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Denice Johnson was pulling her car out of her Quarles Street NE back yard on March 7 when she noticed something amiss with her flower bed. In the middle of the bed, lying atop her mulch, was the hulking concrete pillar that should have been standing between Johnson’s house and the alleyway that abuts it. Something had struck the 3-foot block with enough force to split it in the middle and send the top half tumbling into her plants.
Some of her Deanwood neighbors corroborated what Johnson already suspected: The driver of yet another stolen auto, being pursued by police while she was away from home, had failed to negotiate the turn at her alley, adding to Johnson’s growing catalog of property damage due to out-of-control cars. Just weeks earlier, her wrought-iron fence had been mangled when a tagless auto came pinballing down the alley. “It’s like a little thoroughfare through here,” she says.
But she and her husband, Willis Johnson, aren’t alone among the alley’s residents who deal with careening cars on an all-too-frequent basis. This past winter, their 81-year-old neighbor, who asks not to be identified, twice had speeding cars plow into some of the 60-odd metal bars anchored with concrete into the ground along her property. She had installed them for the express purpose of keeping cars from tearing Dukes of Hazzard–style through her chain-link fence and onto her lawn. “We were advised a long time ago to get some barrels or something out there if we wanted to save our fence,” she says.
Each time, about four of her bars were knocked clean out of the ground; once, the stolen car got hung up on the bars as its teenage occupants scattered. Her homeowner’s insurance premium spiked after the first incident, so she chose not to report the second one. “It’s a problem I could do without,” she says.
The Johnsons, who’ve lived on the block for six years, say speeding cars without tags have been a weekly phenomenon since winter. Given the alley’s specs, it’s a wonder the fun didn’t start earlier: The strip of smooth, unbroken concrete runs the length of half a football field, with a comfy 12-foot berth, providing teenagers with ample room to test their zero-to-60 times. And the strip’s convenient location, says Willis Johnson, makes it the getaway route of choice. After two abrupt corners, the northeastern tip of the alley spits out onto Eastern Avenue, just yards from the Maryland border, offering joy-riders a gateway to run cars to or from Prince George’s County.
“Most of those cars are stolen in P.G. and brought back [to D.C.],” says 6th District Cmdr. Willie Dandridge. “They steal them and basically joy-ride… then bring them back to home base to dump them.” The thieves are largely in their early to midteens, he says, and even those arrested can hardly be held accountable for the property damage they inflict. When asked if homeowners might have any recourse, Dandridge chuckles. “There’s nothing in place for that.”
The destruction is frustrating, says Denice Johnson, but she’s more concerned with neighborhood safety. In February, she and her daughter heard a speeding sedan collide with a van at an alley intersection, sending the van into a back yard where children play. From her windows, Johnson watched as the van’s occupants piled into the same car that hit them and the two groups sped off together.
But the latest high-speed chase down Johnson’s alley, on the afternoon of June 20, made her consider installing something like the metal bars that line her neighbor’s property.
She says a car was stolen from someone attending Sunday services at Muhammed Mosque of Islam No. 4 on Kenilworth Avenue, and she saw a group from the Nation of Islam outpost pile into an SUV and pursue the pilfered vehicle. She and her neighbors watched as the two vehicles raced down the alley, around the block, and back down the alley—three times.
Eighty-year-old Dorothy Haizlip watched the dizzying chase scene unfold from her Olive Street NE home. “They came through, and then they went around, and then they came through, and then they went around again,” recalls Haizlip. A representative from the mosque declined to comment on the Daytona-style chase.
Frustrated by a lack of police presence, Willis Johnson has started filming the weekend alley runs with his camcorder, stumbling from window to window in his living room to get the whole show on tape. “It’s like they go hog-wild on the weekends,” he says. “I didn’t grow up like this.”CP