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Illustration by Christiane Grauert
Columbia Heights is a place where violence arrives in clusters:
* Richard Beasley, 24, was shot in the upper body and died in front of 1461 Girard St. NW on the afternoon of Dec. 11, 2001. Kamau C. Walker, 23, was shot dead around the corner, inside the house at 2651 15th St., later that night. Roberto C. Gamuz, 18, died after being shot on the 1100 block of Irving Street on Dec. 8.
* On Oct. 27, 2001, Francisco Arnaldo Villegas-Diaz, 38, was found shot on the 2600 block of 15th Street. That same day, 22-year-old Travis Devon Singleton was shot dead in the parking lot of the Claypoole Courts apartments at 1432 Girard St.
* Rodrick Herbert Jones, 26, was found shot under the skeleton of an old swing set in the Girard Street Playground on the 1400 block of Girard, on Aug. 29, 1999, and died two days later of his injuries. On Aug. 28 of that same year, McKinley Paul Nelson, 36, was shot and killed at the nearby corner of 15th and Fuller Streets. Just a few months earlier, on May 16, Robert Newjean Simms, 20, was found shot dead on the playground.
Brett West recalls the night of the Walker shooting. “I shot out of bed. There were screams. There were pleas for help. I heard a woman’s voice. I heard a man’s voice. I didn’t hear gunshots, but I heard the urgency for help,” says West, who lives in the Meridian Hill Studios on the 2600 block of 15th Street, down the street from where Walker was killed.
Villegas-Diaz had died in West’s front yard. But on the night of Walker’s murder, West didn’t even bother to call the police. By then, he was feeling, he says, “a sense of defeat” about the effectiveness of calls to 911.
“I turned on the TV to drown out the noise,” says West.
But the sounds of those shots reverberated across the city. Ward 1 D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham expressed outrage and pledged better lighting of the Girard Street Playground. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Executive Assistant Chief Terrance Gainer promised more foot patrols. Even Mayor Anthony A. Williams felt the need to address the sharp spike in deaths.
“This is first-degree murder. This is not pickpocketing or little stuff. This is shootings,” says Leslie Shampaine, who lives on the 2600 block of 15th Street.
The murders were largely unrelated, according to police. Beasley and Singleton had been friends, but most of the other victims hadn’t known each other. Two of the December 2001 murders may have been drug-related, and the other, which claimed Gamuz, was a botched robbery attempt, according to police.
What the deaths have in common is that nearly all of them occurred in or across from poorly lit, uninhabited open spaces.
Beasley was shot directly across the street from a public park. Singleton died in a parking lot adjacent to the same park, and Jones and Simms died in the park. Three other murders occurred near a liquor-and-grocery store just around the corner from the park. Walker and Villegas-Diaz died just a couple houses down from the Hi Market “Beer/Wine & Grocery” store, which does a brisk trade in 40-ounce beers and sits across the street from a construction site and a parking lot; Nelson was shot directly in front of Hi Market. Gamuz was killed several blocks away, near an alley and across the street from the patchy grass playing fields of the Tubman Elementary School, which are dark and deserted at night.
Columbia Heights needs many things—such as restaurants and the retail core that city planners have been trying to engineer along 14th Street. But what it most certainly does not need is more parks. Far from furnishing playgrounds for upstanding locals, the neighborhood’s parks instead invite felons and vagrants.
“It’s no accident,” says Steve Coleman, director of Washington Parks and People, an organization formed to reclaim Meridian Hill Park after a 1990 murder there, which has now expanded its efforts to friends-of-parks groups citywide. “We have treated our parks as dumping grounds for too long….Drugs or violence or prostitution or mugging goes to the point of least resistance. We’ve made parks that are uninviting to people and are more inviting to criminals.”
The slow oozing of crime into spaces constructed for more salutary purposes is not specific to the District or even Columbia Heights. Urban planning critic Jane Jacobs noted, in her seminal 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, that in 1959, the New York Times summed up the worst gang battles in the city over the preceding decade and found that “each and every one was designated as having occurred in a park.”
Urban planners venerate “neighborhood open spaces…in an amazingly uncritical fashion, much as savages venerate magical fetishes,” wrote Jacobs. They tend to view “as a self-evident virtue, More Open Space.”
The compulsion to mix rural romanticism into urban street design has maintained its appeal over the four decades since Jacobs made those comments.
