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Targeted areas feel little relief

Mayor’s project falling short of residents’ hopes

(Published August 27, 2001)

By CHRIS SMITH

Staff Writer

Almost two years ago Mayor Anthony A. Williams targeted six neighborhoods as focal points in his administration’s efforts to rebuild the city’s most distressed areas.

Those neighborhoods – dubbed "Capital Communities" – would receive special coordinated attention to eradicate long-neglected blighted properties and clear out entrenched crime and drug problems.

While residents embraced their neighborhoods’ designation with hope, many say they have yet to see the hoped-for positive results or even, in some cases, the promised actions.

However, Capital Community leaders in two of the targeted patrol service areas -- PSA 508 in Northeast Washington’s Trinidad section and PSA 109 on the eastern edge of Capitol Hill – have seen some signs of life in the Capital Community Partnership Project (CCPP).

Jim Myers, a resident of PSA 109, said he and his neighbors were able to eliminate alcohol sales last October within their Capital Community – which extends from 14th Street to 19th Street SE and from Massachusetts Avenue to E Street SE – with the Metropolitan Police Department’s assistance.

The three establishments that sold alcohol were all located within 600 feet of Payne Elementary School and neighbors associated the sales with multiple homicides in the area, Myers said. Through community efforts the city also has allocated funds for renovations at the school, he said.

"I feel like we got something positive done," said Myers, a journalist who has written about crime and government-neglect issues in his neighborhood for Atlantic Monthly. "It was great to focus on schools and not drugs."

Neighborhood activists went through intensive three-week training sessions at Howard University as part of the MPD’s Partnership in Problem Solving Program, Myers said. The MPD programs are part of Chief Charles Ramsey’s focus on community policing efforts.

"Getting the police and citizens together is good," he said. "The program was good initially and led to a lot of efforts, but changes in personnel to people who do not know much about the programs has hurt recent efforts."

Even with the partial success of the Capital Communities project is his neighborhood, Myers said it is difficult to judge the progress of the project because it is hard to know what it is.

"The Partnership in Problem Solving is one of the least-publicized programs in the city," he said. "There are a lot of Capital Communities worse than ours. I do not know if the program has done much. Each community has a lot in common, but it is too bad we do not have much interaction."

Wilhelmena Lawson, who represents Advisory Neighborhood Commission 5C06 and is president of Trinidad Concerned Citizens for Reform, said her neighborhood has taken a proactive role in community improvement. Lawson surprised many of her fellow ANC commissioners during last spring’s Ward 5 Crime Summit by being the only ANC single-member district representative present who praised police efforts, rather than complaining about a lack of attention.

"Our community is on the rise," Lawson said. "For success we have to be optimistic and our foot soldiers are working hard for a change. The government is there, but you cannot expect a lot from them….. You have to do a lot on your own and be more sustainable."

Small gardens in front of homes and beautification of the Wheatley Elementary School are just a few examples of the positive changes in the neighborhood. People are training for job placement at the new Kmart being built in nearby Brentwood, others are earning their GEDs, inmates from a halfway house help clean up the streets and alleys, and a liquor store on Montello Avenue NE will soon be a community center, Lawson said.

Great PSA officers who are community-oriented have also played an important role in the neighborhood -- once an area where people could not even walk on the sidewalks because they were congested with drug activity, she said.

Though Lawson, a former D.C. government employee, is critical of a lack of funds devoted to fixing up the Capital Communities, she said she still supports the mayor’s efforts.

"Council members have informed me, Chief Ramsey has trained me and Mayor Williams has encouraged me," Lawson said. "The brief times we are together I feel like I get support from him [Williams]. People are unaware of what he is trying to do to make change, and it cannot happen overnight. But the city can do more."

Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Margret Kellums said she believes the Capital Communities project, a highlight of Mayor Williams’ Neighborhood Action Initiative that kicked off in the fall of 1999, has been extremely successful.

Improved organization within the D.C. government has changed the service delivery of the project and made it more community-based, Kellums said.

"These neighborhoods are a lot better than they used to be," she said. "We are mindful that the problems are not all solved, but we will continue to meet the community’s needs. The government has become more sophisticated in dealing with all of the neighborhoods instead of just the blighted ones by passing resources all over the neighborhoods."

The mayor’s communications office also said police officers are in the process of interviewing people in the Capital Communities to prepare a progress report. The mayor is planning a follow-up citywide Neighborhood Action Summit for this fall.

Despite Kellums’ positive assessment of progress in the Capital Communities, most community leaders contacted for this story said they have yet to see any substantial changes as a result of the District’s efforts. They say their communities remain plagued with the same problems - illegal drug sales, graffiti, trash and vacant buildings - that they had two years ago, and residents wonder what, if anything, has been done to alleviate the situation.

"The Capital Communities program has not worked in my neighborhood," said Lenwood Johnson, ANC 1A10 commissioner. "I hope the mayor redirects his efforts in his second term and puts pressure on the police department – if it means hiring a new police chief."

Johnson’s neighborhood, part of PSA 414, extends from Park Place to Georgia Avenue NW and from Columbia Road to Harvard Street NW.

He said residents have grown tired of giving good advice to police who are not doing anything.

"People have become apathetic for a good reason," said Johnson, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1978. "We have been trying to cooperate with police in the Fourth District, but the police are doing a terrible job. The commander has had some problems with some of her officers who made negative remarks about the community. She stuck up for the officers instead of the community."

The open-air drug market that has thrived for 15 years around Hobart Place NW, north of Howard University, remains as busy as ever, Johnson said. "Nothing has been done about the situation. The police and mayor’s efforts have been misdirected."

However, Kellums points to a new park and community center the city has built on Hobart Place NW as one of the improvements. "I am not suggesting that everything is perfect or near perfect in the neighborhood, because we have a long way to go," she said.

Many of the Capital Communities are in the "third phase," Kellums said – revitalization. "During this stage, the government can make economic and social service investments and help take these neighborhoods to the next level," she said.

Lack of development is a key issue in the area around Division Avenue and 49th Street NE. High concentration of drug activity in abandoned houses and boarded businesses has continued, said John Frye, commissioner of ANC 7D04.

City agencies brought out the street sweepers, inspectors, police officers and others during a publicized effort early in the Williams administration to focus resources on cleaning up the area around the area’s major intersection at Division and Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE. Two weeks later, residents of the area complained that the trash and other problems had returned, and they have seen no similar coordinated effort since then.

"I just don’t see any light," Frye said of his neighborhood’s future. "Not to say things will not change, but I have not seen anything on the horizon.

"This community has so much potential, but so much land is wasted. There are no proposals for development, and it is sad. Something is wrong with this picture. We have an outstanding city planner, but it is going to take more than just him."

Distressed neighborhoods seem to follow Frye, who was, ironically enough, an ANC commissioner in the Ivy City neighborhood, which is located just north of Trinidad, another Capital Community.

"This neighborhood is like a dead battery," Frye said. "Someone needs to jump-start this community."

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator