‘Isaac on Getting the Best and Worst of D.C.’ by Danny Harris

Danny Harris is a DC-based photographer, DJ, and collector of stories. He launched People’s District, a blog that tells a people’s history of DC by sharing the stories and images of its residents. You can follow People’s District on Twitter @PeoplesDistrict, and can read his previous columns here.

“This city has such a strong influence on who I am. D.C. gave me the best and worst of life. As a child, the city gave me the opportunity to travel to Brazil through the Ambassador’s of Hope program. That experience opened my eyes to the world and helped me realize that life was so much bigger than just my neighborhood. At the same time, the city was also responsible for my 16-year-old sister getting murdered behind a church in Simple City.

“Now, I am 26 and have lived everywhere from the hood in SE to Georgetown. When I was coming up in Simple City, it was the murder capital of the murder capital. There was a lot of violence and drugs, but there were also a lot of nice things, too. I hate it when people talk badly about SE. My family lived there because it was the best they could do. When you have a family and money is tight, you can’t just pick up and move anywhere. Despite the bad environment, me and my siblings were all high achievers. I was a good student and into art. My sisters were smart and really successful track stars. My older sister almost made the Puerto Rican Olympic team.

“When I was 12, I wrote an essay and won an opportunity to go to Brazil through my school. It was my first chance to not only leave the country, but the city. I went with my teacher, Ms. Miller, and three other students. We traveled the whole country and it was the most humbling experience of my life. Where I was from in SE, I always thought that we were poor. In Brazil, I met kids who had ten times less than me. That experience changed my life. I would tell everyone that education is good. College is good. But, there is no better learning experience than traveling.

“When I came back, all I wanted to do was travel. I saw that life was so much bigger than Simple City. I went to Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and loved spending time outside of my neighborhood. I mean, I will always love SE to death, but I got so tired of the violence and drugs. All of my friends wanted to be gangsters.

“I made a decision to leave the neighborhood and never move back after my sister was murdered in 2002 by her boyfriend. She was 16 and just had his baby. He was the same age, and didn’t want her to have the kid. Well, people in my neighborhood don’t always have the most common sense and can tend to handle things with violence. He shot her behind the church next to our house. The baby, Destiny, survived.

Continues after the jump.

“After her death, I needed to get away and travel. I wanted to escape the violence and go see the world. I went everywhere, but always came back here. This place is my home. Even though it was tough growing up there, SE made me who I am. It both gave and took from me. I may have learned my book smarts in college, but I learned my street smarts in SE.

“Sadly, some people take those street smarts and use them for the wrong things. I think a lot about how I could have fallen in with the wrong circles and been seconds away from killing or robbing. While I am hateful of my sister’s murderer, I am also sympathetic. He wasn’t born to be that way. He was bred to be like that. Had I not left the country and known that the world was bigger than my neighborhood, I could have been like him, too. I am just thankful that I went a different route with my life.”

Isaac M. Colon III is a tattoo artist at D.C. Ink at 1350 U St NW.

23 Comment

  • I love this story. It makes me wonder what it is that shaped this young man’s outlook on life– a perspective that is unusual coming from a child of the ghetto. Was it the prescence of strong parental figures, the opportunity to travel abroad, or the loss of his sister?

    • Actually, SE is not a “ghetto.” And the only thing “unusual” about Isaac’s perspective is that it’s being reported. There are lots of kids from bad neighborhoods who choose to do the right thing with their lives; but their choices don’t make good fodder for blogs.

      Thanks for another great story Mr. Harris.

      • so let’s hear more of those stories! if you know them, share them. we need it.
        everyone who can escape that kind of violence, all the while being an upstanding person, is a hero and should be a role model.

        • +1 loved this piece too, more please!

        • Acting like a normal human being makes you a “hero”? Puhlease.

          • the stories i read and hear, the people i know and avoid, make issac’s story one of not being normal.

            you disagree. great. i’m ignorant. share more stories like this till we consider it normal for a kid from a violent area thats interested in art and travel and turns out okay.

            i look forward to my schooling.

      • Whether or not it’s as common as you say does not discount how remarkable it must be to be able to escape from a community where the drug and violence cycle routinely cosumes generations of people.

      • I agree that Issac is most definitely not the only one of his kinds, but I think you’d have to agree that only a very very VERY low percentage of people from lower socio-economic backgrounds successfully establish themselves as middle or upper class later in life…whether they are from Anacostia or Appalachia.

        I picked up evidence of this idea here a few years ago from a NY Times series on social class in America:


        …and a BitLy link to the graphic:


      • All of which is a long winded way of saying…props to you Isaac!

  • Thank you for the story. It is amazing that people stay optimistic and proud in spite of all the horrible things that happen in their lives. And I hope we can make things better.

  • great story.
    where is Simple City?

  • I too needed The Google for this.


  • It may not be a ghetto, but it’s truly amazing how many child murderers this area incubates. I recall one post recently from someone from SE who asserted that the city should tear down all of the public housing over there.

    • It’s not “amazing” at all. As the story linked in this piece (“bred”) points out. There are plenty of cities in the US with urban poor, black urban poor, that don’t produce the same number of youth with zero home training. It’s not just murder and mayhem, it’s a general lack of empathy and basic social skills. DC is just lucky that way. If you don’t give a flying f about yourself or anything else the results aren’t amazing they are sadly predictable.

      • we’re not talking about other cities, are we?
        we’re talking about dc and the realities here.

        the realities that we are all living with.

      • Alright, let’s say it’s not amazing. I acknowleldge your opinion Outtahere.

        Now, I like it even if it’s just “good” or even “so-so” or “not half-bad”.

        Go on Isaac. Bring on the stories of neighbors’ experiences.

  • ” I would tell everyone that education is good. College is good. But, there is no better learning experience than traveling.”

    So true.

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