Crime forces some shop owners to move out of U Street area
by ANDREW KNAPP
When Ashley Marson moved to the U Street area in 1996, he bought Lucky to scare off the drug dealers, prostitutes and thieves who loitered in the alley behind his culture shop. He didn’t want criminals to drive away him or his customers.
In the 11 years since Marson opened Montserrat House, the U Street corridor has become one of the busiest retail and entertainment centers in Washington. Its transformation serves as a success story for an area devastated during the civil rights riots of 1968.
But on one recent day, Lucky, a 12-year-old Doberman Pinscher, hobbled next to Marson as a symbol of the predicament area business owners are facing. Area criminals, Marson said, shot his dog, and after $1,500 in veterinarian bills, Lucky lost a leg but lived.
Business owners said recently that similar crimes against them and their employees could threaten to put the area’s economy on its last leg. The owner of Dandy’s Carry Out, a fast-food joint near Marson’s shop, sold her business last year after being robbed at gunpoint twice in one month.
“She got scared, and she just said, ‘no, I can’t do this anymore,'” Marson said, standing next to the cash register at his shop on the corner of Florida Avenue and U Street N.W. “She went into real estate.”
Much of the crime originates in U Street’s proliferating nightclubs, according to police. Taleshia Ford, 17, was shot and killed in January at Smarta/Broadway nightclub on Ninth and U streets, a block from Marson’s shop. Also in January, a man was fatally shot outside the 7-Eleven on 11th and U streets, two blocks away.
Business owners, however, said that smaller crimes, like robberies and assaults, also threaten to force them from the area. Regular customers interviewed at the 7-Eleven described times when someone “threatened to shove a baseball bat down the clerk’s throat” or when a man verbally threatened the cashier “over the price of a Twinkie.”
In an e-mail to the D.C. City Council, U Street businessman John Anderson demanded a response to recent incidents: muggings of shop owners, robberies at Cream Cafe and Subway sandwich shop, and break-ins at Nana vintage clothiers and the Wild Women Wear Red shoe store.
“We fear for our lives,” said Anderson, who owns Moojoo Ken jewelry on the 1500 block of U Street. “Already, some stores are moving out of the U Street area because of better locations and potential for better sales elsewhere in the city. I wonder, as well, if safety has been a factor in their moving. If the trend continues, I fear that many businesses on U Street may be forced to consider the same option.”
Police downplay crime’s impact
Police officials deny that crime is having any significant impact on U Street businesses. Overall crime near U Street has dropped about 28 percent since 2006, according to Cmdr. Larry McCoy of the Metropolitan Police Department. Robberies are down 58 percent.
But statistics also show thefts are up 28 percent, and homicides are up 33 percent.
Police Inspector Patrick Burke said officers have been collaborating with local business owners to preserve their livelihoods, but he denied that any of them were moving for fear of crime.
“Any business owner would be an idiot if they weren’t concerned about crime,” Burke said. But its effect on business “is just not an issue here.”
Local government officials, however, said that residents and business owners don’t buy the assurances of tranquility. Instead, they said police are downplaying crime’s threat to business owners.
“Business owners are really concerned about the spike in crime, but they’re responding to the stuff that was reported,” said Dee Hunter, chairman of the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission. “The overwhelming majority of the incidents don’t get reported. No one knows about the guy that takes a shotgun and runs through a bookstore or about all the car windows that are smashed or all the shops that are routinely broken into. There’s a real heightened sense of insecurity among everyone here.”
‘Most people who bring a gun in here don’t use it’
In response to a crime spike in December, restaurants and nightclubs hired an off-duty police officer to patrol the corner of Ninth and U streets from 10 p.m.-3 a.m. each Friday and Saturday.
On a recent Saturday night, the hired officer was clad in a full uniform and bulletproof vest. He broke up fights on the sidewalk outside the DC9 nightclub and nabbed drunken drivers.
But trouble was brewing inside Joe’s Restaurant, a 24-hour joint that caters mainly to people leaving the neighboring DC9. The restaurant’s fuchsia walls were lined with mirrors that rattled with thumping bass. And just after 2 a.m., a rush of people leaving the nightclub arrived at Joe’s.
Monica Sesay, 22, a waitress at Joe’s, works the graveyard shift from 11 p.m.-7 a.m. That night, she scolded customers who carried in cigarettes and beer bottles, college-age students who talked about “scoring some weed” and a homeless man who demanded to be served because he made “$400,000 per day,” though he begged customers for spare change.
“This place is a drug house at night,” the man told customers. “But nobody cares. The police are across the street, but it still happens. I know it does.”
That incident was benign compared to what Sesay described in an earlier interview. Two months ago, she said, a man ran through the restaurant with a handgun as a plain-clothes police officer chased him. The man dumped the pistol in the bathroom and left through the back door.
“Sometimes, people come in here with a gun, like they’re going to take it out on someone,” she said. “But most people that bring a gun in here don’t use it.”
As Sesay took orders from behind the counter, a man in a NASCAR jacket burst through the door.
“Give me a napkin,” he demanded.
She gave him one. But outside, a fight had ended, and his friend was bleeding.
“I need more,” the man said.
Once he got his wish, he helped his bloodied friend.
By that time, about 3:30 a.m., the next-door club was closed. The music was no longer blaring. And the police were gone: The hired officer was paid to stay only until 3 a.m.
Sesay tries to shrug off threats from customers, but an increased presence from on-duty police officers would ease her fears, she said.
Searching for a fix
Police Chief Cathy Lanier, at a recent neighborhood crime meeting, said her department is “not prepared for the crime spike” that will coincide with warming temperatures. Her collaboration with Mayor Adrian Fenty to increase foot patrols, boost officers’ communication with residents and install police cameras will help, but they aren’t complete solutions.
“We’re trying to come up with new ways to do things,” Lanier said with a sense of urgency. “But right now, we don’t have a good plan for when crime goes up in May and June.”
Ernest Quimby, a criminology professor at Howard University who studies crime’s economic implications, said business owners might be forced to take more action to fight crime.
“But who would want to go to a restaurant in which the existence of metal detectors and police officers gives the signal that this is a dangerous place?” Quimby said.
One block north of Sesay’s restaurant, at a Liberty gas station, an attendant sat behind an industrial-strength plastic barrier that screened him from customers, potential robbers and probable assaulters.
“When the employees are boarded in with Plexiglas,” Quimby said, “to some customers, that’s a signal to them that this is a store where the owners disrespect the people who go there, don’t respect the community and look down on the community.”
‘I’m still here, for now’
Marson, whose shop is located on the same block as the gas station, hasn’t taken any precautions beyond his dog, Lucky. But with only three legs, the animal is hardly intimidating.
“I was here on this block before all the other businesses and nightclubs. I didn’t have to do anything to fight crime then,” Marson said. “But I’m hanging in there. I’m still here, for now.”