For somebody with multiple degrees, I’ve been pretty crime adjacent for a significant portion of my adulthood. I’ve also had several petty crimes perpetrated against me or those in close proximity to me more times than you can shake a stick at.
For instance, one summer day, I got home to my apartment (the apartments formerly known as Cypress Creek, for all the D.C.-area folks who either lived there or know somebody who lived there) at 4:30 p.m. and noticed my roommate was home ... but his car wasn’t. When I asked him about it, he remarked that he’d just gotten home, maybe 30 minutes prior. He looked out the window and just shook his head. His car? Jacked in the 30 minutes between our separate arrivals home. In fact, his car was stolen at least three times while we lived there.
When I was in college, my next-door neighbor literally broke into my car, then walked around to my front door and tried to sell me the very CDs (Jay’s Vol. 2 ... Hard Knock Life, A Tribe Called Quest’s The Love Movement and Outkast’s Aquemini—all released on Sept. 29, 1998) he’d just stolen. I was more pissed that he broke my window than that he stole the CDs. He could have come to the door and told me he was about to break into my car, and I’d have opened the door for him. Broken windows are the most inconvenient inconveniences ever. Also, I lived next door to a crack house. True story.
Once, while I worked at a nightclub in Washington, D.C., I watched a female police officer scope out my vehicle, and then, after I talked to her and we shared a laugh, she informed me that she was about to steal the temporary license plate off of my car for her boyfriend’s car.
This isn’t to mention the actual felonies I’ve witnessed, which I won’t delve into. Let’s just say I’ve seen a lot.
I’m part of the population of solidly middle-class black folks who live in lower-income neighborhoods. I live in the Congress Heights neighborhood of D.C. Actually, I think my neighborhood is technically “Douglass,” but my Metro station is Congress Heights. Congress Heights is in Ward 8, the poorest ward in the city.
Don’t get me wrong—it’s an area full of some beautiful homes, tons of green park spaces, and good folks who have lived here their entire lives. It’s also a food desert and very low-income, especially when compared to the parts of the city across the Anacostia River. It’s up-and-coming, as they say.
My specific neighborhood used to be a notorious projects that was torn down and in 2003 rebuilt as a mixed-income community. There are market-rate owners (moi), some Section 8 renters and folks who pay rent based on their income. Without an ounce of judgment, I pretty much live in the hood, and I knew this when I bought my home.
It is a nice house, but the shenanigans are never far away. Just last week, a 19-year-old was murdered a block away from my house. In fact, since I moved into this house, there have been several murders within just a few blocks—at least three that I can think of off the top of my head. Shootings are not uncommon. They’re not super common, either, but they’re not uncommon.
It’s a neighborhood that is waaay better than it once was, but it’s still in need of some work. In some respects, I love that I live in a neighborhood that is very alive. On many a summer day, it’s not uncommon for a block party (or three) to happen in my back alley. Once, there was a joint funeral-graduation cookout-party that featured two DJs complete with light shows and a picture man with a backdrop.
No, our back alley can’t support that much celebration. But I did enjoy the free concert. At least until I was trying to put my daughter to sleep. A music video was filmed in my back alley, though I can’t find it on YouTube to save my life. My neighbors are nice.
But there’s crime. And some parties go too far. There’s no reason that a sound system set up that rivals nightclubs should be blaring at 1 a.m. I’ve got babies. And the fireworks, Lawd, the fireworks. Those fireworks this year blew a hole through my backyard fence with not a soul claiming responsibility.
I live in inner-city Washington, D.C. Shit happens, but, I mean, shit happens a lot where I live. I imagine that this is the case for a lot of middle-class black folks. Especially in areas like D.C., which are insanely expensive. I’m still trying to figure out who exactly can afford to live in this city. I make a very respectable living and have at times struggled to make ends meet.
