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Tom Black had recurring trouble with his 1993 Buick Park Avenue.
He bought the car, used, from a Chevy Chase dealership in 1998. It had everything: low mileage (20,000), leather interior, a slick black paint job, and whitewall tires. Best of all, it had an alarm system and computerized keys.
“I liked it because of its security,” says Black, a member of five Northwest community groups who, over the past eight years, has waged war against public drinking, panhandling, prostitution, and other nuisances in his Shepherd Park neighborhood. “Nobody could steal that car. Even if they got in, they wouldn’t have been able to move it.”
But the Buick, as it soon became clear to Black, was prone to other problems.
Two years ago, Black woke to find the car several inches lower to the ground. All four tires were flat, almost as if he’d run over a bed of nails the day beforethough the holes were on the sides of the tires.
By the second time all four tires deflated, just under a year ago, Black’s car had already developed another, more distressing defect: spontaneous combustion.
A neighbor called the police last year to report that the Buick, parked in front of Black’s house, was giving off flames. When the cops arrived, they found the gas-tank panel open and a rag stuffed into the intake valve.
Black dropped a thousand dollars to remold the damaged fender of his car. “After that, I put a lock on the gas tank,” he says.
But as the condition of his Buick worsened, Black says, the condition of the neighborhood improved.
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This is, in part, due to the man himself. Black, recipient of the 2002 Ward 4 Citizens Advisory Council community service award, has attacked nearly every quality-of-life issue imaginable in Shepherd Park. He recently created the citizen’s group Voice of Upper Georgia Avenue to make city street sweeping more efficient; now the group is pressuring liquor stores to restrict the sale of singles, which Black says is tied to public urination.
“With every liquor establishment in the corridor,” he says, “we either have a voluntary agreement or a restriction [on types of sales], or we have put several out of business. Period.”
“Ten years ago, the place was filthy,” says Artee Milligan, chair of Voice of Upper Georgia Avenue. “I used to avoid Georgia Avenue. I got tired of seeing it….The good news is that Shepherd Park is starting to turn over. Very few people are moving out of the community.”
On Sept. 11, a week after he helped persuade the ABC Board to suspend a liquor license from a store selling singles, Black’s Buick had its last and most violent mechanical failure. It happened at 4 a.m.
“I heard my alarm go off and looked out the window, and I saw fire coming out of the car,” he says. The Buick was surrounded by flames. Black called 911.
“Within 10 minutes, it was all ablaze,” he says. “By the time the fire department got here, the front end was highly damaged.”
“It looked like it had been hit by a grenade or something,” says Milligan, who lives on the block. “It just blew the tires out because of the heat, and I guess the engine exploded when the gas caught fire.”
The entire car ended up totaled. Two fire-department workers told him a loose wire underneath the vehicle might have started the conflagration.
There’s another theory floating around the neighborhood. “You know what that means: Mind his business,” says an elderly man in front of McCain’s Coiffures, a block from Black’s house. He and his two companions decline to give their namesfor fear, one says, “they’ll be torching my car.”
Despite its proclivity for crises, says Black, the Buick, which had just hit 100,000 miles, will be missed: “It didn’t look like a ’93. It looked later. I took good care of it.” CP