An artists’ colony, a cat sanctuary, or maybe just a sleepy bedroom community. For a small town, Mount Rainier is suffering some big growing pains.
Photographs by Charles Steck
Officer Mark Ferencin sits up stiffly in his patrol car. About average height and paunchy, with thinning hair and hazel eyes, Ferencin does his best to look stern, but his expression is somewhat undone by the need to keep the chewing tobacco inside his mouth from dribbling out. Every couple of minutes, he spits tobacco juice into the opening of an Evian bottle that he keeps in a cupholder beside him.
Ferencin needs to stay alert. After all, it’s Saturday night in Mount Rainier, Md. And anything can happen.
“Saturday night in the ghetto,” Ferencin declares as he pulls in for a brief stop in the parking lot of Bass’, a liquor store just north of the District line, Mount Rainier’s most notorious hangout.
After a stint on the police force of his hometown Bethlehem, Pa., Ferencin says his last nine months in Mount Rainier, a small city of 8,400 on the District’s northeastern border, have been an education. The little town of Bethlehem didn’t prepare him for this place, where big-city crime meets small-town quirkiness. So far this evening, Ferencin, 34, has stopped a young man whose left front headlight was out, yelled at two men loitering on Rhode Island Avenue, and helped restrain a drunk who was trying to stab himself with a closed switchblade outside a record shop.
As we cruise through one of the city’s sprawling apartment complexes, Kaywood Gardenswhich Ferencin refers to as “Kaywood Projects” even though it is not public housingsomething catches his eye. He jerks the car into reverse and stops a few feet back. He doesn’t get out of the car, but instead lowers the passenger-side window.
“Aquí, aquí!” he shouts. Five Hispanic men sitting in a doorway slowly get up and walk toward the patrol car.
“Cómo se llamo?” Ferencin barks.
“Raúl,” replies the man standing closest.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Ferencin demands.
“No English,” mumbles a skinny fellow.
“You can’t be hanging out like that,” Ferencin shouts. The men look back at him with puzzled expressions.
“Who lives here? Whose casa? Whose casa?” Ferencin snaps.
Raúl hesitantly points at the building behind him.
“You can’t be hanging outside like that.” Ferencin repeats himself until the men nod and move along.
Over the course of the next two hours, Ferencin rides through various apartment complexes at least two more times, including one off-road trek onto the grass of a courtyard. Mount Rainier covers only 1.7 square miles, but as far as Ferencin is concerned, it might as well be 100. For the rest of his 12-hour shift, there is only one other officer he can call for backup. Usually, there’s an off-duty officer at Bass’, where Mount Rainier police officers frequently moonlight for extra cash. But tonight, no one is working security there.
“You never know what can happen out here,” Ferencin confides. His fears are not totally exaggerated. In May, one of his fellow officers responded to a report of a “sick fox” at a busy intersection and shot it dead before the animal could harm any children or pedestrians. Another colleague once responded to a call about an intruder, only to find a lonely old lady who asked him to heat up a frozen dinner for her and, while he was up, grab her a beer. Just the other night, there was a homicide: A man died inside a boardinghouse, after a disagreement over a pit bull. (In the following three weeks, there will be one more homicide and two shootings.)
But the night Ferencin probably remembers most vividly happened a few months ago, when he and another officer picked up a man who was acting strange. A half-hour after Ferencin dropped the man off at an emergency room, he was dead. The county police are still investigating.
As we approach the intersection of Rhode Island Avenue and 34th Street, where the state highway department is building a traffic circle, Ferencin suddenly hits the accelerator. “I’m going to stop that guy,” he growls. “He didn’t break for traffic in the circle.”
Lights flashing, we chase a purple sedan around the traffic circle toward Eastern Avenue.
“C’mon, stop!” Ferencin says, frustrated. But the driver of the purple sedan seems oblivious and, without speeding up or slowing down, floats over Eastern Avenue into the District. Ferencin turns right on Eastern and shuts his lights off.
“This time you got lucky,” Ferencin says quietly, as if the ignorant driver could hear him. “I’ll get you next time.”
If you’re driving northeast along Rhode Island Avenue and cross the District line, Mount Rainier is a blip that lasts about a minute outside your window. It’s a place that the commuters who speed through every day know as a strip of liquor stores and greasy carryouts, the kind of blighted backwater that hasn’t had a white-tablecloth restaurant in years.
Some residents, inspired by the intersection of 34th Street and Bunker Hill Road, regard Mount Rainier as a poor man’s Takoma Park, a latter-day hippie enclave. The corner looks like some kind of New Age mini-mall. The biggest draw is Glut, a cooperative natural-food store that relocated here from Washington in 1973. In these days of McVeggie burgers and Slim Fast soy shakes, a grocery store that hawks organic vegetables and vegan sushi is not as revolutionary as it once was, but Glut still exerts some kind of psychic pull on crunchy-granola types.
Across the street from Glut is the Whosoever Will Church of God Christian and Herbal Book Store, where Pastor Clarence Tyler sells homeopathic tinctures and delivers services in a small sanctuary in the back. Catty-corner to Whosoever Will is Dar Es Salaam, an Afrocentric book and natural-food store where you can buy a “Chill Pill”an individually packaged dose of kava rootalong with a copy of the Nation of Islam newspaper the Final Call. And a few doors down from Dar Es Salaam is Entre Nois Universal Life Church of Metaphysics, where George, a tall man with dreadlocks and an assortment of charms around his neck, can show you a stack of Polaroid pictures of people he’s treated for various ailments with one of his custom-made copper pyramids. Down the street a couple blocks is Joe’s Movement Emporium, a dance studio, which offers North African belly dancing, tai chi, “Africise,” and yoga.
The rest of Mount Rainier is little more than quiet streets lined with bungalows and the vast apartment complexes that Ferencin spends his shifts driving through. A full tour doesn’t take more than 20 minutes. There just isn’t much to Mount Rainier. There never was. Yet since its earliest days, Mount Rainier has had this peculiar ability to stir all sorts of visions in the people who pass through it.
At the turn of the century, a bunch of Army engineers from Seattle surveyed the area and gave the place its name. In this hilly scrap of land, they must have seen something that reminded them of the mountain they knew at home. In 1910, the town formally incorporated. Its first inhabitants were telegraph operators, railroad motormen, and Navy Yard workers weary of Washington’s crowded conditions, all of whom came bearing dreams of bucolic splendor. According to one town history, these pilgrims “yearned for the pleasantness of a rural home.”
Mount Rainier grew along a streetcar line, and by the end of World War II, the population had reached 13,000big enough for official designation as a city, but still small enough for most neighbors to know each other by name. In 1958, the streetcars gave way to buses. But Mount Rainier’s main streets were not designed for the shop-and-go car culture of the ’60s. Soon, customers abandoned the small businesses that lined Rhode Island Avenue and 34th Street for strip malls and enclosed shopping centers. Only the liquor stores retained the power to lure drivers from their autos.
Meanwhile, tract housing drew families to outlying suburbs, and gradually the industrial and manufacturing jobs that had sustained generations of Mount Rainier’s inhabitants disappeared. Court-ordered desegregation and mandatory busing in Prince George’s County public schools in the ’70s further exacerbated white flight, and by the early ’90s, the town’s population had fallen to just under 8,000. By then, Mount Rainier had its share of open-air drug markets and crack houses. In 1997, the state of Maryland identified Mount Rainier as one of three dozen “hot spots”high-crime or at-risk areasthat qualified for special law enforcement assistance grants.
Through the years, Mount Rainier held on to one claim to fame: It was long believed to be the home of the family that inspired The Exorcist. But the city lost even that meager distinction two years ago, when an exhaustive investigation by Strange Magazine revealed that the family had actually lived in neighboring Cottage City, Md.
Something good, however, followed Mount Rainier’s decline: the death of Jim Crow. The city’s original charter prohibited blacks from voting in city elections. At least one mayor and one city clerk were high-ranking members of the Ku Klux Klan. And through the late ’40s, blacks could not be in town after sundown, let alone live there. By 1990, however, Mount Rainier had become majority-black. Today, 60 percent of the population is African-American, 20 percent is Latino, and 20 percent is white. The apartments and bungalows are still relatively cheap, and Mount Rainier for the most part remains a working-class enclave. The median household income is about $30,000less than the District’s median of $43,000, and well below Takoma Park’s median of $60,000. About 10 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
But these figures conceal a more affluent and influential minority. Inspired by the presence of Glut, a new wave of weary, mostly white-collar Washingtonians began trickling into Mount Rainier in the ’80s. Today, they are remaking the town in their own image, guided by their own Mayberry visions of small-town life, the latest antidote to impersonal big cities and soul-sucking suburban sprawl. They imagine Mount Rainier as a haven for artists, a place where every store is run by a mom and pop, all classes and races live in harmony, and the wheat grass grows tall. Mount Rainier, which grew out of necessity and fell victim to neglect, is now becoming, at least in part, an invention of these new residents.
But theirs is not the only vision of Mount Rainier. From his squad car, Ferencin sees a ghetto. Mike Lawson pictures a giant fixer-upper. Fred Sissine envisions an artist colony. Susan Bailey sees a town losing touch with its inhabitants. And Malvin Steinback Jr. imagines a cat sanctuary.
“I’d really love to stay in Mount Rainier… hire a real attorney and bring this city down.”
