On the ground in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

How do you solve a problem like North Capitol and Florida?

February 1, 2011 - 05:00 AM
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Truxton Circle

The stretch of North Capitol Street where it crosses Florida Avenue has long been a hangout spot for homeless men and women waiting for the next mealtime at SOME. Combine that with a preponderance of liquor stores and carryout joints, the inevitable handful of Kids Up to No Good, and the intersection of half a dozen busy city bus lines, and you've got a brilliant recipe for, for lack of a better term, Stuff Going Down.

A snapshot of recent D.C. police data for the area shows this Stuff is happening with increasing frequency, although far more likely to involve nonviolent property crime than anything else. Over the last 60 days, thefts and stolen cars accounted for fully 27 of the 40 reported crimes within a two block radius of this intersection. The percentages were roughly equivalent for the same period last year, when 16 of 25 reported crimes were nonviolent.

But with two shootings in recent weeks within a stone's throw of this spot, the big guns stopped by Monday evening for the usual crime walk/photo opp, hoping to get the message out that this community will not tolerate more bloodshed.

Saturday's early morning shooting at nearby First and P streets NW wasn't fatal, and didn't end up making headlines much beyond Prince of Petworth. But the Jan. 19 shooting death of 33-year-old Bill Mitchell — an apparently random killing that resulted after Mitchell stopped to help a woman in distress — has captured its share of media attention while shaken neighbors grapple with what is starting to feel like a return to the bad old days.

"We want to try to allay those fears as quickly as we can," said D.C. Mayor Vince Gray.

Gray, along with Ward 5 D.C. Councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr. and D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier, joined assorted city agency heads, civic association members, and advisory neighborhood commissioners for a brisk stroll around the block Monday, during which the group pointed out particular problem areas, popped in to local businesses to shake hands, and took a few questions from reporters.

"It's a photo opp," shrugged newly elected ANC 5C chair Bradley Thomas as he followed Gray down the unit block of P Street NW, where they stopped to take a look at a mattress that had been improperly dumped in an alleyway. Don't get him wrong, he's "happy people are taking an interest" in what Thomas terms his "under-appreciated" neighborhood. But he's more anxious to get working on a handful of nuts-and-bolts solutions. "I don't want this to just be a show."

Among the likely experiments discussed Monday was a plan to install brighter streetlamps at and around the intersection. D.C. police have also put in a request to relocate the Metrobus stop adjacent to the triangle park on the northwest corner, the same spot where Mitchell was killed. Fifth District Commander Lamar Greene explained that his officers will often approach loiterers at the park who then pretend they're just waiting for the bus.

"We can't do anything about someone waiting for a bus," says Greene.

Of course, the District of Columbia doesn't have an anti-loitering law on the books, despite the repeated efforts of Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, so it's not entirely clear what police officers could do about someone who's just standing on a corner without a bus stop, either.

And while some of the streetlights at the busy intersection do appear as though they could stand an upgrade, not all nearby residents are in favor of that plan. Carl Hoffman's bedroom windows face Florida Avenue just west of North Cap., and "those lights are already really bright," he says.

Whatever attempts at quick fixes might be put in place, it's a situation Bates Area Civic Association president Geovani Bonilla believes won't really go away unless the city addresses what he sees as a confluence of forces all converging at this single geographic point. "We've got 13 social programs and service providers, and five liquor stores. And that's just in this small area," Bonilla says. Those populations are now regularly running into the gentrification wave, he adds, the younger couples and families who are buying up the area's bountiful rowhouses at an ever more rapid pace. "The new people to the neighborhood end up creating more targets" for crime, he says.

If anyone ought to have a strong opinion about the state of the intersection, it's Lula Tatum. She's lived at the corner of Q Street and Lincoln Road NE for the last 35 years, a perch that offers her a clear view of the goings on across the street. Despite having her car stolen in broad daylight a few months back, Tatum says she doesn't worry too much about crime. But she would like to see the men who sit in the park and leave their trash behind have someplace else to go during the day. "Some kind of work program ... so they're not just out there drinking themselves to death," she says.

Toward the end of Gray's walk-thru, the group stops in front of a memorial that's been erected in Mitchell's honor. As they survey the surrounding intersection, someone mentions that this was actually once a traffic circle. Truxton Circle hasn't been an actual circle since the late 1940s, and there's been some overt longing to bring it back among the blogging smart growth set over the past couple of years (despite the D.C. Department of Transportation rejecting the concept after paying for a study on it back in 2005). "Maybe it should be a circle again," someone else muses within earshot of the mayor.

Gray doesn't really respond, but with so many city leaders gathered in this spot for the sole purpose of figuring out how to improve it, maybe the idea of a glorious new circle park replacing this grim concrete slab doesn't seem so crazy after all.

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  1. IMGoph IMGoph

    Geoffrey Hatchard

    Feb 01, 2011 - 11:24:03 AM

    thanks, sommer, for giving the circle idea some more "ink." it's worth noting as well that it's not just the circle that could use some "smart growth" redo...it's the entire north capitol corridor from michigan avenue south to massachusetts avenue. when north capitol street was extended north from its former terminus at michigan avenue, that extension was built as a freeway, and north capitol was turned into as much of a freeway as possible through the neighborhood. removing a lane of traffic, getting rid of the underpasses at new york and rhode island avenues, and returning front lawns and sidewalks to the neighborhood would go a long way towards making the area more desirable for pedestrians, who could frequent businesses, which would make it all less attractive to vagrants. i know this seems like a pie-in-the-sky idea, and perhaps it all is, but this was a vibrant commercial and residential street at one point. it's due to past policy that suburban automobile commuter traffic should be prioritized over everything that the street and the neighborhood were left to decline. it'll take a conscious policy that says "local residents are more important that someone driving in from silver spring" to fix this.

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  2. paulidin paulidin

    Paul Roth

    Feb 01, 2011 - 10:24:41 PM

    It's a very informative article. Thank you. I'd like to make a request, though: when TBD reports on specific areas, I wish you'd include a little google map thing showing markers representing those areas. Of course I can, and do, open up another tab and pull up maps.google.com to have that available while I'm reading, but it seems like something you could readily incorporate.

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    • Sommer Mathis

      Sommer Mathis

      Feb 03, 2011 - 11:49:02 AM

      Thanks for the suggestion! We'll work on making sure we have those included more often.

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