by ANDREW KNAPP
Beautifying Washington one can at a time
From S Street N.W., they walk a few blocks up Ninth Street, snatching trash from the sidewalk with plastic claws and throwing it into a can on wheels. Litter from the restaurant-heavy area of Shaw fills the can quickly.
Milk crates. Pennies. Vodka bottles. Condoms.
“A lot of condoms,” Alonzo Pleze says.
“Yeah, mainly condoms,” says his co-worker, Marcitta Thompson.
As part of the nine-member Green Team formed in October, the duo cleans the main business corridors of Shaw five days a week. On some days, they might also shovel snow, plant flowers or paint over graffiti. Their salaries and tools are funded through a one-year $350,000 municipal grant administered by the Columbia Heights/Shaw Family Support Collaborative.
And after one block, one can is full.
Panasonic batteries. Duck sauce packets. Metrobus tickets. Needles.
“No one wanted to work here because it’s drug-infested,” Thompson says. “They’ll do it downtown because it’s quiet. We see a lot of dealers here. They see us and move. Sometimes they help.”
Both Pleze and Thompson grew up in the area watched its ups, its downs. Residents have suffered from unemployment, but in the Green Team, Thompson and Pleze found steady jobs ones that give back to the community and give them decent wages, paid vacations and health insurance.
Passing rows of shops, they speak of economic recovery, but drugs, crime and dinginess linger.
“It’s been like this since I was a child,” Thompson says. “I used to play on this street. I went to that park. I had an aunt that lived right here, and I cried when my mom dropped me off. I didn’t want to be here.”
Business owners stand in their doorways as the two pass. Outside her liquor store, Beletsch Ogbe sweeps cigarette butts into a pile and deplores the people who dropped them.
“They can’t smoke inside, so they come out here,” she says. “It looks ugly.”
Most owners don’t clean. Lettering on sidewalk garbage cans reads: “A Clean City: It’s Everyone’s Job!”
“You couldn’t tell,” Thompson says.
One shop owner tells Thompson she looks pretty. She’s wearing red lipstick, gold earrings and sparkly green eyeliner to match her Green Team sweatshirt.
“People tell me I shouldn’t be picking up trash because I’m too pretty,” she says. “I make myself beautiful, but I make the city beautiful, too.”
She points out a rotting tree stump that doesn’t fit into the can. If she was young again, she’d “sand it, shellac it and make it into a beautiful end table.”
But most rubbish isn’t salvageable.
Wendy’s soda cups. Big Mac boxes. Extension cords. About 50 lottery tickets.
“This all happened last night,” Thompson says, rolling the trashcan. “It’ll happen again tonight, and we’ll pick it up tomorrow.”
Painting a new face on an old problem
Two blocks away on Seventh Street, Green Team members Allen Davis and Michael Pye drive to their job site in a white minivan. En route, Davis points out landmarks he remembers in their glory days. The fenced-off Howard Theatre is tagged liberally with graffiti. “And there’s the Dunbar Hotel,” he says, pointing to another vacant building. “They’re going to put a bank there.”
The Seventh Street corridor is targeted for re-development, much like Ninth Street. But some residents don’t like the growth, so they spray-paint curse words, genitalia and gang symbols onto buildings, Davis says. It’s up to him and Pye to paint over them.
Graffiti over graffiti make some buildings look kaleidoscopic. Davis and Pye try their best to match paint colors to the collages.
The duo attacks two storefronts on the 1800 block of Seventh Street. “Magic-2,” a gang symbol pronounced “Magic Deuce,” is scrawled beneath a broken window of the now-defunct Sam “K” Records. The symbol appears throughout Shaw.
Pye rolls white paint over it, then walks 15 feet to Ballard’s Barber Service to cover another. Owner Gennaro Ballard steps outside.
“Do you have a permit to do that?” Ballard says. “Let me talk to your boss.”
Pye hands Ballard a business card. Green Team members often act as liaisons between business owners, residents and city officials.
“We don’t usually have people come out and complain,” Pye says. “They want it done because it makes their establishment look better.”
While aged places like Ballard’s serve as prime targets for graffiti artists, newer buildings aren’t immune. “Magic-2” hit CVS/pharmacy, too.
“All this happened recently,” Davis says, hopping into the van. “It’ll be back here this weekend, and we’ll be back, too.”
Why this job? To help the children
Thompson, 44, has stayed clean since she started cleaning the city. Before last year, she was into crack cocaine, something she began as a teenager. But her unsteady employment didn’t pay the rent or feed her six children.
“My son’s in the drug game,” she says of her 20-year-old. “I worry about him because I was in it. But he’s young. He has a chance. I just try to guide him.”
Eight months ago, she told her caseworker a steady job would keep her out of trouble. The Green Team employs mostly people who can’t find employment because of criminal records or drug histories.
Thompson still struggles with her children but not with cocaine.
To buy a house
Pye, 48, never did hard time, just a few months in jail. He first was arrested at 17 when he burglarized an apartment. A past of selling heroin, he says, ended with his most recent arrest last Easter for which he’s serving two years of probation.
“My friends ask me if I like my job,” he says. I say, ˜No, I love my job.'”
Pye plans to buy a house for his wife and six children.
To â€˜do something positive’
Davis, 47, first was arrested at 14 for stealing a car. Of the 33 years since then, he has spent 25 in prison for using and selling drugs. This is his first “real” job.
“It’s time to settle down and do something positive,” he says, “because I’ve already done everything negative.”
In six months, Davis hasn’t missed a day of work.
To make Washington a great place
Breaking for lunch, crew members return to their Seventh Street office. They check in with their supervisors crew chief Ed Hammer, 41, and project coordinator Charlie Whitaker, 34.
The break room is too cramped, so they sit in the lobby area with fluorescent-yellow Green Team jackets, a red snow blower and a maroon bicycle.
They all grew up in the District. They’ve been in trouble in the past, but they speak candidly about how their new jobs have kept them out of it since.
“I’d like to say we’re in the construction business,” Hammer says. “We build lives.”
Hammer went to Mount Aloysius College in Pennsylvania from 1996 to 2000 but, after a failed wedding engagement, dropped out 15 credits shy of a degree in management. He wants to finish, then earn his law degree. That’s his lifelong goal.
But a conviction for dealing powder cocaine in 1986 continues to shut doors. He served six months in prison, and ever since, he has checked “yes” to that last question on job applications: “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”
“I always wanted to do corporate America,” he says. “Corporate America never wanted to do me.”
Everyone laughs, but they take it seriously: They’ve been through the same ordeal.
“This man was selling drugs 20 years ago, and he hasn’t done anything wrong since, but it’s still popping up on him,” Whitaker says. “I don’t think that’s fair.”
Whitaker, the Green Team captain, has been arrested four times for offenses like assaulting a police officer, but he was never convicted. He holds a degree in criminal justice.
“The Green Team allows people who have the money and influence to meet with the long-time residents of the community like us who don’t have those things,” Whitaker says. “We all want the same for Washington, D.C. We want it to be a great place.”
To protect the future
Pleze, 24, is the only Green Team member without an arrest record. He’s working to feed his 5-year-old daughter, Maiya, but also to avoid jail.
“I’m here to stay out of there,” he says. “The Green Team caught me before it was too late. That police piece doesn’t really apply to me.”
“And we’re going to make sure it stays that way,” Hammer says.
In six months, Pleze hasn’t missed a day of work.