Malvin Steinback Jr. is entertaining fantasies by his wrought-iron fence, wearing nothing but a pair of black pants and sneakers with half-open Velcro flaps. A mane of bushy red hair explodes from the fringes of his bald pate, engulfs his face, and flows almost to his gut. A lump of tobacco in his mouth makes its presence known about every third sentence, when Steinback turns his head slightly and spits out a long stream of brown liquid. He looks just like a Gold Rush ’49er, and he smells vaguely like a litter box.
Steinback, 47, grew up in the District. He first stumbled across Mount Rainier one night 12 years ago, after his shift at the nearby Brentwood post office, where he has worked for the past 17 years.
“When I walked around, everybody was smiling,” Steinback recalls. “People were waving. And I saw a store on 34th Street that had a sign in the window that said, ‘Drugs, alcohol, and Bibles for sale.’ And I thought, This is the perfect place to move to.”
The house he bought sits back from the street, obscured by an overgrowth of trees and bushes. An old brown car sits rusting in a heap in front of his garage. On his front lawn, two statues of owls, one on each side, posed like guards, except that one has fallen facedown in the grass. All around the property, shaggy black-and-white cats roam.
His neighbors have long complained about his cats. (“That was my grandmother’s house!” cries one. “It breaks my heart.”) And last fall, animal-control and code-enforcement officers tried to put Steinback out of his home. Steinback doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. “I got 10 cats at the most,” he says. “I’m not even trying for a world record.”
Local legend may have something to do with the complaints. According to Steinback, there once was a woman who lived in Brentwood who had 140 cats and 60 dogsand quite a few more pets buried in the basement. “I guess because of that story, people get leery if they see any population [of animals] around here,” he says with a chuckle.
“Cats are not dangerous animals. The neighborhood is full of cats! Half of Mount Rainier has cats. The other half has dogs! Look, one bit me here, see?” he says, showing me a small scar on one of his knuckles.
“Animal Control came here twice,” he continues. “They said cats were roaming outsidewhich they are. If [the cats] are outside, why’d [Animal Control] go inside? They went through boxes of papers looking for cats! I was outside freezing for four hours. After they left, there was a camcorder missing and the keys to my front door. It’s not animal control. It’s property control!”
Steinback says that after a second visit from animal-control officers, this time accompanied by code-enforcement officials, he was unable to find his bread maker, his electric saw, his typewriter, and four bottles of wine. (“They don’t know how good that wine is. I bought that wine in 1989. It was cheap wine, but it’s gotten better sitting in the basement.”)
When I ask him when the last raid took place, he scampers up to his front door, where an orange sticker that reads, “Unfit for human habitation” is still stuck to a glass pane. “October 19!” he yells back.
“I tried to find a lawyer to sue them, but I couldn’t,” Steinback says. So he figured he’d do the next best thing: run for mayor.
Why not? After all, the field was open. A city manager runs Mount Rainier’s day-to-day operations, but the mayor is still important as a leader, the embodiment of the town’s aspirations. The previous mayor, Fred Sissine, had decided not to run again. And the city was in a fine mess. Faced with stagnant tax revenues, the mayor, city council, and city manager had blown the city budget several years in a row, emptied the reserves, and, despite having raised taxes twice in four years, plunged the city into debt. And as far as Steinback was concerned, the other candidatesMike Lawson, a 27-year-old Prince George’s County Council aide, and Susan Bailey, a longtime Mount Rainier City Council membercarried the taint of being insiders.
“I ran as someone who wasn’t into politics,” Steinback explains. That was obvious at the candidates forum last April, when the moderator asked how each mayoral hopeful would get more resources from the county and the state. Bailey, an intense, tough-minded schoolteacher, replied that she would “rattle doors” in Upper Marlboro, the county seat, and Annapolis. Lawson, Sissine’s protégé, said he would simply call up his buddies in state and county government at home. Steinback said he would pay state and county officials a personal visit.
“When I become mayor, I’m great at sitting in people’s offices and waiting for an answer,” Steinback told the crowd. “People really enjoy my presence in their office. We’re gonna get money from someplace just to get rid of me.”
Steinback’s campaign literature condensed his credentials into a kind of political personal ad: “Will clean house of all those who drove Mt. Rainier into bankruptcy. Will try to bring back the F2 bus.Will try to get a traffic light at Queens Chapel and Bucannen street [sic]. Will make Mt. Rainier a cat sanctuary.”
No one argued with Steinback’s contention that “When you vote for me, you will be sending a clear message to city hall.”
On Election Day, Steinback triumphedsort of. “I beat Ralph Nader,” he says gleefully. (One person wrote in Nader’s name.) But Lawsonor the “boy toy,” as Steinback likes to call himprevailed, with 384 votes.
“A hundred people said they were going to vote for me,” Steinback says, still incredulous. “I only got 17 votes.”
Mike Lawson sits in a black leather chair behind his desk in City Hall. As he speaks, the new mayor of Mount Rainier folds his arms behind his head, crosses his legs, and rocks back and forth, the picture of laid-back confidence.
