Long before “Occupy Wall Street,” journalist Sean Holton occupied 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Southeast for this look at how the powerless live on the other end of the President’s street. (A longtime Trail Mix pal — and my best friend — Sean is facing a tough fight against brain cancer and sends thanks to all those here who wished him well yesterday on his birthday weekend.)
The Orlando Sentinel
Author: Sean Holton, Sentinel Washington Bureau
Date: Jan 26, 1992
Up there, on the northwest side of Washington, D.C., is the most impressive address in America: 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But down here, down on the southeast side of town, visitors to that address won’t find the White House. They won’t even find a building, or an official listing on the tax rolls. Nearby they’ll find a torn-down gas station, a McDonald’s restaurant and one or two shivering beggars on the sidewalk.
This is 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Southeast – the flip side of official Washington. It’s part of a world where drug dealers, not lobbyists, fight for power, where guns are more essential than fax machines. It’s in a neighborhood where middle-income homeowners band together to march against fears that otherwise would keep them locked indoors. It’s a place on the verge of getting better and on the verge of getting worse.
Tuesday night President Bush will deliver a State of the Union address to a nation that is wondering whether it’s on the verge of getting better or getting worse. His speech, written at the 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. “up there” on the northwest side, will be broad in scope and cover a variety of topics, foreign and domestic.
But down here, down in southeast Washington, a small slice of the truth about the state of the union exists too. It comes from a perspective separated from “official Washington” by more than city blocks.
“That’s the corner of 1600 Pennsylvania Southeast. . . . You stand on that strip, and you take in everything,” said John “Peter Bug” Matthews, 42, a community activist who runs a shoe-repair academy for neighborhood children. “And you can see how deserted, how unattended that strip is compared with 1600 Northwest. What’s the difference? Nobody important ever lived here.
“The president is the most important person in the United States. . . . but how do the people weigh in?” Matthews asked. “If there are no people, can there be a president?
“Who comes first?” he asked.
‘Greatness of the Empire’
When architect-engineer Pierre L’Enfant laid out the plan for Washington, D.C., in 1791, he said he wanted “the greatness of the empire” reflected in the design.
What evolved was a city centered on the U.S. Capitol, divided into quadrants and organized along a symmetrical grid of streets criss-crossed diagonally by avenues.
Each quadrant has its own set of numbered and lettered streets, which increase numerically and alphabetically outward from the Capitol. Each quadrant is a rough mirror image of its neighbor. So in a purely cartographic sense, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. S.E. is the direct reflection of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W.
Sixteenth Street never actually crosses Pennsylvania Avenue up by the White House, and the same is true down here. About 100 yards before 16th Street Southeast can reach Pennsylvania Avenue, it withers to an end, rubbed out by a block of row houses. Where the streets would intersect, there are only the remnants of the gas station – a lightpole, a concrete island, an abandoned gas pump shut inside a rotting, wooden box.
To the south and east, past Barney Circle, the filthy Anacostia River slithers by under the John Philip Sousa Bridge. The waterway and its tributaries have served as a dumping zone for car tires, refrigerators and 55-gallon drums containing who knows what. Although local and regional governments have launched a restoration plan, toxins such as PCBs and chlordane make the water unfit for fishing and swimming.
Last Sunday a pipe at a petroleum company just downstream from the bridge ruptured and sent about 2,000 gallons of fuel oil gushing into the Anacostia. The resulting slick spread for a mile.
Just north of the bridge is the Congressional Cemetery, where J. Edgar Hoover and some 75 former congressmen are among the buried. Three or four blocks beyond that are D.C. General Hospital and Robert F. Kennedy Stadium.
RFK is home to the Redskins, contenders in today’s Super Bowl and one of official Washington’s most celebrated institutions. D.C. General is a less likely destination for the city’s powerful.
The hospital serves “increasing numbers of substance abusers, babies born of addicted mothers, the poor, the homeless, violence-related trauma cases and a growing number of HIV-infected patients,” according to a recent annual report. In 1990 the hospital spent $1.3 million caring for abandoned infants, known as “boarder babies.”
