A New Feature: Dear PoP

From time to time I get letters asking a variety of questions. So from time to time, when given permission, I will share them with you.

Dear PoP,

This whole hearing gunshots thing — if I dwell on it, I start to become
uncomfortable in my own home–especially if I am alone. I feel like the
only other choice I have is to ignore the thought of it and hope I am
never in any way involved.

Sometimes, I wonder if I should just get out of here — tear up my lease
and go back to the ‘burbs where it’s “safe.” But I’ve only been here for
a few months, and everything I enjoy doing on my free time is here.

I feel like someone is going to tell me I’ll grow a “thick skin” after a

I realize crime can and does happen anywhere, but the prevalence and
vicinity to my home has me worried. I feel like there are areas I must
avoid, behaviors I must avoid (e.g., walking down GA Ave after dark). I
also feel I have to be careful how I look at people (e.g., while at a
stop light or on my front porch) to be sure I don’t accidentally upset
someone. There seem to be so many ticking time bombs around here.

What exactly is your take on all of this? You’ve lived here for a
while…do you just accept that it (i.e., crime) happens and hope it
never happens to you? Do you do more than hope? Are there things you do
to ensure your safety? Reasons why you feel safe? Do you feel safe?

-Don’t want to be scared

Dear Don’t,

What you are feeling is totally normal. Believe me, there have been times when I’ve been frightened as well. But those recent gunshots are pure randomness. When I lived in Woodley Park next to the zoo, there were frequently police helicopter circling overhead. A good friend of mine, who by the by, is in the Special Forces right now, was mugged in north Cleveland Park. I truly believe that Petworth is among the safer neighborhoods in the city. Why?

Because neighbors look after one another here. You have absolutely nothing to fear while you are on your porch. When I first moved here I was known by some drug dealers as the crazy white boy because I would sit on my porch and talk to every one who passed by at all hours of the day or evening. I’m not necessarily advocating that but it is important that you get to know your neighbors and become part of the community. People watch each other’s back here.

But it is true that there are drug dealers. And for the most part it is the drug dealers who face the dangers of gunfire. Now of course there is always a little risk living in a city. When you live in a city there are precautions that should be taken. Personally I don’t walk on Georgia Ave. or many other streets past a certain hour. That is just my own comfort level. But all things considered we are in a beautiful reality.

So how does one feel safe? Only you can answer that. Some people like to get a dog. Some have an alarm system. Some don’t walk the streets past a certain hour. But I really believe the best way to feel safe is to become a part of the community. Talk to all of your neighbors. Talk to people in the street. Attend community events. Street smarts are learned. If you are walking around late at night don’t have ear phones in, don’t talk on your cell phone, be aware of your surroundings and walk confidently. There are precautions to be taken but don’t obsess about it. It is important to find your own comfort level. By and large you are living in a safe and welcoming community. Enjoy it!

13 Comment

  • PoP, as usual, has it right. “Comfort level” is the key, and for the most part feeling safe is a mind set. I mean, after all, don’t you think that doctor’s family in Connecticut felt “safe” up until the point the wife and daughters were raped and murdered and the house was burned down? Crime is an American problem that knows know zoning.

    Also, you have to look at the statistics and realize you are about as likely to fall down the stairs and break you neck as get shot. Most of us will either die of cancer in old age or get killed on the Beltway. Statistically the Beltway (or any road) is MANY times more deadly than wandering around Georgia Avenue at 2AM, yet I bet you don’t have second thoughts about talking on the cell phone and crossing 5 lanes of traffic (right in front of me).

    To me, the problems I associate with living in PW are really region-wide problems that wouldn’t be solved by living in some awful part of Virginia (i.e. all of it) or Maryland. I mean, just saying the word “Maryland” makes me feel bored and sleepy.

    That said, I just want the “Off!” bugspray thief to know that I have gathered evidence, EVIDENCE! I say! And as soon as all of my sleuthing is done I am going to turn over the results to Lil’ Gal and you will rue the day you took her half-empty can of repellant. She’s the meanest (almost) 5′ tall person I’ve ever met.

  • PoP and odentex are totally right. In addition, the media and the government use street crime to distract us from much bigger problems.

    Problem: Corporate criminals do more damage, less prison time than street criminals Which frightens you more? Getting mugged outside the grocery store, or paying too much for your groceries because of illegal price-fixing? Chances are you

  • I’ll agree with the ‘Prince. Getting to know the folks on your block is critical. Not just for the safety-net it provides, but hell, it’s just good living. Makes for a homier atmosphere for everybody.

    And I must say, I’ve lived for years in both urban and suburban areas, and my experience is so consistent, I’ll call it pure science: Folks in the suburbs are more self-absorbed and randomly angry than folks in the city. After 3 years in the same apartment in Silver Spring, I never had a clue who my neighbors were, and none of ’em were at all interested. They all lived with barriers & shields raised at all times.

    That’s not just the one apartment, but most suburban apts I’ve had, from Maryland to upstate NY, to Arizona, and Maine. I think it’s an intrinsic quality of suburban living: psychic isolation.

    Not all cities and neighborhoods are the same, of course. All my time of living in DC is specific to Columbia Heights, but within one week of moving back to CH, I was on great terms with neighbors on both sides, and at least one across the street. And I’m NOT a naturally outgoing person. I just find it easier down here, versus the ‘burbs.

    ……that also goes for the sense of danger. My own “comfort level” is actually much worse in the MD burbs, versus here in Ward One.

    i guess folks is complicated.

  • mt: While it’s nice to say that “corporate” criminals don’t do any time, like so many areas of criminal law, it’s just a popular myth attributable to people wanting to believe it and not necessarily to the facts.

