This past summer, much media attention was given to what has been called a “surge” of violent crime in DC. Resident reactions to the violent crime have been particularly severe on Capitol Hill, a neighborhood straddling the Northeast and Southeast quadrants of the city. Increasingly alarmed by feelings of insecurity and danger, Capitol Hill residents took to the ‘New Hill East (a name given to the area by developers to appeal to potential real estate buyers) listserv to discuss best practices for addressing public safety as well as the needs for Capitol Hill’s entire community.
However, before we are able to adequately address complex social issues we must, as best as we can, take into account the various historical, social, psychological, and economic factors influencing them. Otherwise, potential insights and solutions will go unobserved and circumstances contributing to the current predicament may even be reproduced. Sadly, most Capitol Hill residents are looking a swift and cursory cure for their anxieties.
Also, while thousands of Capitol Hill residents are subscribed to the listserv, only a handful of the most passionate have been weighing in on a debate so fierce it came the New York Times’ attention.
One of the most outspoken Hill residents on the listserv, Richard Lukas, who claims to have lived on the Hill for fifteen years, dubbed the spike in crime a ‘reign of terror’ in an email sent out to the listserv on Oct. 15th, claiming that “a very active segment of marauding at-risk youths who find satisfaction from terrorizing people on a daily basis” are responsible for the inflated crime rate.
Continuing to speak of the crime spike as a ‘reign of terror’, in an article Lukas wrote for HillNow, Lukas identifies public housing complexes, like Potomac Gardens, as “hotspots” of criminal activity—even suggesting “sentinel stations” be placed near, or within, public housing complexes. The harsh, frenzied nature of Lukas’ sentiments are not to be taken lightly—especially while presidential candidate Donald Trump continues to receive support from US citizens despite his blatant racism and xenophobia. What’s concerning is how national and local policies will be influenced by sentiments voiced by people like Trump and Lukas.
However, what worries me most is Lukas’ lopsided understanding of how gentrification, poverty, and crime work in tandem. On his HillNow post, and in the New Hill East listserv, Lukas writes:
I do think that things will get better due to the slow churn of progressive policy reforms being made in our education system and social services, but also due to the increased density through city development. (Even though people like me could never afford that $500,000 one-bedroom condo!)
Here, Lukas doesn’t seem to comprehend that increased city development, also known as gentrification, may be contributing to the recent spike in crime and that, eventually, “people like [him]” may not eventually be able to afford living in the city itself. Presently, the rift between the city’s wealthy and the city’s poor is already staggering. As gentrification advances, and costs of living subsequently increase, this rift will widen—creating conditions in which low-income people will find living in the city even more financially taxing.
As the cost of living increases, and economic resources continue to be distributed inequitably, understanding the relationship between crime and poverty is vital to develop an intelligent and compassionate perspective on the events that took place during the summer. Rather than pinning people who are poor as inherently violent and/or willing to engage in criminal behavior, it is important to understand that poverty often causes people to engage in criminal and/or violent behavior to make ends meet.
Poverty’s effects on the psyche often goes ignored as well, an experience brilliantly encapsulated by the writer James Baldwin when he said, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”.
As stated by the researchers at Poverties.org, “It’s only when people witness the starkest wealth differences that they can start complaining about injustice.”. In an area that has recently undergone tremendous development, such as DC, the city’s disenfranchised residents have been extremely vocal about their frustrations. And, as the DC’s gentrification becomes increasingly visible, the residents’ frustrations will increase as well.
Contributing to the inherent tensions across lines of class inflamed by gentrification, in DC, race, and histories of white supremacy in the United States, add another layer of complexity to the issue.
For Black people in the United States, gentrification must be situated within a history of displacement by white people, beginning with the Middle Passage. For example, until the 1950’s, there existed a multitude of Black-owned homes and businesses in Southwest DC. However, these residents were forced to relocate to other parts of the city by the order of the DC government.
