Gentrified: A tale of two neighborhoods in Washington, D.C.
This is the first installment in a two-part series exploring gentrification in the heart of Washington, D.C., and how some of the District’s most historically troubled blocks have struggled to move beyond their past. | Part II
On a chilly winter night, I found William sitting on the stoop of an abandoned row house a couple doors down from my place on New York Ave. He pinched two jagged white pebbles from a baggy and packed them into his pipe.
“[People] look at me and see a disease,” he said, tamping the rocks with his index finger. “Until they make the fatal mistake of engaging me. Then they see I’m well-versed, I’m bright — I’m a human being.”
William has spent the last five decades hustling around the Truxton Circle neighborhood. His upbringing here sowed his addiction from a young age. At 9-years-old, he recalls sipping from half-empty cups at neighborhood parties; by 12, he was drinking on a daily basis; at 16, he tried PCP. And when the wave of crack cocaine consumed the neighborhood in the 1980s, it consumed him, too.
His addiction, in other words, is bound by both drug and place.
“New York Ave is my vice,” he said.
He sparked his lighter and dragged on the glass pipe, inhaling the same freebase cocaine Rayful Edmond hawked 30 years ago and a few neighborhoods kids still cook up today. Blue-gray smoke poured through his pursed lips and his pupils swelled like black bullseyes.
“I’d give my life if it meant cleaning up these streets,” he said, coughing out the last plume of smoke.
Down the block from where William sat is North Capitol Street — the road that divides northern D.C. into east and west, and that also divides two neighborhoods into different worlds. On the west side of North Capitol Street is Truxton Circle, a neighborhood that has struggled to move beyond its storied history of drugs, crime, and violence. On the east side is NoMa, one of the most rapidly gentrified areas in the city that boasts 13 million square feet of office space, nearly 600,00 square feet of retail space, and over 3,800 new apartment units.
Truxton Circle’s troubles can be traced to the 1980s when it was home to one of the biggest open-air drug markets in the District. Crack cocaine was sweeping across the city, and Hanover Place in Truxton Circle proved to be a bustling spot for users. Two kingpins — Rayful Edmond and Tony Lewis, Sr. — partnered to control broads swaths of territory in D.C., moving more than 400 pounds of crack cocaine per week and raking in as much as $8 million a month. Tony Lewis, Sr. oversaw the territory west of North Capitol Street, which was first rooted on Hanover Place and soon spread across the neighborhood.
“That was a huge, [multi]-million dollar drug market,” said MPD Commander Daniel P. Hickson, who formerly worked as a narcotics and homicide detective. “On that one block, there might be twenty different people out on the street selling drugs [and] literally cars lined up coming in to buy.”
Law enforcement and public officials condemned drug lords as the harbingers of urban decay in the District. Tony Lewis, Jr. — the son of Edmond’s partner — cast a more sympathetic light on Edmond and his father, depicting dealers as a cross between hardscrabble entrepreneurs and quasi-Robin Hoods.
“On Hanover, you got money illegally to take care of the necessities,” Lewis writes in his memoir Slugg: A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration. “And what begins out of a sense of desperation continues as a way of life.”
But that way of life, Commander Hickson told me, came with dire costs.
“Hanover Place was probably the most violent block in the city of Washington at that time,” he said. “[When] I worked in homicide…Hanover was like a second home to us.”
At the height of open-air drug markets and kingpin beefing in the 1980s and 1990s, the blocks east of North Capitol were tranquil and desolate — little more than blighted warehouses, vacant lots, and a few run-down office buildings. As the city’s deficit ballooned in the mid-1990s, a report saw promise in the untapped potential of the neighborhood. Its authors recommended the construction of a Metro station in the area, which would spark “interest in the potential of NoMa as a vibrant mixed-use community.” At the time, the name “NoMa” hadn’t gained much currency — most D.C. residents associated the neighborhood with the old Greyhound station. But a group of local commercial property owners helped mobilize the effort to build the station, which opened in 2004.
The group of property owners then followed another suggestion in the report — forming a Business Improvement District (BID) to foster commercial development around the Metro station. BIDs are business associations with established geographic boundaries that are responsible for generating jobs, improving business conditions, maintaining commercial corridors, and providing youth and homeless services.
NoMa BID was formed in 2007 and wasted little time ushering in development and breaking ground on new projects every few months. In the last nine years, NoMa BID helped attract notable tenants to the neighborhood, such as NPR, Google, and the Department of Homeland Security. Since the Metro station opened, the amount of office and retail space has doubled within NoMa BID’s borders. In addition to the 3,836 existing apartments, about 1,000 units — many of them luxury dwellings — are nearing completion.
