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Inaccurate and disparaging descriptions of Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights in your 12/20/96 cover story, “The War at Home,” insult the people who live in these neighborhoods and undermine the credibility of your paper.
Mount Pleasant’s Vietnamese residents are small in number, but their presence plays an important part in making our neighborhood a special place. At Bancroft, our neighborhood elementary school, Vietnamese parents have been leaders in the PTA, and their children excel in many ways. Every year, for at least the last three, for example, Vietnamese students from Bancroft have won awards in the citywide school art competition.
The hearts of all Mount Pleasant residents like those of everyone else go out to the family and friends of Hang Nguyen. However, none of the events described in the story happened in Mount Pleasant. Hang’s murder, the funeral procession through the streets, and the vigil all happened in Columbia Heights. Not only does the reporter, Stephanie Mencimer, fail to place these events correctly, her derogatory description of the neighborhood where Hang’s family lives gives readers nothing but her uninformed opinion of this part of the city. She describes their street, for example, as “an isolated one-way road in Mount Pleasant lined with nondescript red brick apartment buildings and slummy two-story town houses.”
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Center Street, one-half block off 16th Street in Columbia Heights, is not at all isolated. Stores, public transportation, and schools are within easy walking distance, and there is nothing slummy about the nine houses on the street. The one vacant house is so tightly sealed that it cannot become a haven for undesirable activity. The other eight, lived in and cared for, include well-preserved, Victorian, unattached homes that are over 100 years old and town houses built just after the turn of the century. They have curtains and shutters in the windows, landscaping in the yards, and fresh coats of paint. There is not a discarded appliance, abandoned car, or sagging porch on the street.
According to Mencimer’s story, living in this area is the latest in a long succession of hardships that the Nguyen family and other Vietnamese refugees have had to endure. It’s difficult to know whether the reporter really believes this or whether this view is presented to make the account of their struggle more compelling. Facts support the latter explanation, since Mencimer knows so little about this area of the city scarcely a mile from Washington City Paper’s offices. The high-rises she places on Park Road, for example, don’t exist. She also fails to reveal what she means by “the shades of evil lurking in the neighborhood’s dark corners.”
I hope City Paper will make accuracy a high priority in stories about Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, and Washington’s many other neighborhoods. If you can’t get simple facts like the names and physical descriptions of our neighborhoods right, how can we trust your interpretation of the city’s complex power relationships and political developments?
Please make good use of the enclosed District of Columbia map.