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Just after 11 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 18, Bill Mitchell was walking home from the New York Avenue-Florida Avenue-Gallaudet University Metrorail station. He hopped over busy Florida Avenue to a little triangle of land where a woman had been approached by a man on a mountain bike. According to the woman, the man on the bike asked her for sex. When she declined, he went up to Mitchell at the bus stop and asked him for money. The woman told him to lay off, and as the two got into an argument, Mitchell jumped on the man’s back.
“This is what I been waiting for,” the man said, as the police report tells it. He pulled out a gun and fired two shots at Mitchell, who died in a hospital two hours later.
What followed was the kind of outpouring of shock and outrage usually generated by the killing of community-minded young white people like Mitchell. There was a vigil, an emergency public safety meeting, a walk-through of the neighborhood with Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr., Mayor Vince Gray, Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier—one of several similar visits since she was appointed—and a handful of other agency directors. Calls for more police on the corner were issued.
But this time, it’s not just a matter of having more cops come through and bang heads. Neighbors think the physical shape of the immediate area and the buildings nearby might have helped cause the crime.
Here’s the lay of the land: Florida Avenue cuts across the busy six lanes of North Capitol Street in a chaotic basket of stoplights and signals. There’s a bus stop right next to a liquor store on the southwest corner, and another across the street on the traffic island, which allows sauced loiterers to claim they’re waiting for the bus when police come by to move them along. A few blocks away, So Others Might Eat feeds two meals a day to more than 400 homeless people at its headquarters on O Street NW. There’s an outpatient substance abuse treatment center a few blocks south on First Street NE, a transitional residential program for 100 men up on Lincoln Road, and a needle exchange van that occasionally sits on Florida Avenue.
Tom Usselman, who’s lived in the neighborhood for nine years and serves on the board of North Capitol Main Street, says he would never wait for a bus at the intersection, which he sees as a maelstrom of disorderly activity.
“We come in, we hit the meth clinic, we grab breakfast over at SOME, we sell our methadone to drug users, and then they don’t need to purchase as much cocaine or whatever it is they’re on—because they’ve got the methadone, it was just a big feeding circle,” he says, sitting at a folding table in NCMS’ storefront office. “The police have to be extra vigilant to know who is where and what they’re doing. There’s so much activity that it allows the drug dealers and the other guys that are doing bad things to slide under the radar, as long as they keep below that noise.”
Lonna Hooks, NCMS’ executive director, thinks things have gotten worse recently. “The situation is escalating,” she says, of street harassment and panhandling. “There is a large amount of people who are clearly not residents, and they have become extremely aggressive.”
Except crime isn’t escalating, at least not the kind that shows up in the city’s CapStat system. The last three years show no consistent trend of incidents taking place within a quarter-mile radius around the intersection (and the average crime rate is actually lower than the same radius around M Street NW and Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown). Plus, there are fewer social services in the neighborhood than there used to be—at least one meth clinic has relocated, and police say the needle exchange truck rarely comes by anymore.
To understand Usselman’s perspective, I spent quite a bit of time “waiting for a bus” at the intersection. It’s a fairly affable atmosphere; people stand around, a little aimlessly, chatting about getting off drugs, getting out of jail. The line for cigarettes and singles inside the liquor store is polite. The most uncomfortable thing was having to stand the whole time: The spiked treeboxes meant to keep homeless people from sitting on them make the little traffic island inhospitable to everyone. At no point did I feel threatened, but I did notice that people who looked like me hustled past quickly, as if the intersection were made out of quicksand.
After a while it occurred to me: This isn’t so much about crime, as it is about the perception of crime. What if more people had been on that traffic island when Mitchell was killed? Would the gunman have been so willing to shoot and run?
The problems at Florida Avenue and North Capitol Street go back long before the killing of Bill Mitchell, or even the demographic changes now sweeping the neighborhood. They began in 1947, when the city demolished Truxton Circle and plowed the streets right on through, creating an open sore in the street grid and disrupting the protected feeling that you get from having properties ringing an interior space.
Though some businesses have clung to the street, like crustaceans in a jetstream, not much can really bloom in such a harsh environment. Saeed Momenian has owned a sports store on the corner for 21 years, and says crime is now pretty low—but he’s lost his lower-income clientele, and is having difficulty attracting the newer, wealthier residents who are afraid to walk by the shop.
The school of crime prevention that focuses on environmental design as opposed to police suppression is by now fairly well established. Its principles are basic: You need good visibility from many angles, which requires excellent lighting and low shrubbery. You need to make sure the neighborhood seems cared for, by keeping it clean and well-painted. But most importantly, says the National Institute for Crime Prevention’s Art Hushen, you need to get people to take ownership of their spaces and watch over each other—homeless people or not.
“When you rehabilitate the neighborhood, the offender can no longer survive,” Hushen says. “The more social interaction you have amongst people, the less opportunity for crime you have, because people are responsible for each other.”
This is just as true for places like the pocket park on Florida Avenue and 1st Street NW, which has long been known as a drug-infested homeless hangout. It’s getting a $1.4 million facelift, but Bates Area Civic Association President Geovani Bonilla knows it’ll still require a willingness on the part of the community to spend time there. “If we as a community don’t do events and coordinate things, then we’ll never be able to take that park back,” he says.
Neighbors are right to focus on improving the area’s cleanliness and function. Narrowing North Capitol Street and turning the intersection back into a circle might do the most to make the space usable again, but mustering the political will is likely too big a lift. Still, there are more realistic options: As the Urban Land Institute recommended in a 2009 study, the traffic island should be merged back into the northwest corner—which is empty and fenced-off, waiting for a stalled condo development—to create a real public plaza, while southbound cars take a wider turn right onto Florida. Public restrooms would give people a place to relieve themselves other than the sidewalk, and perhaps there should be an activity center for homeless people to spend time productively instead of on the street. Vacant properties nearby must be put into productive use—like the decaying Slater, Cook, and Langston schools on P Street, where neighbors have resisted transitional housing for young people.
Other design changes, like moving bus stops to make it easier for cops to crack down on loiterers, just seem like a way of pushing out people who have nowhere else to go. That might make residents feel more comfortable using the space, but the more important step is for them to stop being afraid in the first place. At one point in my loitering, a guy—not evidently homeless—offered me a piece of his pizza from Subway, which I declined. He regarded me for a second. “Not all black people are bad, you know,” he said, seemingly concerned about what I might make of the cluster of vagrants, before rushing off to catch a bus.
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