Henson Ridge, a development of 600 townhouses, was built at the former Frederick… (Marvin Joseph )
Janice Gore wanted a back yard to host family barbecues. Gary Jones wanted a lawn where he could toss the football with his son. And Chiquisha Robinson just wanted to put down roots in a community where her home purchase could make a difference.
Their dreams brought them and dozens of others to Henson Ridge, a new development of townhouses in one of the poorest areas of Southeast Washington. The neighborhood of manicured lawns and new siding is a phoenix among the ashes of carry-out food joints and check-cashing places on a stretch of Alabama Avenue SE. Conceived and constructed as an antidote to the surrounding urban blight, the planned community replaced razed public housing projects in 2003.
But then cars were stolen. Homes were burglarized. And when stray bullets crashed through windows and walls, residents could no longer deny that the neighborhood's violent past had resurfaced like a stubborn ghost.
"When you pay market rate, you expect certain things in return, and it's just not happening," said Robinson, whose $306,000, three-bedroom home was pierced by bullets last year.
The violence has been a jarring wake-up call for newcomers, whose first-home down payments were a deposit on a dream. And the fear and uncertainty are déja vu for the returning residents of the notorious former Frederick Douglass and Stanton Dwellings public housing projects.
"I'm afraid at night when they said they were breaking into these glass doors," said Gore, 56, referring to the double porch doors she loved because they gave her home a suburban feel. Gore, a grandmother, once lived in the housing projects and returned to the area in 2007, hoping to host barbecues for family, including the 12-year-old grandson she is helping to raise.
"It ain't no better [than the project days]. It seems like they put the same people back in here. I'm sorry I moved back in," she said.
Neighbors old and new are so fed up with the increasing crime that they wrote letters to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and solicited money for a Segway that they donated to the 7th Police District. Lanier formally accepted the donation at a ceremony in August and pledged more patrols, and Fenty praised the residents' organizing efforts.
But resources to fight crime were not in the plan when developers tore down the public housing, part of decades-old federal HOPE VI program that has transformed communities across the country.
Assistant D.C. Police Chief Winston Robinson, former commander of the 7th Police District, said good people were living in squalid conditions. The buildings and courtyards were infested with rats and roaches and besieged by drugs and criminals so bold they'd fight the police.
"It was not a place you wanted to send officers if they didn't know the community," Robinson said. "It was terrible."
Robinson said he attended monthly meetings for two years to advocate for the HOPE VI grant and to show that D.C. police would support the new development.
The city Housing Authority received $29.9 million in HOPE money to revitalize the former projects into Henson Ridge. Named for a former slave, Tobias Henson, who bought his freedom and became one of the largest landowners east of the Anacostia River, Henson Ridge replaced 650 apartment units with 600 townhouses -- 320 for purchase and 280 for rent, some at market rate, others subsidized.
The plan brought together public and private groups, including developers. The federal grant spurred an additional $100 million in private development for the project. Along with new housing, there were to be support programs, recreation and other services to make it a full-fledged community.
So far, 254 homes have been sold and all the rental units are full, according to the D.C. Housing Authority. But residents say that because 80 percent of the houses have not been sold, the community lacks a homeowners association that can collectively address their problems.
"There are multiple groups with good intentions but not enough support for anyone to make serious change," said Benjamin Davis, a D.C. teacher who owns his home and helped organize the residents into making the Segway donation.
Vicki Davis, president of Urban Atlantic, part of the development team and owners of the rental properties, said management has been coordinating with homeowners for the past five years to address security issues. The conversations have led to a neighborhood watch program, the installation of speed humps to slow traffic and discourage joy riding, and private surveillance measures.