A mural depicting Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks watches over the space. A tree in the middle provides shade to pedestrians, who might grab a bike from the Capital Bikeshare station on the other side. There’s a fountain, too, but because it hasn’t run in months, it’s completely dried up.
Starburst Plaza—a public space at the intersection of four major streets in Northeast—also goes by a different name among people in the area: “Scooby Park,” so called for a popular type of synthetic marijuana, Scooby Snax. (It comes packaged in “potpourri” pouches bearing the cartoon dog’s image.)
Residents, community leaders, and District officials say the plaza has become a hub not just for bus stops and benches but also for alcohol consumption and the synthetic-drug activity plaguing D.C. Named for the “starburst” pattern created by the union of H Street, Maryland Avenue, and Bladensburg and Benning roads NE, the plaza is administered by the District Department of Transportation and maintained by H Street Main Street, a nonprofit.
“From where it used to be, H Street is good,” says Tammi Mack, a site supervisor for H Street Main Street, which helps clean the corridor. “But that joint”—Starburst Plaza—“is rough.”
Just last Thursday, D.C. police officers arrested two people suspected of selling synthetic drugs in the park. The arrests followed the forced closings of two stores—one in Bloomingdale, the other near the plaza, in Carver Langston—also for allegedly selling the stuff. Such enforcement is part of a broader crackdown on the drugs after an uptick in overdose-hospitalizations and other incidents; the city recently passed emergency legislation allowing agencies to shut down stores for selling.
Health officials say synthetic drugs are dangerous because—while mimicking the effects of LSD, ecstasy, and cocaine—their use can lead to violent behavior, seizures, and self-harm. Officials have expressed concern that the drugs more closely resemble PCP than pot. On July 4, 18-year-old Jasper Spires allegedly stabbed 24-year-old Kevin Sutherland on Metro’s Red Line, killing him; police believe Spires was high on synthetic drugs. A few days later, a woman who police said had been smoking synthetic marijuana left a baby on a busy street. Earlier this month, Police Chief Cathy Lanier suggested the drugs could push D.C. back “20 years.”
At Starburst Plaza, the situation is challenging. Adam Roberts, a commissioner for ANC 5D, says that the intersection’s design invites “loitering.” While the space’s design encourages pedestrians to frequent the plaza, it’s also ideal for drug exchanges: Multiple entry points make it easy for people to come and go; the placement of its chess tables—in front of the defunct fountain at a remove from the street—makes it hard for onlookers to see beyond huddled groups of people. On average, between 30 and 50 people gather in the space, Roberts says. Many are just hanging out; others may be participating in drug deals or getting intoxicated.
“It is very hard to differentiate between legal and illegal activity,” Roberts says. “That’s part of the fear about the plaza. People are afraid of it because they don’t know what’s going on.”
Metropolitan Police Department spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump wrote in an email that the police have seen “an increase in the presence and use of synthetic drugs more recently” near Starburst Plaza, and that the department’s narcotics unit made 29 arrests on the street citywide from June 19 to July 15. “We are aware of the challenges in this area and we are working to address them,” Crump wrote, citing a walk-through that MPD’s Assistant Chief Diane Groomes and Fifth District Commander William Fitzgerald participated in with Deputy Mayor Kevin Donahue and others along the Benning Road corridor on July 17. “The city government and the community will need to continue to work together to rid the District of this dangerous drug,” Crump explained. “As usual, it takes a village.”
According to a National Capital Planning Commission memo, DDOT approved Starburst Plaza’s construction in 2005 as a way to help “streamline vehicle traffic, buffer pedestrians from it, and improve actual and perceived pedestrian safety.” Starburst’s mural was meant to become a “visible landmark, which will contribute to the revitalization and economic growth of this area.”
Anwar Saleem hopes to change the problems with the plaza. As the executive director of H Street Main Street since 2007, he’s often talked to the people who hang around Starburst Plaza. Saleem tells me he once met a young woman named Kamara there who had been using K2, also known as “spice.” When she opened her mouth, Saleem says, her gums and teeth looked black, “like something out of The Night of the Living Dead.” Other times, he’s seen people seemingly “zombied out” on K2.
“The city should feel really embarrassed,” Saleem contends. “The churches and religious institutions, the social-service organizations should feel embarrassed. If they do anything, they should take that embarrassment and make change to help people instead of just dispersing them.”
On July 10, the District issued Saleem’s organization a permit to maintain the plaza and to enrich the space with “entertainment venues and markets.” One of those enrichments has been a Twilight Farmers Market hosted on Thursdays from 3 to 7 p.m. The market features over 10 local vendors offering fresh produce, meats, and baked goods. So far, it seems to be off to a good start: Roberts, the ANC commissioner, says he hasn’t seen any incidents between vendors and the people on plaza. “We’re starting to see what Starburst could be if it’s taken care of,” he adds. “Right now, though, it’s arguably one of the most blighted parts of D.C.”
Saleem says H Street Main Street will soon start to host other programs at the plaza, such as a retail craft market, rotating art exhibitions, and nighttime dancing. But for all its benefits to the community, programming alone can’t solve the drug and alcohol problems at Starburst, he admits: Maintaining an effective police presence in the area and increasing access to social services like job-training programs, mental-health counseling, and affordable housing will be necessary to eradicate the root causes of the issues—poverty, homelessness, and unemployment.
“We have nothing but great expectations for the future of the plaza and the future of H Street,” says DDOT Deputy Associate Director Matthew Marcou. He adds that if there were any public safety issues with a space administered by DDOT, the department would coordinate with the MPD and other D.C. agencies—such as the D.C. Department of Health—to address people’s concerns. Marcou deferred comment about Starburst Plaza’s reputation for illicit drug use and vagrancy to other offices within DDOT. The department’s spokeswoman Michelle Phipps-Evans said in a follow-up conversation that “no one seems to be stepping up on that one; it seems out of our purview.”
It could be argued that DDOT is the agency primarily responsible for the plaza because it’s a transit hub. Unlike parks run by D.C.’s Department of Parks and Recreation, however, Starburst Plaza does not have a curfew or fences. “No slight against DDOT, but I question whether or not that’s the right agency to make sure a public space like [Starburst] is clean and safe,” explains Roberts.
Medical emergencies linked to synthetic drugs have been popping up all over the city: Data furnished by DOH shows that all hospitals in D.C. have seen increased EMT transports related to synthetic cannabinoid use this year. (The data was collected and shared by D.C.’s Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.) In total, 437 such trips were recorded in June, meaning—on average—there were about 15 of them a day. George Washington and Howard University hospitals had the greatest shares of transports: 21 and 20 percent, respectively. United Medical and Washington Hospital centers followed at 16 percent each.
Synthetic drugs can create headaches for medical professionals and city officials by their very nature. In an email, DOH spokesman Marcus Williams explained that the drugs are not currently tested for in standard drug screenings, and that when they are tested for, the process can be expensive and lengthy—a process further complicated by the changing chemical composition of the drugs. “[This] is a national issue and ultimately needs national solutions,” Williams wrote.
When it comes to Starburst Plaza, however, Saleem is hopeful that local programming and maintenance will transform the intersection from what he calls “a pig pen” into an urban oasis—something that residents of the surrounding neighborhoods can be proud of.
“Starburst is the result of us not solving deeper problems,” he says. “The people are crying out.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery