it happens. And we know who is involved.”
Braddell recited a list of shootings that have occurred over time in the area. “You have a community willing to help,” he told the police commander. “You want support, we give you support. We just need a plan.”
Fitzgerald, a 25-year police veteran who took over the 5th District station a year ago this month, made no attempt to play down the gunfire that erupted at 4:20 p.m. at an intersection that transportation officials say is crossed each workday by more than 102,000 vehicles.
“It was a highly alarming event,” Fitzgerald said. “It was scary. In rush-hour traffic, someone pulled out a gun and shot four people. We’re lucky more people weren’t shot with the amount of bullets that were fired.”
Fitzgerald struggled to explain that even the arrest of Wednesday’s assailant “won’t solve the problem.” He is seeking more help from city agencies with jobs programs, counseling and help for the addicted. “A heroin addict doesn’t stop being a heroin addict because he goes to jail,” he said. “We can’t arrest our way out of this.”
Fitzgerald said he had recently moved up the starting times for officers patrolling the area on bicycles after he noticed that “by 2 p.m. the regulars had set up business” on the corner. He said detectives don’t yet know a motive for Wednesday’s attack, but he said that gunmen in the city seem to be becoming more brazen.
Speaking of shootings, he said, “We’ve had more in the daytime than we’ve had after the sun goes down.”
Truxton Circle is a triangle-shaped community north of New York Avenue and west of North Capitol Street, named for a roundabout that disappeared more than a half-century ago and infamous for drug dealing during the height of the District’s most violent years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Residents are slowly reclaiming the blocks, and 19th-century rowhouses tucked behind the main thoroughfares now sell for half a million dollars. A blog enables residents to research the histories of their homes.
But the more visible spots along New York and North Capitol remain an edgy reminder of more dangerous times — dilapidated storefronts and carryouts, corners occupied at all hours. Court documents in one drug case from two years ago describe dealers taking over a hardware store, sitting out front in lawn chairs and shooing regular customers away.
The interchange divides more than it unifies — Truxton Circle from rival Sursum Corda across the street, the city’s Northeast quadrant from its Northwest, and for police, the 5th District from the 1st. Blocks away is NoMa, the newly minted mini-city with apartments, upscale shops and businesses built in what had been a desolate no man’s land of commercial warehouses and nightclubs.
At Thursday night’s meeting, residents said they were tired of hearing the same promises from city leaders, year after year, shooting after shooting, and complained that money for recreation centers and social services was being spent elsewhere.
“Summer is here and school is out, and there’s nothing to engage the youths,” said Joyce Robinson-Paul, who has lived in Truxton Circle for 37 years and complained about the neighborhood recreation center being closed. The city, she said, “would rather build dog parks than playgrounds.”
She likened Wednesday’s shooting to a “neighborhood terrorist attack.” She said a neighbor took a bullet in the leg as he walked to a corner store. “We plant flowers,” she said. “We do cleanups and beautifications. We try to make sure the city provides us with the things we pay taxes for. The area had been known as one of the most notorious drug markets in the city. We changed that. But we can’t do much if the city disinvests in our neighborhood.”
The mostly low-level District officials at the meeting promised to get back to residents about their concerns, such as the closed recreation center, but were not able to offer definitive answers.
The D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation said in a statement Friday that Truxton Circle’s New York Avenue Recreation Center is closed for renovation, although there will be a summer basketball league there and officials are seeking ways to add activities. There is a community pool at nearby Dunbar High School and a Boys and Girls Club in the neighborhood.
Police have responded to several shootings over the past few years at the corner or within a couple blocks of it. Seven people were shot over two consecutive weekends at New York and North Capitol in 2012, and 13 people were shot in a single drive-by in 2013 in front of an apartment complex at the intersection.
In July 2015, a man from Virginia was robbed of $90 and beaten to death in the middle of the afternoon in front of Big Ben. Police said he had been on his way to get crabs and fireworks, and had stopped at the store for beer. His friend said the victim might have been trying to buy drugs on the corner when he got into an argument with two men known as “Slouch” and “Reds.”
D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who chairs the council’s Judiciary Committee, called the corner “notorious” and told residents at the meeting that “the engagement process has to continue” to determine what steps to take next.
Fitzgerald reminded residents that an officer who was two blocks away heard Wednesday’s gunshots and raced toward the shooting on a bicycle, only to be struck by a car and injured seriously enough to be sent to the hospital.
“We care,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re trying. We’re all trying.” He implored people to put the blame where it belongs. “Blame the person who pulled the trigger.”