Lawson has had a lot of jobs in his time. Tugboat operator. River-rafting guide. Pizza store manager. Aide to two county councilmembers. “I might be 27,” he says, “but I’ve done a lot in those 27 years.”
Being the mayor of Mount Rainier is actually a second job. He earns his living as head of MRL Enterprises Inc., which buys ailing businessesso far mainly restaurantsfixes them up, and then resells them. “I just picked up a big check today. It’s been a long time coming, but I’m getting into the big leagues now,” he says, still rocking back and forth. “In fact, we’ve just become a stock corporation.”
“How many employees do you have?” I ask.
“Well, right now, it’s just me.”
Lawson says he honed his skill as a fixer years ago when he was working as a manager for Pizza Hut. He would go in, turn a franchise around, then move on to the next one. He says he eventually realized he could earn a living doing the same for other businesses.
“I’ve done seven or eight businesses where I’ve gone in for ownersI can’t say which ones, out of respect for the ownerswho were at the end of their rope. Basically, I go in and try to make it a tighter ship,” he says, sitting up and leaning forward.
“And that brings us to the little problem of Mount Rainier.”
To Lawson, it is only natural that he is mayor. During the campaign, he sold himself as a “proven revitalizer,” someone who could bring the city out of the red, just as he had done for several pizza joints.
The way the future prosperity of this little border town came to rest on his slender shoulders, however, was a bit of an accident. Lawson doesn’t have deep roots in the community, having moved here only three years ago. He met then-Mayor Sissine through his work as community liaison for County Councilmember Peter A. Shapiro. Last summer, Sissine and Lawson worked together on a bike festival. After Sissine decided not to run for re-election, he approached Lawson on April 8, the day before the filing deadline. Lawson says he had already been considering running for “Congress or president one day,” so he agreed, even though his old boss, County Councilmember Thomas R. Hendershot, warned him gruffly that “mayors of municipalities eat their own.”
When Mount Rainier voters went to the polls May 7, they didn’t know too much about Lawson. For instance, many didn’t know that, according to Lawson, he passed through four colleges in eight years, or that he spent almost three months in jail a few years ago on a DWI charge. For most voters, it was enough that he’d worked for the county council and was Sissine’s protégé. And compared with his competition’s, Lawson’s smooth delivery and affable demeanor made him seem all the more professional, pimples and all.
The way Lawson sees it, turning around Mount Rainier is a lot like the task he faces with MRL Enterprises’ latest acquisition: Spiffy Car Wash, a self-service carwash on Bladensburg Road in Colmar Manor, Md., about a mile outside of town. Lawson says he picked the carwash business after a year researching profitable industries to go into. One day, he plans on owning a string of what he calls “lighthouse” carwashesself-service glass carwashes that are lit from within 24 hours a day to entice customers.
“I can check the water pressure from a laptop on my boat,” he muses.
Until then, there is a lot of work to be done. Set back from the road behind a convenience store, Spiffy Car Wash isn’t living up to its name these days. The only sign that would herald its existence to passing drivers is broken, and part of one of the fluorescent F’s in the Spiffy name is missing. Half of the eight bays are out of service, with buckets blocking them off. Where the steel canisters of vacuums once stood at the entrance of each bay, there are now forlorn loops of electric wiring. The machines that dispense tree-shaped air fresheners and individually wrapped pads doused with Armor All sit half-empty.
On a slightly overcast day in June, I find Lawson dressed in an old T-shirt and a Six Flags baseball cap, standing on a milk crate inside the control room and staring down at a water tank. The control room itself is a collection of panels and tubes with different colored liquids running through them. Water drips from different pipes into several buckets that sit in the center of the room. Every 15 minutes, the chorus of plops is drowned out by the sound of coins being sucked through vacuum tubes into a safe.
A portly little middle-aged man pulls in and starts washing his car, a late-’80s blue Toyota Cressida.
“Oh yeah, I like to see that mist,” Lawson says, puffing a cigarette and watching the fine spray coming out of the bay.
“How do you get foam?” demands the customer.
Lawson races back into the control room to wiggle some tubes. When he re-emerges, a red Jeep Cherokee pulls in. The driver sticks his head out of the window to ask if the carwash is open. Lawson gives him two thumbs up. “Yes, it’s open,” he shouts. The Cherokee slows, turns left a little, and then heads out the back driveway.
The little man is back. “I want foamy brush. I pushed foamy brush,” he says.
Lawson tells him to move his car to another bay. When that bay doesn’t work either, Lawson tells him to go back to his original spot. After waiting for foam to appear to no avail, the gentleman
drives off. He returns, smiling, a few minutes later with his own bottle of soap, which he pours gingerly over his car like dressing on a salad.
“Good thing I had my own soap,” the man says, satisfied with himself.