“We need open green space,” says Iowa transplant the Rev. John DeTaeye, the spiritual force behind the Friends of Girard Street Playground, a group that has been working since April 1999 to redesign and reclaim the playground. “It’s going to be a health hazard to have all those buildings together [in Columbia Heights], all those people on top of each other.”
The true enemy of safety in the city is not the crowd. People in other D.C. neighborhoods live in buildings far denser with residents than those on the 1400 block of Fairmont, which DeTaeye cites as being in desperate need of a spacious, open counterweight.
What Columbia Heights needs, though, is closure. The rhythm of street life in the neighborhood, after all, is already interrupted at regular intervals by empty, isolated spaces—a legacy of the riots that tore through the neighborhood in 1968 and the decades of stagnation and botched redevelopment schemes that followed.
Fourteenth Street near the Columbia Heights Metro station consists largely of lot after vacant lot. Newton Street is gap-toothed with empty buildings and crumble-down houses. Columbia Heights has three jungle-gym-based playgrounds and will soon gain a fourth. Only one of the existing playgrounds is used regularly by children.
The neighborhood’s malaise, to be sure, goes beyond simple planning issues. Until recently, Columbia Heights was a storage space for public-housing recipients and the dislocated. Crime and blight radiated outward from places such as Clifton Terrace Apartments, with nothing but an overmatched police force and a few activists to push back.
“For 30 years, this neighborhood has been a ghetto,” notes DeTaeye.
Over the years, the do-gooders have experimented with all the conventional approaches to crime reduction, including organizing Orange Hat patrols and lobbying the police department for greater resources. Also, the neighborhood has pushed city hall for the elimination of nuisance properties. Yet no one has identified places like the Girard Street Playground as a nuisance property.
But it is. The playground is wedged between two city-owned abandoned buildings and the outdoor parking lot of the Claypoole Courts apartments on Girard. An alley and a dead-end street border other parts of the park. At no point is the park bordered by a populated building that directly looks out onto its decrepit basketball and tennis courts. The park’s open space is surrounded largely by other open spaces.
And what open spaces they are: The area around the intersections of Girard, Fuller, and 15th Street has been home to an open-air drug market since at least 1950. Heroin was the drug sold back then, and the market for it has waxed and waned in conjunction with a marijuana market so well-established that two MPD officers were caught selling pot there in 1988, during Operation Clean Sweep. In 1979, a group of vigilantes armed themselves with sticks and dogs and roamed the streets at night, trying to scare away the dealers. In 1989, the police shut the park down temporarily in an effort to stanch the drug dealing.
“It used to be a little hellhole back in the day,” says Detective Tony Patterson of the playground. Patterson, now with the MPD’s recently constituted Violent Crime Branch, was first on the grisly scene for some of the Girard Street murders. “It’s been a lot more quiet recently,” he adds.
Theodore Pochter, chief of planning and design for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), says he was “not aware” of the four murders on the streets surrounding the Girard Street Playground in October and December of last year. “Since those murders that occurred two years ago, we haven’t had any reports of anti-social behavior,” he says.
Reports from neighbors suggest a different story. West and others complain of continued muggings, break-ins, assaults, and drug dealing in the streets surrounding the park. The streets immediately surrounding the playground are all secondary streets that draw little through traffic and few passers-by, with the exception of people buying drugs. “I don’t walk around the streets. I won’t walk up to Fuller Street,” says Shampaine.
The combination of unpopulated streets and isolated open spaces makes for a deadly mix. “That’s a very challenging kind of space,” says Coleman. “That park languished for a very long time. The key problem is that there isn’t anything to make it a destination.”
The Friends of Girard Street Playground aim to fix that. They worked with the DPR to secure a $270,000 grant from the National Park Service’s Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Program, and the parks department has pledged an additional $1.7 million to refurbish the park. Already, new benches and tables have been installed, and though they have looked kind of pathetic sitting out there for two months partially covered in bubble wrap, they do add to the sense that someone cares about the park. New tennis and basketball courts are planned; the lawn area will be moved, and a new jungle-gym play area will be installed near the park’s Fairmont Street entrance.