Throughout history it has not been uncommon for Black people to be murdered, tricked, or terrorized off of land they’ve settled on. Therefore, gentrification, and the resultant increased costs of living which prices people out of gentrifying areas, is a point of contention for Black people across the country.
In regards to DC specifically, Black people’s identification with the city itself must also be considered when attempting to understand why DC’s Black residents react to gentrification with intense scorn. After the rebellions of 1968, sparked by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., DC’s middle-class, white and Black, fled the city, leaving the city to a predominantly Black low-income population. While systemic racism and poverty created hardships in the lives of post-rebellion DC residents, cultural forms, such as go-go, were produced as well—making spaces for community to be built based on shared culture, a cultural identity heavily attached to location of birth. Therefore, a unique form of resentment simmers in the hearts of DC’s long-time Black residents as ‘Chocolate City’ becomes less and less ‘chocolate’.
Sadly, those remaining long-time residents are in danger of recent DC transplants mistaking them for criminals—which was addressed by New Hill East listserv participant Linda who sent,
A post to the man walking a white hound on C St SE between 17th and 18th between 6:30 and 6:45 PM tonight: I was only asking you which side of the sidewalk your dog preferred to pass on – not demanding your money/phone/wallet… We can’t be a community if you fear/think that every person of color who passes you on the sidewalk is about to mug you. I cannot imagine what this man was thinking in how he treated me, but his treatment of me made me feel unwelcome and unsafe in my own fricking neighborhood… As long as you approach this crime issue with an “us” against “them” mentality – with the “them” being every Black person on foot, on bike, or in car, you’ll never feel safe and you’ll never truly be a neighborhood.
As a result of stereotypes about Black people proliferated by the media, many white people live under the impression that Black people are dangerous—prone to committing random acts of crime and violence. This fear of Black people has been shown to have severe, even lethal, consequences for Black people who are perceived as threats.
Also, a heightened police presence has also been linked to gentrification and, due to years of brutalization by police forces, Black residents in gentrifying neighborhoods are distrustful of more recent, often white, residents who are prone to calling the police. The call for more police appears more than once in the New Hill East listserv, even by those who aren’t as hysterical as Lukas, and others who react in a similar fashion. Jennifer, who believes the response to the crime wave requires a “two-pronged approach” and is willing to address systemic inequality also wrote, “…a short term police presence again, like we had a month or so back, seems in order given the ridiculous spike this week.”
Ultimately, both Lukas and Linda are both tragically confused about how to address crime in DC. In Lukas’ case, the gentrification he claims will improve quality of life in the city may end up displacing him along with the “marauding at-risk youth” he is so concerned about. And, in regard to Jennifer, calling the police into the community she’s attempting to support will only further the divisions between herself and her neighbors.
To address crime in a just, equitable fashion, one must push for policies that bring job creation, living wages, high-quality education, and affordable housing into the city. Only when the masses have access to a high quality of life will criminal activity become an irregularity.
Kids can be mean. Few know this better than 36-year-old DC native and Potomac Gardens resident Michael Ballard. Michael Ballard was heavy all of his life. The kids called him Fat Mike. His mother suffered from weight problems also so she understood what it was like to be teased and humiliated at school. It was only natural that they would become extremely close.
Michael continued to put on weight throughout school. By the time he graduated high school he weighed 300 pounds. Many people assume that anyone that weighs that much can’t do anything. Michael proved them wrong by going to work right out of high school. From 2000 to 2005 he worked for Goodwill Industries in housekeeping, a job he enjoyed. In 2005 Goodwill lost their contract with the Armed Forces Retirement Home and Michael went to work for Melwood, a nonprofit that creates jobs and opportunities for people with disabilities, in their housekeeping department.