    Penalties for fraud and corruption are stiff and have only gotten more harsh in the last 10 years. Federal offenses like mail and wire fraud (chiefly used in “white collar” cases) now have maximum sentences that stretch to 20 years. The Federal Sentencing Guidelines for fraud, tax evasion, and other “white collar” crimes are actually quite harsh compared to similar sentencing regimes in Western Europe and other parts of the world, and unlike your average drug dealer or burglar sentenced in state court, there is no longer any Federal parole so any defendant that receives a fraud sentence in the Federal system will do ALL of that time.

    In fact, the *average* sentence for fraud in 2006 was 19 months.

    Meanwhile the nation-wide average sentence doled out in state courts for weapon offenses was 23 months and for drug trafficking 38 months, with the average felon serving *half* the time actually sentenced due to early release and parole. So, your average drug dealers and felons with weapons serve much less or about the same amount of actual time in prison compared to an average white collar defendant. I don’t know how you can possibly have more parity, and frankly, it makes statements like those from “citizen works” look absurd.

    It is also flatly untrue that the FBI and other government agencies do not keep track of white collar crime. It is easy enough to find the statistics for fraud, antitrust, tax, and corruption cases. You can look to the FBI, the US Sentencing Commission, and other sources.


    “Those corporate crooks don’t get any time!” is a fine campaign slogan but it has little to do with the realities of sentencing practice. While I understand that it’s comforting to suggest that rich white collar criminals walk away scot free, the facts undermine such conclusions, and falsehoods are falsehoods even when they are written about those evil corporate fat cats.

  • Prince, you are amazing. Also, I am constantly impressed by your readers. Thanks to all.

  • The original writer has a lease. And there’s a joy in being able to walk away from that. The stakes are higher when you can’t simply hire a U-Haul and move out. I live off GA Ave, and have recently had several discussions with neighbors about the threshold for calling the police to report loitering or neighborhood kids climbing over chain-link fences and onto garages. I think I have changed my threshold as a result of living off GA Ave. Previously, I didn’t want to burden the MPD with trivial issues. But now, I see the neighbor’s way of thinking a little more clearly.

  • Great Advice!!

  • As the author of the letter to PoP, I feel it necessary to note that my fears are not unfounded. On separate occasions, two of my friends have been mugged near or in front of their homes in Petworth — one at gun point. Is this a given or is it a rarity? You tell me…

  • Sadly, no one can answer that. For me, such occurrences are beyond rare – I’ve lived here (well, on the edge of Petworth) for going on three years and I know most of the people who live in my condo development and I’ve never had one problem with crime. I don’t feel like I need to avoid eye contact with people, or that my neighbors are ticking time bombs. Your experience, unfortunately, is different.

    I don’t think you should force yourself to live in in a place if you don’t feel safe, no matter what other people might think. Life is too short. If you’re truly unhappy, you should move on with no regrets. Nothing is worth feeling uncomfortable in your home. Your home is supposed to be a safe haven.

    But you also have to be careful about internalizing other people’s problems. Have you had issues of your own? Or do you think you *might* have problems because of what you’ve heard from other folks? I know Petworth isn’t some utopia, but it’s not crime central, either.

    I hate to be girly and mushy-headed, but I truly believe your “heart” will tell you whether you should say or go. Put aside the logic, don’t ask anyone else their opinion…just ask *yourself*, “am I happy here?” The answer is…the answer.

  • Anon: No one is saying that you are wrong. You feel the way you feel. But, again, I believe a lot of it is simply perception. You may *feel* safer in suburbia but crime happens everywhere. Are you more likely to be killed in DC than Fairfax, yes, ever so slightly more statistically, but it’s still very unlikely compared to your chances of being killed by an 18 wheeler on the freeway. Also, you are 200,000,000 times more likely to die of terminal boredom in Virginia along with automatically becoming a bumpkin. The roads are the most deadly thing in the USA after disease but we all just mentally block it out and go on about our driving without biting our nails and worring about the two people we know that got into recent accidents. I view living my life in PW much the same because I know the statistics are in my favor and, more importantly, I am not going to live my life worried about an unlikely occurrence. I am much more concerned about getting run over by a Metro bus than I am worried about boys hanging out on the street or being shot in a drive-by.

  • I really appreciate this letter and the comments because I have just moved to PW (as in yesterday) and I have already had one person tell me that my building was full of drug dealers. Then another person today was crying in the basement and told me that she had just seen a sex offender who had been following her and had run into the basement to avoid him. (However, she also told me that they had gotten rid of the crack dealers before I moved in…so that’s nice.)

    I’m not the kind of person who usually freaks out because there are some sketchy elements in the neighborhood, but having this type of thing happen twice in the first two days has really started to wear on me. Fortunately, I have already seen plenty of evidence of that community spirit that everyone mentions…I have met many more nice people in my building already than I ever did when I lived in the suburbs, and many of them have gone out of their way to help me out. So I’ve got mixed feelings at the moment. And, like I said, this letter helped, since it reassured me that basic street smarts will still take you a long way in the neighborhood.

  • I moved here in May and went through all the same thoughts as the letter writer. I think I even posted about it a couple of times here. I can say that over the last 4 months I feel much more comfortable than I did in the beginning. And I agree with PoP, neighbors are the key.

    I am sort of shy sometimes, but what has helped me meet a bunch of my neighbors is my daily trash pick up around my block. Over time, I’ve had people thank me and introduce themselves. Now we say hello regularly and chat. I feel better about the way the block looks, and it really helps you meet people. Gloves are kind of important though.

    I also got a big scary looking dog to complement my little not so scary looking dog, and that has been a huge help. But obviously not an option for everyone.

    I also installed bars inside my windows and the slide locks on my doors. I can’t think of what they are called, but you can put padlocks on them. I am sure my landlord will hate me, but oh well.

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