These are the neighborhoods that spent the crack era in the crime briefs. Their complex geography and complex struggle whittled down to an endless series of short paragraphs that revealed only the simple facts: an address, a bullet, a body sometimes with a name and age, a date, and time of death.
It didn’t matter that the briefs only told the end of a story. It didn’t matter that the briefs rarely if ever touched on motive. This was the crack era, and these were the neighborhoods that took the brunt of it. “Drug-related” was the catchall for everything, just part of the sad familiar.
But the byproduct of civic despair and feeling ignored is activism, a pursuit in which the Dissed-Trict is steeped. Congress Heights alone serves as a breadbasket of political feistiness, including in its ranks such bully-pulpit vets as Phil Pannell, Sandra “S.S.” Seegars, Mary Cuthbert, and Cardell Shelton.
Behind their hopeless runs for office, their wacky feuds with one another, these activists care deeply for the problems within their neighborhoods—whether it’s doing battle with the police (Seegars), calling out the Nationals for anti-gay policies (Pannell), advocating for vocational training (Shelton), or feuding with Marion Barry (all of the above).
Unlike their virtual peers squatting on message boards, this breed of rabble rousers has spent years fighting over simple things like getting a grocery store. There’s plenty of other reasons to head out to ANC meetings, too. Since the neighborhoods had their post-war boom in the ’40s and ’50s, Ward 8 activists have had to contend with the District’s poor planning, neglect, and failed promises.
To wit, the landscape of dysfunction:
• Congress Heights residents have long had to commute for goods and services. The Eastover Shopping Center across the line in P.G. County has long benefited from the patronage of its citizens.
• Washington Highlands was cursed with a landscape that was 83 percent apartment buildings—what a 1971 District report labeled as pure “monotony”—and extreme poverty.
• Bellevue has had to contend with butting up against the sewage treatment facility at Blue Plains. It has also been dealt a name that has only now started to stick. Residents and the press used to refer to Bellevue as “Bellview.” Flags now adorn lampposts bearing the correct name and the slogan: “A Great View to the Future.”
This publication saw the bright future almost a decade ago. In 1999, it declared in a cover story titled “When Hell Freezes Over” (11/5/1999) that gentrification in the form of new town-home development had hit the Dissed-Trict, that the familiar drive-by tableau of liquor stores and blight, and the feeling that this was a place stuck in time had been bulldozed. That old cliché had been replaced with fresh bricks and new money.
New town homes have since been built up all over the Dissed-Trict, most notably in Congress Heights. The neighborhood finally got its grocery store—a sprawling Giant in Camp Simms—with an IHOP coming soon.
But its main commercial strip—Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue—remains an ugly charm bracelet of liquor stores and carryout joints. The new Subway franchise that opened up—with its three tables—hardly counts as classic sit-down dining.
In the next decade or so, there will be plenty of battles, from crime reduction to the Department of Homeland Security’s taking over the ward’s best views on the grounds of St. Elizabeths.
Pannell sees another issue—the graying of the activist set.
Is it hard to get angry? “Not difficult at all,” says Pannell. “The difficulty with me is as I have aged, I can’t really back up the anger because of limited resources, time, and energy.”
Pannell worries that the new homeowners aren’t filling up the civic meetings. He worries that Congress Heights is turning into a series of enclaves. “It will become a place where not only each person’s home be each person’s castle but each person’s fortress,” he says.
Pick any block within these communities, and you’re bound to find a mix of transition, tension, and old war stories still all too fresh. The unit block of Forrester Street SW in Bellevue, for example, begins with vacant units butting up against new apartment construction. Up farther, the apartments give way to a string of stable brick homes bearing rose bushes, ADT signs, an American flag, and a beware of dog poster.
The owner of that poster is Anthony Cunningham. His son was shot and killed two years ago. He got a three-sentence crime brief. His case remains unsolved. “That’s the reason I live here,” Cunningham says. “I earned the right to be here with my son’s blood.”
• Whereas Congress Heights has a group of over-the-top activists, Bellevue has a whole family of eminently reasonable ones. The Kinlows, at one point or another, have played big roles in city finances (patriarch Eugene Kinlow sat on the D.C. financial control board), Democratic city politics and statehood (Eugene DeWitt Kinlow serves on the Democratic State Committee), and the D.C. public schools (Tonya Vidal Kinlow serves as the ombudsman for public education). When big-time city issues hit Bellevue, the Kinlows swing into action: Eugene DeWitt led a successful movement to prevent a proposed Ward 8 prison. He also wrote a history of Bellevue. For him it’s personal: “I moved to Bellevue in 1969 as a kid. We were the first black people on the block…I tell people kids used to try to take my bike and they were white kids and they can’t even imagine that.”
• In the early ’90s, the William C. Smith realty company started planting tulips in these neighborhoods. According to CEO Chris Smith, the apartment juggernaut’s tulip tally has now reached close to 1 million.
• Washington Highlands Public Library, located at 115 Atlantic St. SW, is not actually in the Washington Highlands neighborhood; it’s in Bellevue. But that hasn’t stopped the facility from becoming the go-to spot come election time. Count on the library to host its share of heated mayoral and council race forums.
• On a weekday night, you might want to stop by the concrete landing at Ferebee-Hope Elementary and check in on the wonder that is the Washington Showstoppers Community Marching Band, the Highland Dwellings’ own squad of about 40 dancers, flag-wavers, cheerleaders, and drummers. The neighborhood-sponsored band practices twice a week, so expect to hear booming percussion and prideful callouts.