Each of the homes in my development has a backyard and one parking space attached to the home. My backyard is fenced in, so I don’t use my parking space. I have two vehicles, and like most folks with fences in my neighborhood, we park on the street. I use one of the vehicles and my lady uses the other, natch. On Monday night—Labor Day—she went to the grocery store to pick up a few things and parked the car on our street as she always does. The car didn’t move on Tuesday. Wednesday morning, it was gone. On her way to work she walked outside and then called me and asked me if she was trippin’, or was the car missing?
A few days before, on Sunday, while trying to put my son into his car seat, she dropped her keys into a gutter. Shit happens. I went outside to see if the keys were out there anywhere and absolutely did not see them. I chalked them up as black history. When she told me that the car was gone, my first and most immediate thought went to those keys. Did somebody somehow manage to find them? Did I look in the gutter when I should have looked in the grass?
All I could think was that whoever took the car (it was definitely stolen; we called the D.C. tow-enforcement folks, and there’s no record of the car in their system) might have our house keys. There was no shattered glass on the ground, so they didn’t break any windows to get into the car.
My girl was frantic and worried about the car; I absolutely didn’t care about the car. It’s insured. The car can be replaced. I was afraid that whoever stole the car might have the keys and might try to get into the house. Now, I have an ADT security system, and I have lots of ADT signage up so that anybody coming up to the house can see it. But one thing that cats in the hood know is that more people have ADT signs than have ADT. And if you’ll steal a car with house keys on it and figure out where I live, you just might try your luck. Immediately, I filed a police report, then went to buy new locks.
I wasn’t even shocked by it. My girl, she’s still amazed that this happened. It blindsided her. She’s uncomfortable. And she should be. We shouldn’t have to worry about our cars being stolen, whether we live in Southeast D.C. or Martha’s Vineyard. All of our neighbors know us and our vehicles. We all know what belongs to whom. Yet here we are.
My neighborhood isn’t a terrible one—it used to be worse. It’s better now. And I’ve witnessed a lot of the growing pains. But it feels different when you have little kids and family members who are affected by it and know they shouldn’t be, and I just feel like shit happens. At some point, it does become untenable. At some point, we’re going to have to go.
There’s this weird dance we do trying to keep it real once we’ve “made it” in life. And not even necessarily made it in terms of wealth, but more in terms of opportunity. And by “we” I mean black people, especially black men. Sure, I moved into my neighborhood for practical purposes and because in D.C., for what I got, it was about the best deal you could get (not to mention, my interest rate is whippin’ your interest rate’s ass). It was also what I could reasonably afford.
There’s always been this certain “pride” I’ve had in living in my neighborhood: a diamond in the rough that is attempting to overcome its past. I wasn’t running from the hood; I was keeping it real and staying with my people.
Turns out that pride can be overrated at times. Obviously, every day isn’t a crime spree in my neighborhood, but when the police officer gave me a card with her name and number and the police report on it, she said, “People in this neighborhood just don’t care.” Part of me took immediate offense at her immediately offensive statement; how dare she imply that we don’t care?
The other half of me realized that she was giving me the police report for my stolen car, and even if I get it back, I don’t know who took it, or what those folks did to it, and my woman and my children use that car. I now need another car. And a teenager did just lose her life a few days ago, and two other people were shot. Then there was that shootout in my alley a few days prior to that killing. Then there was that three-week span where shootouts kept happening right next to an elementary school during school hours. And so on and so on.
I don’t know what any of this means short of me realizing that my family needs to be in a place that feels safer. I personally feel comfortable, but I’d be lying if I said I’m not always concerned about my family. No matter how much I love where I live, I do happen to live in a neighborhood where, frankly, things happen, and I have no reasonable expectation that they will stop happening anytime soon. One of my neighbors, while talking to me about my stolen car, pointed out that “stuff can happen anywhere.” And she’s right. When you live in a city, especially one as large as D.C., crime, or at least the potential for it, is never too far away. Seems really close to me, though.
Because shit happens a lot where I live.