“Yeah, I keep some in my car just in case,” Lawson replies.
When the man is done rinsing his car, Lawson offers him some “consolation prizes”free car fresheners.
And so the day goes. Through it all, Lawson, to his credit, doesn’t seem the least bit fazed. When the foam doesn’t flow or the water hoses clog, Lawson simply starts pulling out dollar bills from his pants pockets to give to customers whose quarters have already been sucked into his safe.
Fred Sissine is too busy to be mayor. With his handlebar mustache, slightly shaggy dark hair, and jeans, Sissine, 51, doesn’t look like a suit who works on Capitol Hill. But the latest energy crisis has him pulling 12-hour days at his job as a congressional energy analyst. After eight years as mayor, he says, he just couldn’t keep doing both. At least not well. So he chose not to run for re-election. But he always has time to stop and chat about Mount Rainiera lot of time.
“America has rediscovered small towns,” he gushes, standing by a brick column that marks the border between the District and Mount Rainier. In Sissine’s eyes, Mount Rainier is a gem of a small town. And if the commuters who pass through it every day don’t appreciate it, they will soon, thanks to the traffic circle under construction at the intersection of 34th Street and Rhode Island Avenue.
Sissine spends a good 20 minutes just walking me through it. “See, it makes it less scary to cross the street if you can stop here,” he says, standing on the unfinished sidewalk inside the median, as more cars rush past him. According to a 1976 account of Mount Rainier’s history, the townsfolk threw a mammoth celebration and paraded down Rhode Island Avenue after the road was widened in 1932. Yet, ironically, today Sissine sees narrowing the avenue as a means of restoring some sense of civility to Mount Rainier’s gum-spackled, grime-covered gateway. “[The roundabout] sends a message to passers-by to slow down and take a look around,” Sissine says enthusiastically.
There isn’t much to see yet, but as Sissine explains, that will change soon, too. The Gateway Community Development Corp., a local citizens’ revitalization group, in conjunction with numerous local arts organizations, is developing an arts district along Rhode Island Avenue. As part of that project, in a couple of years a row of buildings on the avenue just south of the circle is supposed to make way for a three-story apartment building with lofts where artists will live and work. On the ground floor will be art-related businesses, and, local boosters hope, a new library and a cafe.
Next door to the lofts, the state and the city, in a separate project, are funding the construction of a new police stationthe first “green” police station in the state, Sissine likes to point out, complete with solar panels. Across the street, where a shuttered carryout now stands, Andy Shallal, owner of Cafe Luna and Skewers in Dupont Circle, is looking into opening a restaurant. A few blocks away, a group called Housing Initiative Partnership Inc., the city of Mount Rainier, and Gateway have plans to create more artists’ space inside a small, boarded-up apartment building.
The arts-focused development is modeled after similar efforts in Buffalo, San Antonio, and Pittsburgh. The idea is that commercial development will follow the artists, and with new businesses will come higher tax revenuesand maybe the chance to lower taxes for homeowners.
Looking at the drunks who line up each day waiting for Bass’ to open at 6 a.m., or the emaciated women who turn tricks on Eastern Avenue in broad daylight, it’s not always easy to conjure images of Mayberry here. But Sissine’s talent has been to rally his fellow citizens around the Sugarplum Fairy of revitalization.
“Every community should have a Fred Sissine,” says Stephen Shaff, owner of Community Vision Consultants, a real estate firm on 34th Street. Shaff moved here from Shaw 12 years ago, drawn by the presence of Glut. Glut, he argues, created “a subculture of progressives” who, led by Sissine, are transforming Mount Rainier for the better. “When I first drove up here, half of 34th Street was storefront churches. It was like a twilight zone,” Shaff says. “Now there is going to be a blossoming.”
“We came and we conquered,” says Brooke Kidd, a choreographer who moved with her arts organization, World Arts Focus, into Shaff’s office five years ago. Shortly thereafter, she and partner Ajax Joe Drayton opened Joe’s Movement Emporium next door. Kidd, who now sits on the city council, has been integral to the development of the arts district. Three years ago, she organized an arts summit that inspired the Housing Initiative Partnership and Gateway projects. “Making this an arts district will put us on the map regionally,” she says. “It will make this a place of distinction and destination, as the tourist board likes to say.”
To show what the arts can do for the community, Kidd has put on “Sweeping the Avenue,” a four-day community cleanup on Rhode Island Avenue, for the past two years. The event had a special significance this year. Thanks to the budget crunch, Sissine and the previous council had to cancel Mount Rainier Day, the annual celebration of town pride. The city didn’t have the money for the parade down 34th Street, so instead it donated whatever funds it could to Sweeping the Avenue.
