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The conference that Dorothea Ferrell attended on Tuesday, Oct. 15 was right up her alley. The topic was crime prevention in public housing projects—a matter of great consequence to Ferrell, a longtime activist in the Barry Farms project in Southeast. Ferrell soaked up the presentations on teen programs in Los Angeles and community-police partnerships in Cleveland. She left the conference in an upbeat mood, primed to put the crime-prevention strategies to work in her own back yard.

And if Ferrell needed a reminder of why those strategies mattered, she got it on her way home: Across the street from her office in the Barry Farms community center, she saw the flashing lights and mayhem of an emergency scene. Medics were loading a young woman—whom Ferrell had held as a newborn years ago—into an ambulance.

Only a few minutes earlier, a gunman had opened fire on a half-dozen adults and children lounging by a courtyard on Stevens Road. The fusillade felled Brandy Jackson and Marquita Miller, two Barry Farms women in their early 20s. Jackson died, having sustained so many wounds that her white sweat suit was red from the shoulders down. Miller escaped death but lost a kidney.

Barry Farms residents reacted first by grieving but soon rallied behind the orange-hat patrol Ferrell helped organize long ago. A Barry Farms resident since 1958, Ferrell knows a thing or two about managing crises in her conflicted neighborhood.

“Please Wash Your Dirty Dishes.” “Do Not Open, Do Not Steal, Do Not Mess Up.” The signs at Ferrell’s Barry Farms community center say it all: The road to a better neighborhood starts with the minutiae.

Ferrell lives her credo every day, as she prods neighborhood kids to pick up their trash. “Don’t throw your candy paper on the ground; you know, put it in the trash bag that’s hanging on the fence,” she says. “Put it in your pocket and take it home. Just don’t put it on the ground and have everything look bad.”

Ferrell’s bully pulpit for Barry Farms is the Stevens Road community center, which she and a group of concerned residents opened five years ago. The privately run center harbors several programs—like City Lights, a storybook reading session for children—that she says should be on the schedule of the nearby city-run recreation center on Sumner Road. Ferrell has campaigned for the ouster of the rec center’s director, who Ferrell charges doesn’t do enough to develop programs that attract children to the facility.

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The rec center, however, is just one of many community struggles that fill Ferrell’s waking hours. Ferrell and other concerned neighbors spent years pestering the city to remove a virtual fleet of stolen cars that were stripped, burned, and strewn about Barry Farms. A few months back, the police finally responded with a tagging and towing operation, and since then the neighborhood has seen a decline in the number of cars abandoned on its streets. “You count your blessings one by one,” says Ferrell.

In Barry Farms, however, the count doesn’t go too high. There is always a setback, like the theft last year of groundskeeping equipment that kept the project’s property manager from mowing the lawn and maintaining the playgrounds. So Ferrell’s resident council stepped in and purchased new equipment—only to have that promptly stolen as well.

A similar fate befell the $30,000 worth of trees, shrubs, flowers, and grass seed that the resident council secured through an urban forestry grant. Ferrell says the new flora made the place look downright sharp—until a band of vandals took saws to the saplings.

With setbacks like these, Ferrell struggles just to convince her neighbors to give a damn.

“It’s hard to get people involved,” Ferrell says. “I had about 100 people around here this month at the [resident council] meeting—but only because it was on the flyers that we were having door prizes and the sign-up for the turkeys this year.”

The orange-hat patrols were a particularly tough sell, says Ferrell, noting that the outings were often canceled for lack of support. After the October shooting, orange-hat organizers found a lot more support, but by early this month participation had dropped again—on one occasion because of a threatened drive-by shooting.

Ferrell’s most critical project has been maintaining a police presence in Barry Farms. As recently as 1994, Barry Farms was synonymous with rampant crime—much of it sparked by drug wars and neighborhood rivalries. The violence went unchecked until a rash of 1994 shootings involving children—and the consistent pleas of Ferrell, a member of the 7th District’s citizen advisory board—pushed the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) to respond.

Part of the remedy was an eight-man investigative task force assigned solely to Barry Farms, which 7th District Cmdr. Winston Robinson says applied a no-tolerance approach to crime in the neighborhood. In a few short months in 1995, the task force netted scores of arrests for burglary, vandalism, and assault—and all but stifled the gunshots that had rung out nightly.

The community also got a lift from MPD community affairs officer James Erby, who Ferrell says helped to keep kids out of trouble by leading GED study programs, computer classes, photography lessons, and field trips. “He would go from house to house with these young men when they’re doing wrong, sit down, and take his time to talk to their parents, talk to them,” Ferrell remembers.

Ferrell said MPD’s activism made a startling difference in Barry Farms for a while, and the statistics support her claim: Homicides dropped from nearly two dozen between 1991 and 1994 to six since January 1995. But MPD could not sustain its outreach to Barry Farms, and by early 1996 it had to split the task force’s work with other nearby neighborhoods. And the successor to Erby, who retired, now splits his time between Barry Farms and the D.C. public schools.

“You can’t fund everything—you just can’t do it,” says Robinson. “We had a tremendous impact [in Barry Farms]. We targeted the people who were causing all the trouble. But we just don’t have the manpower. When the crime started again this year, we didn’t have the resources to respond in the same way.”

Since the October shooting, residents have complained that they see the old wave of violence creeping back to Barry Farms, and quite a few say they’re planning on getting out. However, Ferrell’s plans haven’t changed: She keeps nudging the police to step up their presence in Barry Farms and running her programs out of the community center.

—Tom Stabile