On a sunny springlike Saturday afternoon, the most lively neighborhood park in Columbia Heights is the Girard Street Park at 14th and Girard—one short block from the Girard Street Playground. There are about 30 people milling about, including a man leaning against a concrete checkers table who quickly hides a big wad of bills and a brown-paper-bag-covered bottle when I enter the park with a notebook. Four men off to one corner, also drinking from cans and bottles in paper bags, cast suspicious looks my way. One man looms over my shoulder and asks, “I want to know if you’re conducting a police investigation.”
Another large man wearing a bandanna on his head reports that he’s not from the area, but is just here “to keep an eye on some people.” Several young men at a table pass around a blunt. Four older men sit on the square concrete blocks that pass for chairs around another checkers table—each block covered with three flattened cardboard boxes, for added softness—playing bid whist. A boombox blasts a mellow WPFW show. The vibe in the park is social, slightly tipsy, fun in a down-and-out kind of way. “It’s a nice park. We just sit out here and socialize,” says John, who declined to give his last name.
Like the Girard Street Park, most of the neighborhood parks in Columbia Heights are not green spaces. They are concrete monstrosities constructed in the Brutalist style, concatenations of concrete checkers tables, broken-down brick grills, and pinched crab-apple trees—all wedged into out-of-the-way locations. The Girard Street Park is the most open park in the neighborhood. It is surrounded by streets on three sides and, on the fourth, a run-down basketball court overlooked by a building wall full of windows. It attracts passersby and neighbors, and operates like a plaza.
Just two blocks away, Justice Park on Euclid Street between 14th and 15th is lodged invisibly between the Amoco gas station on 14th and an old community garden thick with desiccated corn stalks. (The garden was recently sold to a developer, who plans to build condominiums there.) The park sits across Euclid from three boarded-up buildings and a large grassy vacant lot enclosed by chicken-wire fencing. The park entrance is a stinky concrete hallway that isolates you from view of the street. Little wonder neighbors have taken to calling it “Prostitute Park.”
You would not want your kids to play in Justice Park. The park sports a large fountain that no longer works. A slide is the only piece of playground equipment that remains; the rest had to be removed because it no longer met safety standards. There are plenty of concrete edges for small children to scrape their arms, legs, and foreheads on as they tumble about, as children do. Four crumbling brick grills are partially overgrown by moss. The inevitable checkers tables dot the rest of the park.
“I would never walk in there, because it’s behind that wall—and I live a block away,” says Shampaine. “It’s scary.”
For years, the park has had every one of the risk factors for crime cited by the New York-based Urban Parks Institute: poor lighting, confusing layout, physical and aural isolation, poor visibility, no access to help, areas of concealment, poor maintenance, vandalism, and the presence of “undesirables.”
At 11th and Monroe Streets, the situation is somewhat better. There are sightlines from the street, for starters. And the Friends of the 11th and Monroe Park are striving to make the place more kid-friendly. Most of the time, however, the park is used by people like 56-year-old Elroy Tucker, who says he uses the park “every day, and twice on Sundays” and has been coming here ever since it was built, on land that used to be a turnaround for trolley cars.
“I don’t think the park is broke,” says Tucker, who has come to join his friends Al, who declines to give his last name, and Patrick Butler at the park’s checkers tables. Butler, an older man with a bushy white beard, is doing the Washington Post crossword puzzle. Al, who smells of alcohol and is eating a bag of potato chips, waits until I leave to drink from his paper-bag-wrapped bottle.
When Mellonae Mumford, who is spearheading the Friends of the Park effort, complains about the vagrants, alcohol, and prostitutes in the park, she’s complaining about people who see the park as their community center.
“This is kind of a crazy area. There are a lot of halfway houses, mental institutions,” says Tucker. “People who want to change things, they don’t really know the makeup of the area. The park serves all the people in this area.”
As much as Mumford would like to use the park, which sits around the corner from her home, she admits that she has not been a big user of it for another very simple reason: She has somewhere else she can take her 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter to play.
“I go over behind the school” to use the playground at Raymond Elementary School just a few blocks away, she says. The 11th and Monroe Park suffers from this competition—along with a generous scattering of broken glass embedded in the soft rubber surface under the play equipment.
The friends-of-the-parks groups taking on renovation projects at 11th and Monroe, the Girard Street Playground, and Justice Park have big ambitions. Soccer leagues, performances, arts projects—all will result from refurbishment and new programming, they say.
But if history is any guide, the neighborhood parks will also host some unprogrammed events. Says Mumford, referring to 11th and Monroe Park: “I don’t use this park because everything is happening here except park activities.” CP