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The bicyclist returning to his uptown home from his downtown workplace has a choice to make: Chug up the cardiac hills of 13th or 15th Streets NW? Brave heavy traffic on 14th or 16th? Dodge potholes and construction plates on Sherman Avenue? For many, it wasn’t always such a dilemma—there was one perfect route: 11th Street NW. It’s never too busy, has no killer slopes, and offers a dedicated bike lane.
That was before some cyclists discovered that the paragon of uptown bicycle routes dumped them straight into the cross hairs of local youths.
On Feb. 8, Andrew Korfhage was riding home to Adams Morgan from an evening sign-language class at Gallaudet University when a flying brick struck him above the ankle, breaking his leg. He rode through the pain to a few blocks up the street, where he told two cops about the errant projectile. The officers drove him back to Garfield Terrace; he pointed to a set of four balconies, one of which he thought the brick had been tossed from.
“‘We just can’t start knocking on doors and asking people what happened just because you say you got hit with a brick,’” Korfhage says one of the cops told him as blood ran down his leg, saturating his sock. “It descended into an argument where they said I was trying to tell them how to do their job, which, in truth, I was.”
The cops won the debate; no questions were asked, says Korfhage.
A front-desk officer at the 3rd District police station says he’s well aware of the situation and that the youngsters have multiple targets. “Bikers, cars, everything,” says the officer. Commander Larry McCoy says someone forwarded him a posting Korfhage had put online about his run-in with the brick, and he ordered officers to ask around at the project. “Of course, nobody ’fessed up to it,” he says.
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Garfield Terrace presents a bleak concrete-and-dirt landscape, but the public-housing project boasts at least one luxury: The grassy knoll on the corner of 11th Street and Florida Avenue NW might be the best spot in the city to throw rocks at passing bicycles. The hilltop yields plenty of stones weighty enough to hold a trajectory. A wrought-iron gate separates the knoll from the bike lane in case an aggrieved cyclist gets it into her head to chase a pack of kids. Balconies on the back of the building make for perfect hunting stands—one slide of a glass door and you’re safely inside. Buildings, blind walls, and a stairwell provide cover for the stone-casters lying in wait. And the usual presence of a gaggle of children makes ID’ing a particular arm next to impossible.
On a recent Thursday evening, a group of about two dozen kids, ranging from pre-elementary to high-school age, play in a Garfield parking lot. Several admit to regularly witnessing a group of kids throwing rocks, though they say they aren’t that group and don’t know where the group might be.
“I saw them throw, but I don’t throw,” says Jon Williams, a sixth-grader at Garnet-Patterson Middle School, leaning out of his second-story window. “They don’t throw from [my] balcony.”
Several shrug off the stone-tossing. “It’s funny,” says one fifth-grader at Meyer Elementary who appears to weigh little more than a few bricks himself.
Bill Poulos, who used to walk up 11th Street on his way home from work, doesn’t entirely disagree. About a year ago he was “bombarded” by rocks and pebbles while walking with a friend past Garfield Terrace. “I kinda giggle because I didn’t get hit,” he says, impressed by the athletic prowess of the four people he saw, whose ages, he speculates, ranged from teens to mid-20s. “They had really good arms.”
Since then, Poulos has avoided the route that goes by the project. “It’s kind of ironic,” he says. “I started walking by Meridian Hill Park, and a bottle was thrown at me.” The bottle, full of water, missed.
Poulos, a 38-year-old architect, says he called the cops but didn’t file a report. “If they’re not gonna do anything about the drug deals” going down in his Columbia Heights neighborhood, he says, “they’re not gonna do anything about this.”
Bill McCarty, a 70-year-old retired Army colonel, has been hanging out in the project for six or seven years as a mentor for the kids. He often takes them back to his church in Clarendon to play basketball; this past weekend he took 10 of them to see the blooming cherry blossoms. He hadn’t heard of any rock throwing, but he isn’t entirely surprised. “There’s nowhere for them to sit and nowhere for them to play. What do they call it? Public housing: It’s the lowest form of housing,” he says. “Anytime they get out of the house, it’s like getting out of prison.”
Flying projectiles have long been a hazard for the city cyclist, but they are rarely larger than pebbles. Some of the missiles launched at 11th Street riders, however, have been more substantial.
Elise Foster, 25, almost had her life cut short last fall as she biked to work at Bohemian Caverns on U Street. She was heading down 11th when someone standing on a ledge by Cardozo’s football stadium lobbed a cinder block that landed, she estimates, a foot and a half in front of her bike, where it pulverized. “I was scared out my mind and just started screaming profanity,” she says. “I have no doubt that if it hit me on the head I would have died.” She now avoids the area.
The stone fired at Alex Butterfield last spring came from a slingshot, he guesses, based on the large bruise it made through his windbreaker and heavy fleece. The 31-year-old Holocaust Museum engineering tech says he rode on without stopping. This fall, he says, a full soda bottle was lobbed over his head. He still takes the 11th Street route.
“I watch now,” he says.
Some, though, have concocted defensive strategies. Will Schaefer, who was hit with a rock about four years ago, rides up the hill next to a bus, using it as a moving shield. When he was hit, Schaefer says, he got off his bike and approached the iron fence to scold the kids. The younger ones, 6 to 9 years old, he guesses, retreated, throwing stones while they did. The older ones stayed put, apparently amused at the spectacle. “I’d like to catch a kid in the act,” he says.
As long as the cases remain unsolved, and the kids remain uncaught, Korfhage has no choice but to consider the rain of stones while commuting home. “If you have to run a gauntlet of thugs, you have to factor that in,” he says. “Maybe Sherman [Avenue] becomes the best.”CP