The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This 7-Eleven has been robbed six times in four months. But residents see hope in neighborhood revitalization efforts.

The 7-Eleven store on the corner of Bladensburg Road and Neal Street NE is among the most robbed in the District. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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The last time robbers targeted the 7-Eleven on Bladensburg Road, D.C. police said, one man pointed a silver snub-nose revolver at two employees while an accomplice ordered the cash register opened.

When the drawer stuck, the man ripped out the machine and both robbers fled. Police said the register was worth four times the $100 in cash stuffed inside it.

The holdup the night of Feb. 19 was not unusual for the store on a busy stretch in Northeast Washington. It marked the third time the 7-Eleven was robbed at gunpoint this year — victimizing the same clerk twice — and the sixth time in four months, between November 2017 and February 2018. Since 2012, police said, that location has been robbed 13 times.

“It’s treacherous around here,” said Nancy Byrd, a 61-year-old who regularly walks by the store, between her apartment and a laundry she visits.

Byrd has not been in the store when it was robbed, but she sometimes sees a cluster of police cars outside. Neighborhood leaders and police offer a variety of reasons for what makes this 7-Eleven so attractive to robbers — its location on a busy road, a large parking lot that attracts loiterers and gritty surroundings on the edge of gentrifying neighborhoods. The store is a few blocks away from Starburst Plaza, a paved public area that sits at the confluence of five streets that stretch out like spokes.

Starburst Plaza epicenter for District’s synthetic drug use

To neighborhood leaders, the store is a symbol of stalled efforts to revitalize their community — specifically Starburst Plaza and the adjacent Hechinger Mall. On the drawing board is an ambitious urban renewal initiative that would redo the area and meld it into the popular H Street corridor of shops and eateries. It would take advantage of the streetcar line and neighboring Trinidad, a residential community emerging from its violent past to become a destination for young homeowners.

Though robberies have been a persistent problem in the District, there has been encouraging news with numbers dropping significantly since 2013, when they topped 4,000 for the year. By last year, the number of robberies, unarmed and armed, had been cut nearly in half, with 2,183 reported. Robberies this year are down slightly when compared with this time in 2017.

Police could not say whether this store is the most robbed in the city. Authorities have arrested suspects in several holdups, including one man who robbed four other 7-Eleven stores and another who was caught after police said they found his DNA on a coffee cup he used before pulling a gun on the clerk. The man took $60 but left the cup on the counter.

Police Cmdr. William Fitzgerald, who runs the 5th District station, one mile from the store on the same street, said he is in routine contact with the manager who he said has been responsive to barring troublesome patrons and prosecuting shoplifters.

The commander said the area’s economic struggles and drug addicts contribute to the robberies. He said recent efforts to clean up Starburst Plaza, once the epicenter of the city’s synthetic drug woes, have pushed some users to the convenience store, with its large lot and 24-hour service.

“It’s a challenge,” he said.

Fitzgerald said he is hopeful a new initiative encouraging police to send drug addicts and petty criminals into diversion programs rather than arresting them could help alleviate some of the problems along Bladensburg Road.

Trinidad sheds its troubled past

Any store open round the clock can be attractive to robbers, Fitzgerald said. But he said “it’s easy to blame the store for the source of the problems. But the 7-Eleven didn’t cause the socioeconomic or quality-of-life issues.”

The owner of the 7-Eleven, in a brief interview, denied that the store had ever been robbed and referred questions to the corporation, which did not respond to interview requests.

Last year, a nonprofit that promotes business development envisioned a redesigned interchange in the area, with high-rise office buildings replacing the plaza and the mall. But that proposal has not gotten traction.

Last month, D.C. officials announced another program to help boost new investment in the area, including the Carver-Langston neighborhoods across the street from the 7-Eleven. That area is now eligible for a federal program that will provide tax incentives to new businesses.

One evening last month at the 7-Eleven, there was a blur of activity across the parking lot — motorists pausing to make a quick call or drop a UPS package into a box, pedestrians gathering to chat, schoolchildren with book bags stopping for treats.

Sydelle Moore, who runs the Langston Civic Association across from Trinidad, said the convenience store, which sits at Bladensburg Road and Neal Street, has long been “a hangout spot where people get into some conflict with each other, and violence breaks out.”

Things have improved with the city’s effort to clean up the area, she said, but there’s more to do.

Along with pushing for an economic boost, the city is also pouring in more resources to fight crime, adding Trinidad and Carver-Langston to its summer crime initiative program. Police and other city social and medical agencies will concentrate in the two neighborhoods flanking the 7-Eleven. On Tuesday, less than a quarter-mile from the store, a man and a 4-year-old boy were wounded by gunfire from a vehicle.

Kathy Henderson, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member whose district includes part of Trinidad, said the convenience store has frequently changed ownership, and few have been responsive to neighborhood concerns or made efforts to upgrade security. “It makes them vulnerable,” Henderson said. “They are in a particularly gritty location, and they’ve been repeated victims. The crime there has undermined the public safety for the entire area.”

The robberies at the 7-Eleven attracted attention earlier this year after three occurred within one month. Alan Henney, a Washington-area journalist, was the first to note the trend. He posted on Twitter in February: “7-ELEVEN ROBBED AGAIN!”

One man convicted in a 2016 holdup of the store pleaded guilty to robbing five other shops, including other 7-Elevens. He was found with a gun, a hunting knife, a mask and a red bandanna. Prosecutors called him an “extreme danger to our community.” Court documents described the church maintenance worker as overcome by drugs. He was sentenced in January to three years in prison.

That defendant’s attorney declined to comment.

Adam Roberts, a former ANC member in the area and now a public school teacher, said Bladensburg Road “has always been challenged with crime” but said he has seen improvement and praised the city for helping.

He noted that Starburst Plaza, once nicknamed “Scoobie Plaza,” a nod to a brand of synthetic marijuana, now has concerts, a farmers market and evening festivals.

Roberts, who lives in the community, said those events are a sign of “what is possible.”

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