Delany Christopher Epps grew up along the U Street corridor. His aunt’s house, his high school, his church, his bar, all staggered blocks apart in the historic Northwest neighborhood.
He lingered with the old-timers who look across chessboards and playing cards at all the changes from a perch outside a worn apartment building that now feels out of place.
But at 29, Epps also adapted to the street’s new rhythms.
He had managed a storage facility and worked as a job counselor but then took a job at Sweetgreen, with its apple, pear and cheddar salads and lentil soups.
The chain organic restaurant is close to new condos, new gyms and new wine bars. The new apartment building nearby seeks renters looking to “change their status” and live in “the midst of the busiest block in town buzzing with boutiques.”
Yet on a September night, headed from his job to his spot where he and his friends hung out at 14th and V streets, Epps was gunned down, still in his Sweetgreen uniform.
The bullets sent alfresco diners at Provision No. 14 diving for cover at 8:30 p.m., then racing online later to threaten to flee to the suburbs.
Along the U Street corridor, Epps’s death stood out for the time and place it occurred.
But in a year marred by a surge of violent deaths, he was the District’s 116th homicide.
And for his mother, he was the second son lost to street violence in four years.
Four years ago, Jaimme Epps’s son Alphonzo was stabbed to death inside a house on Ainger Place in Southeast Washington’s Woodland Terrace. It was two months before his 21st birthday.
“I had four children, now I have two,” Epps said.
Delany Epps died in a new neighborhood, but in a type of dispute that is ancient — an argument over a woman, says his mother, or perhaps an argument over a vice, say police, who cite a tiny marijuana buy gone bad.
Delany, she said, worked and took care of his five children, the oldest 7, the youngest 4. Tattoos on his arm bore their names.
He lived with one of his children’s mothers. Away from U Street.
But U Street is where he returned every day for work and every night to socialize.
He had gone to elementary, middle and high school in the U Street neighborhood. His grandfather ran a corner market.
Epps was in a local Boy Scout troop, and he went to church on U Street, his mother said, “until he was old enough to say he didn’t want to go.”
He’d had run-ins with the law — disorderly conduct, failing to obey an officer — and was caught with a gun in 2014 and received a suspended jail sentence.
His mother said the gun was to protect himself as he ran errands for elderly relatives. None of his arrests involved violent crime.
To Epps’s mother, the changes on U Street seem destined to make the neighborhood a safer place, if only because newer residents demand more police presence and cooperate with them.
She said that in the past, a shooting such as the one that killed her son might have gone largely unnoticed.
But on the night Delany was shot, an officer was around the corner and rushed over when he heard gunfire. People in the area quickly pointed him in the direction of the suspected killer, and to the spot where a gun landed in a back yard. Police made an arrest within minutes.
Jaimme Epps said the people who alerted the police were among the frightened diners and homeowners, the newcomers. Old-timers, she said, would probably have been tight-lipped.
She’s still waiting for someone to come forward in the death of Alphonzo.
“Justice was never served” there, she said. “At least with my other son, there’s a chance.”
The shooting exacerbated divisions, said Brian Card, president of the U Street Neighborhood Association.
The mantra from one side is, “We lived here.” From the other, “Now we’re here.”
“Resentment — from the old crew,” said Card. Among newer occupants — fear “there is more violent crime.”
Card, whose grandmother was pushed out of her U Street rental during a wave of change four decades ago, said it’s difficult to know whether the tense atmosphere stems from fact or perception.
“We have to value the people whose identities are this neighborhood,” Card said, cautioning newcomers that the neighborhood’s appeal lies in its vibrant street life and lingering bohemian feel — not the quiet of a residential enclave. “I’m kind of surprised that people move in with the concept that this is going to be the Bethesda they came from,” he said.
Still, vibrancy doesn’t need to tolerate violence. Card lamented that “kids today are going to guns so quickly.”
The confrontation that led to Epps’s shooting originated at the Geno Baroni apartments, police said.
It is a popular spot for old-timers. And it’s also a spot that other residents say is prime for small-time drug deals, late-night dice games and trouble.
The corner where Epps fell is three blocks from Christian Tabernacle Church of God.
Its pastor, Kevin Theodore Hart Sr., heard the gunfire that killed Epps as the pastor emerged from a prayer group. Hart had run into Epps many times while out walking — the young man was such a fixture that it was impossible to miss him.
Hart said the shooting unnerved many, and rightfully so, but he said people were too quick to label Epps a troublemaker hobbling the neighborhood’s transition.
“A lot of time people see young men of color hanging together, and one assumes the conversations are negative,” Hart said. “But if you listened to Mr. Epps, and his conversations, you’d have heard him sharing positive insights with young people.”
Hart said Epps pleaded with young men to get jobs and helped them when he was at the jobs center.
The pastor said that although Epps was skeptical of the extensive upheaval around his old home, he and his friends took advantage of the jobs coming in, something that might not have been evident to those passing by as the group idled outside Geno Baroni.
“They are working men,” Hart said.
Many of those same men — and “old U Street,” as Hart put it — filled his church and then spilled over into the street at 11th and V when Hart eulogized Epps.
Hart read from Jeremiah at the funeral: “Teach your daughters how to mourn, and your friends how to sing a funeral song.” The pastor of five years added his own words: “A song you can teach your daughter for our children are being snatched away at play, and our young men are dying in the streets.”
Hart said D.C. police officers were outside his church during the service, to guard against any retaliation. He said that may have made some neighborhood newcomers anxious and kept them away from the service. “Because of the stereotype of this kind of murder, people were saying, ‘We miss you. We appreciate what you did for the community.’ But they don’t want to be part of a volatile setting.”
The pastor said that “if we’re moving throughout the city transforming neighborhoods in this way, then we’re going to have to overcome our fears. . . . We’re here as a ministry and have to help bridge what used to be with what is.”