At this year’s festivities in May, Kidd and more than 25 other performers danced on one part of the avenue, twirling brooms as they swept. A jazz trio performed in front of City Hall. A “trash dragon” picked up litter. Drayton, along with several young students, performed with big colorful sticks made from cardboard carpet rolls. Afterward, belly dancers gyrated in the traffic circle. For once, commuters slowed down to get a better a look.
Susan Bailey isn’t against progress. She swears she isn’t. But, perhaps because she’s a schoolteacher, Bailey can’t hold her tongue when she thinks something is wrong.
“It’s foolish if we sit here and pretend things have not been going on in this campaign that shouldn’t be,” she said at the candidates forum in April. “Unfounded ethics complaints, e-mails sent to residents generated from a councilmember’s family member that contain erroneous informationand, I might also say, spelling and grammatical errors.”
Bailey had started out the evening saying she was going to keep things “positive,” but it was her last chance to get a word in, and she just couldn’t help herself.
“My character has been maligned by folks on the current council,” she continued. “I have three words for those folks: ‘Shame on you.’”
During the election, Bailey, 43, faced Lawson and Steinback, but she was really running against Sissine. She was once one of the former mayor’s biggest supporters, but now she blames him for much of city’s trouble. In her eyes, he was more interested in transforming Rhode Island Avenue than addressing the plight of city employees and the needs of poorer residents.
And Bailey is not the only one who feels this way. The new roundabout has been nicknamed everything from “Sissine’s Circus” to “Nightmare on 34th Street: Freddie’s Revenge.” Some residents also have their own pejorative name for the progressives who are guiding Mount Rainier’s destiny: the “Glutinarians.”
Many old-timers think the Glutinarians have just about mucked the place up. They offer numerous bits of evidence, starting with the city’s recent fiscal troubles. Mount Rainier mayors of the past used to brag about how little money they needed to run the city. But in 1997, Sissine and the city council, faced with a budget crunch, raised property taxes. Then they raised them again in 1998, supposedly to build the reserve. Many residents were willing to pay higher taxes if it meant fixing up the city or saving for a rainy day. But when the money raised from the tax increases went toward neither purpose, many others grumbled about having to pay the price for their leaders’ spendthrift ways.
Then came the exodus of city employees. Mount Rainier started the year 2000 with 35 full-time and 11 part-time city workers. Since then, more employees have left than arriveda total of 24 departures. They’ve gone because of a combination of attrition, layoffs, and firings. Many left in protest, griping about a city manager and city council deaf to their concerns.
Most alarming to many residents, however, is that the 14-member police force has lost half its members and, even with new hires, is down to a force of 10. The Mount Rainier police are mainly a patrol force; any investigations are handled by the county police. But residents pride themselves on knowing their officers by name. In light of the turnover, they complain, many of the officers are strangers, including the chief, Herbert “Fred” Keeney. Keeney’s mantra is all about community policing, but more than a year into his tenure, many business owners and residents say they wouldn’t recognize him if he wrote them a parking ticket.
“People want accountability. That’s been missing for the past four years,” says Bailey one afternoon, sitting in her classroom at Thomas Stone Elementary School after her students have gone home for the day. As usual, her hair is pulled back in a tight ponytail. But Bailey seems much more at ease here than she is in council meetings, where she always comes prepared, armed with a bag full of papers, a notepad, and a sharp line of questioning.
In trying to make up for Glutinarian excess, Bailey has been accused of overreaching, trying a little too hard. Her husband, Karl Bailey, ran for the city council in May, raising eyebrows among her opponents, who not-so-quietly accused her of a power grab. Susan Bailey denies the accusation. “No one else wanted to run. They were too disgusted!” In the end, Karl Bailey lost to Intisar Haamid, an active resident and semi-retired caterer who was recruited by Susan Bailey’s critics.
“My feelings about the election are still a little raw,” she sighs. “I think in some ways it was an anti-Susan election.”
Sissine’s supporters readily admit that they regarded the prospect of a Bailey administration as an obstacle to progress. As one Sissine loyalist put it, the difference between Bailey and their candidateLawsonwas like “the difference between Bush and Gore. [Sissine’s] work would be undone.”
“Mayor Sissine concentrated on economic revitalization. That was used against me throughout the community, that I was against that,” says Bailey, growing exasperated. “I wasn’t! Only an idiot would be! What I am against is that everything gets sacrificed for Rhode Island Avenue and 34th Street. I’m not going to sacrifice people living here to a make commercial district nicer.”
Indeed, Bailey has publicly supported the traffic circle and artists’ housing projects. Recently, she voted with her fellow councilmembers for another tax increase, to ease the tight budget situation. But she also can’t help but point out that while her colleagues are enthralled with making Mount Rainier into an arts district, the elementary school where she teaches doesn’t even have a full-time art instructor.
“It’s fine to come up with these whimsical, highbrow things to bring in. But how about low-income housing for teachers or firemen?” Bailey asks. “We have to do more to preserve what the people living here for 25 years liked about the community. As my kids like to say, they’re getting kicked to the curb.”
“Mount Rainier suck. Write that,” says a 17-year-old boy with braids standing out on the corner of 34th and Perry Streets with a bunch of other youths, just after school has let out. “The police will fight you. They’ll sass you. They’ll tell you to shut up.”
“They kicked me out of a store,” pipes up a chubby kid. “I didn’t have enough money for a soda. I was 10 cents short. My father came and threw the 10 cents at them.”
Police are a major presence in any city, but in Mount Rainier, its tiny patrol force looms especially large. The police department accounts for the biggest portion of the city’s budget. Its very existence sets the town apart from most other small Maryland municipalities, which are content to entrust their safety to county police. Not Mount Rainier residents: They crave the small-town sense of security that comes from recognizing every officer.
Mount Rainier cops say they know most of the town’s troublemakers by name. And the troublemakers have names for the officers, too. Big Stupid (“Because he’s big and stupid”); Pac Man (“Because he’s always coming at you with his mouth open. He like to talk”); Jim Boy (“Because his first name is Jimmy”). And then there’s Craterface.
There’s a story the kids like to tell about Craterface, whose name was inspired by his complexion. One day several years back, a guy named Big Chuck told Craterface he wasn’t anything without his badge and his gun. Hearing a challenge, Craterface supposedly took off his badge and his gun and put up his dukes. But Big Chuck, the tale goes, bested Craterface and tied him to a tree.
The officers say there is nothing to the storyjust a bunch of punks thumbing their noses at authority. (“He was trying to run away and I held him,” laughs Craterface. “I took him to jail that day.”) But there are plenty of residents, including many grown-ups, who tend to buy the idea that some of Mount Rainier’s finest are a little too quick to raise their fists and pull out a pair of handcuffs. In May, a local family filed a $12 million lawsuit against the Mount Rainier police department, alleging excessive force and false arrest.
Those citizens who believe the cops get a little out of hand are likely to believe that the man to whip them into shape is Chief Keeney.
Keeney, 46, is a tall, imposing man. Even as he sits behind his big wooden desk with his hands folded, he looks disproportionately large inside his small, square office. Behind him, the blinds are drawn; the room is refrigerator-cold. Despite the scorching heat outside, there is not a single sweat stain or wrinkle on his shirt. He is immaculately groomed down to his brushy mustache. He could be a doll: a Chief-in-a-Box.
“This force, when I came here, lacked equipment, training, and leadership,” he says, his voice as crisp as his collar. “We had cars with no radios. Officers had one set of uniforms, no raincoats, no winter coats, police radios with dead batteries. I turned that all around.”
For a man who likes order, there is plenty to do in Mount Rainier. The police station, which is scheduled to be replaced in February 2002, is downright shabby. The stairs that lead to Keeney’s office run along a narrow hallway of battered brown wood-paneled walls. The officers hang out downstairs behind a door with a sticker on it that reads, “Spend some time with your kids so we don’t have to.” Inside, you can hear birds cooing from their nest behind the air conditioner in back. There are some takeout menus, one computer, a box of Krispy Kremes, and, next to a pile of old typewriters, an electric model with a piece of paper taped to it that reads: “This typewriter works.”
When Keeney arrived, in April 2000, he was the fifth chief the force had had in 15 months. He came on the heels of a three-year stint as chief of nearby District Heights, Md. Before that, Keeney had spent most of his career with the Maryland-National Capital Park Police, the state park police. Some of his officers in District Heights grumbled about his management style. The cops in Mount Rainier got wind of the discontent, and they protested his selection before he even arrived. The day City Manager Lucille Dickinson announced Keeney’s hiring on the steps of City Hall, the entire Mount Rainier police force stood outside in the rain and turned their backs on her.
Since then, the officers have leafleted the city alleging that Keeney’s policies have endangered the lives of police and citizens. Last fall, one officer, who has since left, accused the chief of kicking a handcuffed suspect. (Dickinson says she is investigating the matter.) In June, a majority of the police union members voted no confidence in him. When they describe their boss, the Mount Rainier cops sound a bit like the teenagers on the corner who loathe them. Keeney, they say, employs an “intimidation-style” form of management. In other words, they say, he’s a bully.
“It’s a small town, a small department. You don’t need to lead by intimidation,” says one former police department employee.
The mutiny of more than half of his force doesn’t seem to bother Keeney, though. “Every department is like that,” he says. The way he sees it, the officers are just having trouble thinking outside their cuff-’em-and-book-’em box. “Some of them think community policing and enforcement are mutually exclusive,” he says.