Today, development continues at a fast clip, with gleaming high-rises towering over construction sites where eager developers scramble to break ground. But along certain borders of the BID, the development and economic activity abruptly halts — most notably along its North Capitol Street border with Truxton Circle.
I set out on foot one day to speak with some small business owners along this section of the North Capitol Street corridor. Of the several owners I spoke to, none had been contacted by NoMa BID about becoming a member when the BID was first created.
“We drew lines [where] we knew the property owners wanted to be part of the district,” said Robin-Eve Jasper, President of NoMa BID.
Over the course of my interview with Jasper, though, it became clear that Truxton Circle’s troubled legacy was also a looming concern when NoMa BID was created. If the blocks to the east of North Capitol Street were viewed as a tabula rasa for economic development, the blocks to the west were seen as an inviolable knot of crime and vice.
And to this day, that knot has yet to be fully untangled.
Tony Lewis, Jr. wound up following a significantly different path than his father, who was locked up for life on drug charges in the late-1980s. Today, the younger Lewis works as a vocational development specialist at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, helping returning citizens in D.C. find work after incarceration.
I sat with Lewis in the living room of his home on Hanover Place, which was once a stash house back in the 1980s. It’s since been renovated with hardwood floors, a gas fireplace, and marble countertops, but below its modern amenities are the stories from its notorious stash house days.
“I probably served eight search warrants for [that] house alone,” recalls Commander Hickson. “They kept their stash in the cabinet, or under the sink, or in a cereal box sometimes.”
Lewis’s house serves as a kind of metaphor for the area at large. While the neighborhood has improved in recent years, the issues that beset these blocks for decades still lurk below the surface. Amid renovated row houses, disagreements occasionally escalate to violent incidents. The area has also seen an uptick in robberies and burglaries. Crack remains a mainstay, and dissociative drugs, like K2 and bath salts, are also on the rise.
While the types of drugs have evolved over time, the rules of the game have stayed the same. During the Rayful Edmond-era, according to Lewis, lookouts yelled Olleray! — pig Latin for “roller,” or police — as squad cars rounded the corner. Today, when I walk through the back alleys of Truxton Circle, I hear lookouts yell Omaha! when patrol cars come into view — an audible for dealers to hide their stash.
The persistence of drugs and crime in the neighborhood hasn’t gone unnoticed by Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration. Late last year, about a dozen executive agency directors — some of the most powerful officials in the District — gathered for a walk-through in the neighborhood to identify ongoing issues.
Along the blocks adjacent to the Bloomingdale neighborhood to the north, residents pointed out cosmetic issues like cracked sidewalks, graffiti, and overgrown shrubbery. Agency directors took diligent notes and a cadre of public works employees bagged litter en route.
As the group made its way into the heart of Truxton Circle, concerns shifted from beautification to crime, and the walk-through wound up tracing a timeline of violence that has rattled the neighborhood in recent years. At the corner of North Capitol and O Street, an agency director spoke to the owner of a dollar store where a clerk was shot during a robbery in 2013. Down O Street and through an alley onto Hanover Place, the group passed where a boy was shot two years ago (and where a shootout took place last month, leaving one man dead.) Through an alleyway onto New York Avenue, we walked past the corner where a gunman shot four people in front of Big Ben’s Liquor last year. The suspect turned and fled into Truxton Circle, remaining at-large until last month.
During a ride along with a 5th District police officer, I asked if he believed North Capitol Street served as a kind of firewall for crime between the two neighborhoods. His response left little doubt.
“I’d say so ,” he said. “Definitely.”
But some residents who live in Truxton Circle fear North Capitol Street may serve as a firewall for something else: opportunity.
Mark, who lives a few doors down from me on New York Avenue, earned his certification as a cook through classes offered at a local community center. After graduating from the program, he was excited to see restaurants opening a few blocks away in the heart of NoMa.
“I applied to a whole bunch of places over there,” he said, but he never heard back. He landed a job at the University of Maryland, but expressed frustration over having to travel 8 miles to work every day when he is qualified for the jobs in his backyard.
His experience, he adds, isn’t unique.
“I know a lot of folks out of work who can’t find jobs around here,” he said.
Tony Lewis, Jr., believes more needs to happen to ensure that opportunities associated redevelopment and gentrification emanate evenly — and equally — across socio-economic lines. (Worth noting: Approximately 80% of jobs within NoMa BID are held by individuals with a college degree or higher). Unless people in positions of power “put the same effort into building up the people” as they do building up city blocks, according to Lewis, the lives of the less-fortunate won’t improve.
But he isn’t optimistic that will happen any time soon.
“Folks don’t see a quick enough return when they invest in people,” he said.