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I can’t tell you how many times I heard it from friends.
“Why do you live in the ghetto?”
“How’s it living in the ‘hood?”
“Why do you want to live there?”
And that was from black friends of mine. White friends weren’t so honest.
Five years ago, when I moved from an apartment near Dupont Circle to my own row house on the corner of 12th Place and Florida Avenue NW, I heard those questions—pleading, almost snotty, at times sincerely worried. And I always responded—or at least thought to myself—that this little piece of D.C. is hardly the ghetto. It isn’t like some parts of Anacostia, I would explain. It isn’t the Robert Taylor Homes of Chicago. It’s not Bed-Stuy.
It is, instead, a small section of the up-and-coming U Street corridor, which 70 years ago was the social center of black D.C. but morphed in the ’70s into a drug-dealing backwater laden with prostitutes. In recent years, though, a transformation has begun. Town houses going for $300,000 or more are under construction a block away from what was, until recently, my home. New restaurants and clubs are within walking distance. It’s a short stroll to the Metro.
I bought my house for nearly $150,000 five years ago. I completely reworked the lawn. A big tree now stands in what was once a small dirt patch near the carport. Shrubs have taken hold along the fence line. I’m proud of the work I did with my own hands.
And yet, some weeks ago, I reached the end of my rope with this block. I had to get out. A new job in a new city provided the perfect escape plan, allowing me to sell my house at a significant profit. But had that new gig not opened up, I would have sold my house and moved to another part of Washington. And I feel almost self-hating about why: because I blame my own people.
When I moved to the neighborhood, I soon learned about the drug dealers. Just down 12th Place, they’ve been there for years. It appears to be a family business—or at least family-condoned. The same core of five or six black men run the operation. I know who they are. I know their cars. I know their voices and their laughs. Other neighbors know all that as well. The police know. In fact, it appears from the business they do that many people who don’t live in the area know these men and what they have to offer. A cabbie driving me home one night said that 12th Place had for years carried a reputation as a place to buy drugs.
To be sure, they don’t run a 24-hour open-air market. But if you watch what’s going on there long enough, as I did, you know why someone’s parked on 12th Place, headlights on, engine idling, as a friend conducts business down the street in the shadows. Or you may see a transaction on the sidewalk right outside your window. Or you might see the dealers and their friends and relatives hanging out on the corner, smoking a joint or a blunt.
And these are my people doing this. In front of little children. In front of neighbors. With no apparent fear of arrest or harassment.
When I first moved to my house, I made it clear to one of the dealers that he and his friends needed to respect my space. He seemed to understand. And so over the years, when I asked him or others to lower the volume of their talking while standing on my corner (which also served as a way for them to watch for the police) or to stop leaning on my fence, they’d usually comply. Sometimes they’d shoot me a hostile glare, but they’d comply.
They are not stupid. They are not out every night at the same time. At times, they used two or three houses across from each other on 12th Place. They hid their stashes in cracks along the sidewalk or in a broken lamppost or on a car so they wouldn’t have drugs on them if the police conducted a “jump-out.” That’s when police in an unmarked car or van suddenly appear and jump out to make quick arrests.
But when I look back on my occasional attempts to prod the police to do something about the drug dealing on this block, it becomes clear that the dealers have little to fear from the cops. The 3rd District vice unit is too understaffed, too complacent, too underequipped—too whatever—to be much of a hindrance.
They conducted their jump-outs occasionally. They parked a cruiser on my corner once in a while, particularly after receiving several complaints from neighbors in a short time span. But they never seemed to do the kind of observation and investigation necessary to determine which houses and which individuals were the source of the problem—and then move to arrest those persons and seek forfeiture of the houses involved.
This is the same police force that somehow managed the necessary undercover legwork last year to justify shutting down the headquarters of World Bank/International Monetary Fund protesters, which was located a block from my former home. For some reason, the Metropolitan Police Department can conceive and conduct investigations to protect foreign dignitaries but not to protect their own residents.
But the worst thing about this situation for me was watching some of the black schoolchildren growing up around my former home start to mimic the demeanor and activities of their older relatives and friends. I am no expert on the subject. I know there are many reasons why the black underclass remains mired in that status, generation after generation, why too many of our young men end up in the drug trade, strung out, or in jail. And of course, not all of those reasons apply to all poor black families. But the black adults on 12th Place who are dealing or are associated with the dealers are clearly demonstrating caustic social behaviors: an inattentiveness to parental responsibility and a carelessness about the role models they present to children. I know. I saw it up close nearly every day for five years.
Yet despite these problems, this block is changing rapidly—and racially. Whereas it was perhaps half white or less when I moved in, I would estimate that it is now approaching 80 percent white. The whites—mostly yuppie couples and singles—are attracted by the relatively low cost of the row houses and the nearby Metro stop. Most undoubtedly believe their purchases will be good investments in another few years. And they’re probably right.
Few buppies—black upwardly mobile professionals—even look in my former neighborhood. When we get a few bucks, we rarely look to live in what we perceive to be “the ‘hood.” Instead, we generally head for the ‘burbs, particularly Prince George’s County.
Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham remarked on the changing demographics of the neighborhood at a meeting I attended along with a neighbor and vice officers last year: As property values rise, the drug dealers will be forced away, he predicted. What he meant, I surmised, was that the homes the dealers used were probably owned by poor folks and that the taxes would eventually climb too high for them. Problem solved, he probably figured.
Friends have said something similar, but more to the point: Once more whites move in, the police will pay more attention.
I’m not convinced either scenario will occur, at least not fast enough. Besides, I’ve left already. But had I stayed, would I have disapproved if more whites moved in? If the police suddenly became more proactive? Beyond my sadness at seeing a black neighborhood become far less black and watching more black men hauled off to jail, no, I wouldn’t have protested. It seems that a cruel equation was at work on this block: Whiter neighbors equals more peace of mind, more peace and quiet. That apparent dictum became painfully clear last fall when a brick broke one of my windows. Several other 12th Place homes suffered the same fate. Not coincidentally, the homes that were hit were those of residents who had signed a letter addressed to MPD Chief Charles Ramsey and others about the continuing drug dealing on our block and other associated nuisances. There were no eyewitnesses, but we all knew who was responsible and why it was done. And my camel’s back was broken.
So, having left D.C., I harbor no desire to live in anything approaching a “‘hood” again. I have adopted the same mind-set that motivated the questions many friends asked me five years ago. And because few of my black socioeconomic peers will move to my old neighborhood—I sold my house to a white woman—what was once a nearly all-black neighborhood is now a mostly white enclave speckled with a few stubborn black drug dealers. CP
Herbert A. Sample was a reporter in the Washington bureau of the Sacramento Bee.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Robert Meganck.