At Melwood, Michael faced discrimination. His co-workers claimed that he had body odor; that he took up too much space; that he moved too slowly and was unable to complete his tasks because he couldn’t fit into the bathroom. It was high school all over again. Within just a few months Michael had left Melwood and returned to Goodwill Industries. But the stress at Melwood had caused Michael to put on more weight. He now weighed ?? pounds. He had a different project manager at Goodwill, one who didn’t know him well and he faced discrimination at Goodwill as well.
He was accused of sitting on and breaking Goodwill’s second-hand chairs. To address the problem, the Government Service Administration brought a bench to his job site exclusively for Michael to use. Unfortunately, his project manager, unwilling to find ways to accommodate an employee of Michael’s size, threw the bench into the trash.
Besides the stress of the hostile work environment, Michael developed an upper respiratory infection from working in Goodwill’s Garage. Despite all this, Michael continued to work at Goodwill from 2006 until 2013, when he was let go.
After losing his job, Michael’s health deteriorated. Due to his extreme weight, Michael had for years suffered from lymphedma— a condition that causes swelling in the arms or legs as a result of a blockage in the lymphatic system that prevents lymph fluid from draining well—on the bottom of both his legs. Michael also developed cellulites—a noncontagious bacterial skin infection—which spread from the bottom of both of his legs to his pelvis. This condition landed him in Washington Hospital for a ten-day stretch in March of 2013. From there he was transferred to Saint Thomas Moore Rehabilitation Center where he was bed bound for two months.
Two months of having to eat in the bed, having the bed made while lying in it, having his body turned and cleaned in the bed was more humiliating than years of being teased. Michael’s weight had made him a target for mockery but now it was risking his life. Michael knew that the only way to escape the derision and to save his life was to control his weight.
In May 2013, he went from being bed bound to being wheel chair ridden. Once in the chair, he was able to begin participating in physical therapy. Soon he was able to move around with a rollator. In December of 2013, Michael was well enough to move back home to Potomac Gardens but not without the use of two portable oxygen tanks.
By this time, his mother was in trouble. Being overweight herself, she had a hernia that had grown to the size of a soccer ball. In 2014, Michael’s mother had surgery at Georgetown Hospital. Terrified that he might lose his best friend, Michael’s stress levels soared along with his eating. While his mother was recovering, Michael’s weight ballooned. At 700 pounds, hospitalization was inevitable.
This time, Michael was offered the option of a sleeve gastrectomy, a procedure that removes all but twenty-five percent of the stomach and greatly limits the patient’s food intake. The operation was performed by Dr. Paul Lin at George Washington University Hospital in March of 2015. Seven months later, Michael had lost 301 pounds.
How did he do it? In addition to the gastrectomy, Michael started exercising with regularity and intensity. For three hours, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he does water aerobics. His real passion is line dancing, which he does from 6:00 – 8:30 PM on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Turkey Thicket Recreation Center. In fact, Michael has been line dancing for five years, but this December 1st will be his one-year anniversary line dancing at Turkey Thicket with a group that calls themselves The Line Dance Addicts. Michael no longer needs to use the portable oxygen to get around, although he still uses it at home. He is well on his way to full recovery from a lifetime of weight-related issues.
He is grateful for his second chance and is working to spread what he’s learned to the community around him. He has begun teaching line dancing to Potomac Gardens’ and Hopkins Apartments’ residents. Classes cost only $2 and it’s already proven popular with those of all ages and all sizes. Line Dancing with Big Mike teaches you more than the Nae Nae and the electric slide; line dancing with Big Mike teaches you that overcoming even extremely large obstacles is possible and easier when your community has your back.
The community that has Michael’s back as he continues to lose weight includes but is not limited to: Cheryl Thompson Walker, Kembal Bonds, Russell, Jordan, Miss Rita and Rita from Turkey Thicket, as well as Miss Paula Allen, Miss Reshida Young and the entire Line Dance Addicts family; Dee, Reggie, Adrienne Jenkins and Dr. Cristina Schreiber from George Washington University Hospital; Sisters With A Purpose and the entire Master’s Child Church Family under the leadership of Bishop Melvin Robinson junior and his wife and church co-founder Erma Robinson-Fitzgerald; and last but not least the Lord, his mom and grandparents.
