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Apartment complex, or prison? (Darrow Montgomery)

It is by now a familiar pattern in gentrifying District neighborhoods: A brutal, unprovoked attack prompts neighborhood outrage and an examination of what might have caused the violence.

In eastern Capitol Hill, those periodic cycles often center around Potomac Gardens, the 352-unit public housing complex that occupies a full city block between 12th and 13th streets SE, south of Pennsylvania Avenue. The latest incident happened in November: A young woman was walking with her groceries from Harris Teeter when a young man punched her in the face, breaking her jaw.

During the subsequent heated community meeting, the eight-foot tall, prison-grade wrought iron fence that surrounds the complex emerged as a focus. But where Potomac Gardens residents once opposed the fence, now it’s wealthier neighbors who want it down.

“The fence creates an issue for them,” says Kirsten Oldenburg, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission representative for the area directly west of the complex. “I think it affects their property values. It makes it very obvious that they’re living across from some kind of gated community.”

Others have more philosophical concerns.

“It’s like a mental divide. It’s us versus them,” says Erik Holzherr, owner of a cocktail bar near the Potomac Avenue Metrorail station. “We’re all part of the same community, but that gate…” he trails off, with a pained expression. “It looks like a moat. It looks like a castle.”

Last week, Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells convened a meeting on the subject at Tyler Elementary School. He used to live across the street from Potomac Gardens, and remembered homeowners having much more normal interactions with residents before the city fenced the property two decades ago to help police contain a burgeoning crack epidemic.

D.C. Housing Authority Director Adrienne Todman seemed open. “It is very possible that the fence has outlived its time,” she said, as diplomatically as possible.

But when the time came for Gardens residents to speak, the group—all women, some with children in tow—turned the meeting’s premise on its head. “Basically, a lot of people want the fence to stay,” said Resident Council president Melvina Middleton. “It’s not a jail at all, it’s what keeps us safe!” said one lady, explaining how it kept kids from running into the street, while keeping troublemakers out.

Aquarius Vann-Ghasri—an imposing woman who serves on the Housing Authority’s board of commissioners—even offered a withering sociological critique of fence detractors, asking point blank: How is their fence any different from a wealthy enclave’s? “When I enter my gated community, I feel like Sheba,” she said.

Middleton is surveying residents to see what everybody thinks, not just those who make it to public forums. But unless there’s a substantial majority for removing the fence, it’s unlikely anything will happen. Most likely, the two communities will just grow further and further apart, as Capitol Hill gets richer and denser, while Potomac Gardens remains cut off from the changes going on around it.

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Nineteen years ago, residents weren’t exactly crying out for a fence. When Sharon Pratt Kelly’s administration installed the barriers in 1991, it took 45 police officers to quell a violent negative reaction. “It’s disrespectful. We aren’t animals. We don’t need to be caged,” one resident told The Washington Post.

Security then was much more stringent. The 21 buildings were divided into four quadrants with separate entrances, all of them guarded. Lights and cameras were installed, and drug dealers were evicted from the complex. Kids started calling it “Baby Lorton,” after the Virginia prison. The resident council president favored the new security measures, but saw them as temporary, given how inconvenient they made everyday living.

As the Post tells it, Kelly was vindicated, at least in the short term: Drug arrests declined dramatically after the fence went up. But much of the drug activity just shifted to other areas, and assaults and robberies remained high—to the point in 1995 that Marion Barry’s administration hired the Nation of Islam on an emergency contract to restore order.

After that, life slid into an uneasy stasis. The compound became less of a war zone, and the Housing Authority removed some internal fences to make the place easier to manage. (Meanwhile, fences went down at other complexes where they were installed; Potomac Gardens’ barrier is now the only one of its kind in the city.) After a big drug bust last June, most deals now happen outside the fence; residents see cars with Maryland and Virginia plates pulling off the freeway, conducting their business, then peeling out again.

Police, though aware of the neighborhood divisions the fence creates, aren’t quite ready to let it go. According to Housing Authority Police Chief William Pittman, they’ve barred 450 people from Potomac Gardens, more than any other public housing complex, and the fence is critical to keeping them out. “How do we stop all these people?” he asks rhetorically. “I don’t have the answer.”

Except the fence doesn’t seem to be doing a particularly good job of keeping anyone out—gates are wide open, and the guard posts unmanned. It’s just unfriendly for anyone on the outside looking in. “A lot of people don’t want to come visit us,” says resident Melinda Wheeler, who’s lived there since 2006. “You tell your company to come, and they don’t know what side to come in on, because all they see is fence.”

For a visitor, walking around the complex is disorienting, with no continuous sightlines and barriers everywhere—but to the young people who grew up there, it’s like a big familiar playpen, and nearly all of those I spoke with expressed fear at the idea that the fences might go away. “Keep ’em up,” a 12-year-old boy responded unhesitatingly, when I asked some kids what they thought about the fence. Why? I asked. A younger girl meshes her fingers. “Altercations,” she explains. “A lot of unwanted visitors.”

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Why have so many residents of Potomac Gardens grown to embrace the bars that surround them? A new exhibit about fences in American life at the Silver Spring Civic Building, “Between Fences,” says walling yourself off to outsiders is a veritable piece of the American Dream: “The home fence is a symbol of self-sufficiency and stability,” it notes. “The fence stands for security, order, and privacy in a country that seems to offer these things to anyone willing to work for them.”

Maybe not in public housing, though. “There are ways to design subtle devices that barricade without reflecting fear,” wrote Neal Katyal, now the U.S. solicitor general, in a 2002 Yale Law Review paper, suggesting arches or landscaping instead. “Gated communities are a byproduct of public disregard of architecture, not a sustainable solution to crime.”

Last year, students from the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of city and regional planning produced a report on Potomac Gardens, characterizing the gates as a serious obstacle. “This fence creates a clear line of demarcation and separation, and portrays a hostile message to both the residents and the surrounding neighbors,” the authors wrote. “These issues inhibit physical and social integration.”

But no matter how strong the academic consensus against security fences, or how much neighbors dislike having something that looks like a prison across the street, the fences aren’t coming down unless the residents demand it—and for many, it’s become a comforting barrier to the rest of the world.

Just ask Howard Campbell, 24, who estimates that he’s been living in Potomac Gardens for the last 15 years, and most days prefers not to leave the complex at all. “When I’m on the outside of the gates, I feel like I’m someplace else,” he says, his hand on one of the bars. “When I’m inside, I feel like I’m at home.”     CP

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