Keeney’s devotion to community policing has won over much of the city council. And when he talks about it, he can be quite eloquent. “Crime is not a problem that can be addressed just through arrests,” he explains. “Say we arrest a person on a street corner for possession or something like that. If he’s back on the street corner the next day, perhaps we can refer him to services. Instead of perpetually arresting him, an officer can get him into detox, set him up with a job counselor….With a force our size, we can’t continue to just enforce the law.”
But the Officer Friendly routine doesn’t last very long. Keeney doesn’t like to let on that he is a man of much sentiment, despite evidence to the contrary.
Hanging on one of his walls is an autographed picture of Don Knotts as Barney Fife in The Andy Griffith Show, next to another small picture of Griffith and Knotts on the set of the show. A larger pencil drawing of the same photograph of Knotts sits on the floor below.
“Did you get those as gifts because you’re the chief of police of a small town?” I ask.
The chief shakes his head. “No,” he replies curtly, his hands still folded on his desk.
“Well, Mount Rainier is a small town. So is Mayberry….”
“I wouldn’t practice psychology on that,” Keeney says, his tone the temperature of his office. “It’s a collectible.”
Perhaps the only place where nobody has any illusions about Mount Rainier is at Bass’. On a Sunday evening in June, a man named Happy slides into the seat across from me and introduces himself. He says he’s been coming to Bass’ for a couple of years now. In fact, he’s on the lookout for the man to whom he lent his chess board. When I tell him I’m writing about Mount Rainier, he gives me some advice.
“If you want stories, you should go to Rockville!”
“Don’t mind him,” says a woman sitting at the table behind me. “He talk about what he don’t know. And what he know, he don’t talk about.”
Every town has its seedy side, and in Mount Rainier, it’s definitely Bass’, a combination liquor store, bar, and carryout. It is the first thing you see when you drive into Mount Rainier from the District. There are two other liquor stores on Rhode Island within two blocks of here. But Bass’ is the oldestit opened with one of the first liquor licenses issued after the repeal of Prohibitionand its rep is the baddest. Almost none of the regulars at the bar are from Mount Rainier. “That’s because everyone is afraid to be seen in there,” says Pastor Tyler.
Yet Bass’ presence is so formidableit’s the biggest commercial taxpayer in the city that isn’t an apartment complex, raking in millions in gross revenues a year, half from single-container sales alonethat even those sworn to protect the citizenry from the evils the place supposedly fosters are drawn to it. For years, Mount Rainier cops have moonlighted at Bass’ to supplement the small salaries the city pays them. (A rookie in Mount Rainier makes only about $27,000 per year.) The off-duty cops usually show up around sundown and stay until 2 a.m.
The residents who live behind Bass’ complain that the officers aren’t doing much there besides hanging out. If the cops were working, they argue, they wouldn’t find men urinating in their yards, or the debris of prostitution and drug use in their garages. So they’ve taken matters into their own hands. Several of them recently persuaded the county liquor board not to renew Bass’ license. While its owners appeal that decision, Bass’ will remain open for business, but inside there’s a certain feeling of being under siege.
“If it weren’t for the liquor stores,” says one regular, a young woman with braids, “no one would come here.”
“It’s just a place to relax after work,” says Don, a gruff, older gentleman in a baseball cap and safety glasses. “It’s a bar! In a bar, occasionally you’re going to have fights, and, excuse my language, prostitutes.”
Don has lived in Brentwood for 50 years. But he considers himself an authority on the area. “I’ve seen it all,” he says. “I’ve seen Brentwood and Mount Rainier go downhill. Everyone’s moving to Calvert County. The people moving here now, they don’t want people like me to stay. They want us all to leave.”
“What do you think about the plans for the new arts district up Rhode Island Avenue?” I ask.
“Ha!” Don scoffs. “No artists are ever going to come here. That’s a pipe dream! You know why they’re never going to come here? You know why? This place isn’t bohemian enough for them!”
A few weeks after Sweeping the Avenue, there are no belly dancers in the traffic circle, just a few trucks and some construction workers. Half a block down 34th Street, Bill Hyatt is standing outside in a pair of shorts and an undershirt. He’s weeding the yard in front of the house he’s owned for 32 years, where he and his wife, Anna Hyatt, have raised seven children. With a gold heart-shaped pendant that says “Dad” hanging from his neck, the retired D.C. cop takes a pair of shears to some overgrown greenery just inside his chain-link fence.
The sound of jackhammers and the sight of men in orange vests emerging from swirls of dust is far enough away not to disturb Hyatt’s concentration, yet close enough to elicit an opinion.
“Stupid roundabout that no one but the last mayor wanted,” he barks.
“I can’t get out during rush hour. I have to go this way”he points in the opposite direction from the circle”to go that way!”
“The sign says yield [to traffic in the circle], but no one does. It’s bumper to bumper,” says Anna Hyatt, who has emerged from the house to shoo her husband into their car to make an appointment.
“We are getting less traffic, though,” she adds. “People are avoiding the area more.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.