Last week’s post A Place to Play: Potomac Gardens, Public Housing and Our Children made clear that the playground at the Potomac Gardens public housing complex had seen better days. The children who live in Potomac Gardens had stopped using it and their parents wanted it replaced. But the owners of the property, the District of Columbia Housing Authority, really couldn’t come up with the money to make that happen.
Despite the obvious need for affordable housing in the District of Columbia and indeed urban centers across the country, only a ridiculously small percentage of our taxes supports public housing. As a result, a new playground for Potomac Gardens wouldn’t be funded by the Public Housing Operating Fund or the Public Housing Capital Fund.
It’s very popular among the political right to rely on Ronald Reagan’s edict that “government is not the solution, government is the problem.” One may consider the former state of Potomac Gardens playground as supporting that statement but the reality is we rely on government for a lot of things—infrastructure, education, security, etc. If basic safety net issues were funded properly, government might do better by us all. Until that day arrives (and it might never happen), communities have to make demands of their elected representatives and government officials and then hold them to their mandate to serve the citizenry.
So here’s how Potomac Gardens got its new playground. Parents brought their concerns to the Potomac Gardens Resident Council. Resident Council President and D.C. Housing Authority Commissioner Aquarius Vann-Ghasri, worked with both Little Lights Urban Ministries and DCHA Director of Asset Management Laurie Putscher to try and solve the problem. Little Lights had a relationship with the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, and despite the fact that the children who live in Potomac Gardens are not in fact homeless, they were willing to work with Little Lights and the Potomac Gardens community. Unfortunately, after months of negotiations and missed deadlines the new playground didn’t materialize.
At this point, DCHA Director of Asset Management Laurie Putscher stepped up to the plate. Though she was unable to leverage DCHA funds for the playground, she was able to leverage resources from the District’s non-profit and corporate sectors. First of all, Putscher contacted Make Kids Smile, Inc.
, a non-profit dedicated to providing playground equipment for underserved children in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. Make Kids Smile raises money for playground equipment and donates the materials to the recipient. They also pay a certified installer to be present on the day of the build to ensure the project is properly constructed and meets all applicable safety standards.
The president of Make Kids Smile, brought in a troop of volunteers from Foulger-Pratt, who had assembled and installed playground equipment before. They were joined by a slew of Potomac Gardens’ residents who were delighted to finally see their wishes brought to fruition. Little Lights Urban Ministries, happy to finally have a playground they can use during their summer programming, also sent volunteers.
In addition to volunteers, Foulger-Pratt also donated $5000 to fix the basketball rims, add additional landscaping beautification, and some painting. CT Management
, the company DCHA has under contract to manage Potomac Gardens, also donated $5,000 and provided lunch for many of the volunteers. Finally, Laurie Putscher also contacted the Earth Conservation Corps
who planted 20-30 trees, not just along the side of the playground itself, but throughout the property.
Providing a playground for kids who live in public housing shouldn’t be more complicated than building a dog park but in the District of Columbia, it might be. In 2007, the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) issued regulations which allowed for the creation of official, public dog parks on District-owned parkland. So far there are two dog parks in Ward Six and a third, which will be funded privately, has been approved. DPR has been around in one form or another since 1790 and yet only maintains eight playgrounds for children in Ward Six, the playground in Potomac Gardens is not one of them.
Public-private partnerships make sense for dog parks but do they make sense for playgrounds? Ward 6 Councilman Charles Allen was happy to ask DCHA Director Adrian Todman to get more involved and push for a new playground at Potomac Gardens, but the driving energy definitely came from the community. Without their willingness to hold elected representatives and public officials accountable to their constituents even this small victory could not have been achieved.