Moving west from the hospital, back to Pennsylvania Avenue at 13th Street, is the Potomac Gardens public housing project. Its grungy brown buildings cover a city block. Its sphere of influence – as a center of crack-cocaine trafficking and related violence – envelops the entire neighborhood.
“There’s two ways you get in the paper here in Washington, D.C.,” Matthews said. “You’re either a screw-up politician or you die. . . . You are killed.”
At Potomac Gardens it’s usually the second way.
In The Washington Post, in the front section, the world of the White House is chronicled for posterity. In the back pages, reports of life and death at Potomac Gardens are filed and forgotten:
Front page: “VIDEO SHOWS ENTIRE BUSH COLLAPSE.”
Back pages: Potomac Gardens, Jan. 10, 1992 – “Police Seize AK-47 Rifle in Southeast Arrest; Man Also Had Pistol, 37 Bags of Cocaine”
Front page: “ENDING SILENCE, INSIDER LIFTS CIA VEIL; FIERS TELLS PANEL GATES DID NOT KNOW DETAILS OF IRAN-CONTRA”
Back pages: Potomac Gardens, Sept. 20 1991 – “Man Slain in Complex in Southeast; Residents Witness Morning Shooting”
Front page: “COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF LEAVES MILITARY DETAILS TO PENTAGON”
Back pages: Potomac Gardens, Jan. 19, 1991 – “Youth, 14, Charged in Hill Slaying. Lawyer Was Killed in Car at Light.”
Every once in a while, the two sides of Washington intersect at Potomac Gardens. Jesse Jackson used the project as a backdrop for a press conference to announce he wouldn’t run for president in 1992, calling it “the urban crisis personified, the epitome of national neglect.”
Former White House aide Oliver North performed some of his court-ordered, 1,200 hours of community service there before his Iran-Contra conviction was overturned.
“I think he gave them some hot dogs or something,” Matthews said.
The Power of light
On a shelf in Eleanor Hill’s dining room is a reminder of the other Washington. It’s a photograph of Secretary of State James Baker, standing right next to her and smiling broadly. It was taken at her 1989 retirement party, when she left the State Department after 34 years as a data-processing supervisor.
But Baker’s smile, and all his power, seem so distant when Hill walks through her neighborhood.
“This is the torch area – the hot area, as we call it,” Hill said as she stood on a street corner not far from her home. “It’s the drugs more than anything else.”
Her husband, Stanley Hill, said, “All types of crime. You got the muggings. You got the break-ins – all types of crime.”
Eleanor, 58, and Stanley, 60, a retired Defense Department employee, live in a well-kept row house a half-block from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. S.E. Like many of the middle-income black residents here, the Hills bought in the 1950s, reared children, put them through college, and are now growing old and wondering where the next generation is taking the neighborhood.
One possibility is suggested by an influx of young government workers – a second wave of Stanleys and Eleanors – seeking cheaper housing than what can be found further up Capitol Hill. Another possibility is suggested by Potomac Gardens and its crack-house satellites.
As leaders of the Barney Circle Neighborhood Watch, the Hills are doing what they can to stave off the second possibility.
They patrol the streets nightly with about 25 others, armed only with two-way radios, flashlights, clipboards and orange hats. Besides patrolling, they aim to choke out drug traffic by writing down license plates of cars that stop at crack houses.
“When you get out there and start, they (drug dealers) do try to intimidate you,” Stanley said. “But if they intimidate you, and drive people back into their houses, then they’ve got control of the area.”
Police credit the neighborhood watch for helping make the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue a safer place to walk at night. The area is part of the 1st Police District, which recorded the city’s sharpest drop in crime last year.
“That was the first time we’ve had a killing around here in a while,” Eleanor said nonchalantly as she walked past the Domino’s Pizza, at 15th and Pennsylvania, where Andre Joseph Kenny Jr. was shot dead Jan. 7.
The muggings by the 7-Eleven at 14th and Pennsylvania seem to have dropped off, too, her husband added. Maybe it’s just the cold weather, he said, or maybe it’s the fluorescent lights the manager installed.
Eleanor said, “To deter crime, all you need is light.”
Stanley added, “It’s amazing, in a way: people running from the light.”
‘You’d See the Blood’
Here, on this side of Pierre L’Enfant’s looking glass, the faces of official Washington dissolve, and their voices fade to nothing.
