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.
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“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.