The Hill’s forgotten jewel

There is a little-known historic landmark on the eastern edge of Capitol Hill, nestled behind Congressional Cemetery on the banks of the Anacostia. It’s a quiet counterbalance to the plebian interests at the stadium a few blocks north. Take a stroll on its grassy promenades, and, at the right time of day, you just might spy a sublime twinkling in the barbed wire. Perchance a summer wind will carry a howl of despair to your ears.

BAM! I’m talking ’bout D.C. Jail at 19th and D streets S.E.

Last week the Rev. Jesse Jackson visited the facility to observe and participate in its HIV testing program. At least that was the ostensible purpose of the visit. Really, it was an opportunity for Jackson to grandstand in front of TV cameras about the general evil of prisons.

“First-class jails and second-class schools,” said Jackson, holding up a copy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch with a cover story about plans for a new jail in Richmond, Va. The cameras took it in. Dozens of prisoners milled about in the third-floor hallway amid a crowd consisting of city officials, reporters, jail staff and Jackson’s entourage. An intimate setting.

But only one inmate felt intimate enough to appear on television with Jackson. A handful joined the reverend in prayer, but for the most part they were less impressed by Jackson than by TV news reporter Sam Ford from WJLA (Channel 7). It seemed like everybody knew Ford, and everybody loved him. And Ford was happy to do a little glad-handing.

“Sam Ford, Sam Ford!” mimed Jackson in a high-pitched voice, to Ford’s amusement.

 Even more than Sam Ford, the inmates liked having an opportunity to bitch about their “first-class” digs to the press:

“They ain’t providing nothing for us to be a productive citizen,” said one inmate, lamenting the facility’s lack of a GED program.

“This medicine they giving up — they serve it to you and sit you in a cage,” said another man.
“We ain’t eating right,” complained a third.

Well, if you’re in jail, you can’t not complain. To hear the griping is a privilege: Warden William Smith says reporters “never” get to come in here. Tagging along with a civil-rights superstar really opens doors — Department of Corrections spokeswoman Beverly Young said the plans for Jackson’s visit and HIV test had been made at the last minute.

After emerging from the HIV screening room, where he and one inmate were tested, Jackson opened his hands and an assistant immediately squirted disinfectant goop into them. Hoping for some rousing indignation, HillScape informed the reverend that an inmate — 28-year-old Thomas Alemayehu — hanged himself here in December and nobody reported on it. No luck; the time for spirited grandstanding had been washed away.

“That often happens in jails,” Jackson said, shrugging his shoulders. “People get depressed, lose their grips on life.”

That’s why the jail and the cemetery make a cute couple.


The conventions of gentrification


On Feb. 19, The Washington Post ran three stories lamenting the unrealized promises of revitalization made by proponents of the publicly financed Washington Convention Center. Gee whiz, the Post says: Conventions are under-attended, hotel rooms are under-booked, and the surrounding neighborhood can’t shake its longstanding blight. So much for all that talk about how dumping millions of taxpayer dollars into a giant building will make everything better. At least we citizens will never be taken like that again!

Anyway, commercial business is an essential part of revitalizing a neighborhood. But some kinds of businesses don’t fit the gentrification scheme, like Fun Fair Video on 5th Street N.W., which sells porn.

“That’s not the kinda place that we want in there,” says local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Mark Dixon. “We got five brand new condominiums coming up around the corner from there.”
Everybody knows the gentry gets its porn on the Internet. No store needed.

The Washington Examiner reported on Feb. 21 that since 2000, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs has done all it can to shut down the store because it’s located in a no-porno zone. Fun Fair has fought back hard with lawyers.

Granted, the word “seedy” could not possibly have a more apt application than a porn store offering private viewing booths like Fun Fair does. But it almost seems counterintuitive to try to make any business leave the ’hood. After all, what do out-of-town conventioneers want? Maybe a trip to the seedy smut store is their secret fantasy. 

“What happens in D.C. stays in D.C.” could become the city’s new motto. We could put it on the D.C. quarter, already approved by the House of Representatives!

But Dixon says the video store isn’t simply unseemly — it has a concrete negative impact. “They’re attracting prostitution in the area,” he says, also noting that the store attracts bums. Closing it would help stop the God-mocking parade of “he-shes” near neighborhood churches and up and down K Street.

Maybe ousting Fun Fair Video will help the District overcome its baffling inability to put retail on the ground level of the Convention Center.


Serial burglar remains at large


Caught a whiff of horse*** lately? That smell, comrades, is the smell of justice. Beware, Burglary Bandit! Barbaro’s brethren are beating down your door! 

Actually, B.B., it’s you who’s beating down our doors — dozens of times in the last few weeks, according to preliminary statistics from the Metropolitan Police Department. But your days are numbered, I say.

“I think we’re closing in on him,” concurs First District Cmdr. Diane Groomes, who has been deploying horse patrols throughout Capitol Hill as part of a ramped-up effort to nab the crook. Groomes says horses are great attention-getters for worried residents and would-be burglars both. “It helps with the public perception,” she says.

Officers on horse patrol are very friendly and residents are encouraged to talk to them. Last Thursday HillScape met Officer Robin Szewczyk and Officer Roderick Torrence, who were happy to pose for pictures atop their steeds at 7th and C streets S.E.

“They’re really taking it personal,” says Groomes of her Hill officers, who she says have been accosting 25 to 50 people a day in hopes of catching the perpetrator.

So it’s probably a bad time to hang around the neighborhood if you’re a 5-foot-9, light-skinned African-American aged mid-30s with a round face and husky build who sometimes wears glasses. Hillscape saw just such a man getting a thorough pat-down from officers at 6th Street and Independence Avenue S.E. on Feb. 26.

It wasn’t the perp, but the horse on hand whinnied mightily.