Marvin Thomas, 25, has heard of President Bush but just barely. He draws a blank when asked about White House officials such as Richard Darman, the director of the Office of Management and Budget.
But Thomas doesn’t care much about Darman or the federal budget. Going from table to table to beg customers for money in a Pizza Hut restaurant at 1401 Pennsylvania Ave. S.E., he’s worried about a budget considerably smaller than Darman’s.
“Me and my friend, we go to different places to panhandle. He gets $5, and I get $5, and then we go to get a dime rock (of crack cocaine),” he said. “We do that about seven times a day.”
Thomas is a client of Community Connections, a non-profit agency at 1512 Pennsylvania Ave. that helps victims of chronic mental illness manage their lives.
Thomas said he gets a $422 check each month, from which the agency deducts his rent and grocery bills so he can’t use the money to buy crack.
He has held a job only once, he said, and attempted suicide three times. Because he can’t read, Thomas can plug into official Washington only when he’s around a television set. Even then he picks up the bare minimum.
“I just have to listen to find out what they’re talking about. I know they’re talking about something important, like when we had the war. A lot of people were talking about the war and everything,” he said.
“I know we were fighting over oil – and it came down to we had to have war,” Thomas continued. “I know they was sending troops over there, from here, to fight.”
Now he has to go. The Pizza Hut shift manager has spotted him and doesn’t like him bothering the customers.
“He’s just pitiful,” Gregory Campbell, 36, said of Thomas after shooing him out the door of the Pizza Hut. “We know the bad ones. We’re weeding them out, slowly and surely.”
Hard Work of Freedom
The annual State of the Union address brings the president, his Cabinet, the Congress, the Supreme Court, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assorted agency heads – everyone who’s anyone in official Washington – under one roof. The U.S. Capitol becomes a hall of mirrors, the powerful reflecting one another’s glory.
The president was interrupted by applause 53 times during last year’s address, according to the official transcript. An example: “We’re determined to protect another fundamental civil right – freedom from crime and the fear that stalks our cities. . . . We need tough crime-control legislation, and we need it now. (Applause).”
Campbell, a born-again Christian, is taking a stand against this drug-infested neighborhood, which he also describes as “pitiful.” He has drawn the battle line at Pizza Hut’s door. The first step was to put locks on the bathroom, where addicts such as Thomas once would go to smoke or shoot up dope.
“You’d see the blood; you’d see the needles. . . . You could smell the crack in there,” he said.
“And as we fight crime, we will fully implement our national strategy for combatting drug abuse. . . . We will not rest until the day of the dealer is over, forever. (Applause)”
Next, Campbell confronted drug dealers who came to loiter in the booths, and booted them out.
“A lot of people got the attitude, ‘Why should I risk my life? I’m not going to get involved. I’m just going to do my work and go home,’ ” Campbell said. “But we need to get involved. This is a rough situation. But it can get better, and it has gotten better.”
Now he has time to worry about whether the cucumbers and onions in his salad bar are sliced to the specified thickness of one-eighth of an inch.
“We all have something to give. So if you know how to read, find someone who can’t. If you’ve got a hammer, find a nail. If you’re not hungry, not lonely, not in trouble, seek out someone who is. Join the community of conscience. Do the hard work of freedom. And that will define the state of our Union. (Applause)”
Thomas, meanwhile, just goes about his business.
He and his buddy Howard Moody mill around a filthy, barren courtyard at the rear of Potomac Gardens. They’re waiting to buy their next rock of crack. Before going into the dealer’s apartment, they agree to pose for a photograph.
The Capitol building, swollen with applause, and the White House, at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., are just a mile or two away. But from this side of Pierre L’Enfant’s glorious grid, they are at the other end of an empire.
Sean Holton spent 25 years as an award-winning newspaper journalist. His widely-recognized work as a reporter, writer and editor focused on land development, public policy, politics and governmental issues, including nine years as a Washington DC correspondent and bureau chief for the Orlando Sentinel, and as Associate Managing Editor based in Orlando. Sean holds a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University and a bachelor’s degree in English and Political Science from Rockhurst University.
Also by Holton: A White House Mystery