“An Open Letter – A Retrospective Look at Living in Columbia Heights”

pain sculpture

“Dear Former Neighbors,

As a favor to the folks who will simply stop reading and disregard whatever is written below based solely on race, let me save you the time and start by saying that my wife and I are black. I say this not to elicit snark or engender sympathy or because it should matter, but just as a basis of fact in a city where you can’t seem to have a conversation without taking race into consideration.

I moved here in late 2003 after college and a tour in the Marine Corps. Like so many other people, I moved to the region for work. I thought I’d be here for a short time but life happened, and I made the District my home.

Oddly enough, all of my positions and jobs were in MD or VA, but I was one of those who enjoyed urban living and made the reverse commute. I endured the embarrassing things our elected officials did and the backwater way our city operated because the urban-ish lifestyle seemed to be one that I should endure these things for.

We aren’t looking for a trophy or a gold star, but my wife (former Navy) and I (atleast on paper) are the kind of residents jurisdictions try to lure. Highly paid DINKS, we pay a lot in taxes but use relatively few public services as we’ve yet to have kids. We actively participated in and tried to improve our community. We both had spent years (5 and 7 respectively) tutoring DC middle and high school students in STEM courses. Kid-less, we still participated in the yearly DCPS summer “all hands on deck” to help clean, paint and landscape local schools before school started, occasionally volunteered at the local hospital, food banks etc.

I met my wife here. We started out buying a condo in Woodley Park, then made the jump and bought a row home in on Kenyon street in Columbia Heights in 2006. At the time, there were fewer people living or socializing in Columbia Heights. You were confronted by the occasional day-drunk and discarded used condoms on the sidewalk, but the neighborhood then was significantly different, and for the first few years we lived there and it was the picture of urban renewal. More than a billion dollars of private development in the neighborhood took form in a matter of a few years, and even more since. DC schools have always been atrocious but at the time we had decided to try to stay in DC regardless and simply “hope” that there would be significant short term educational gains, or resigned ourselves to pay for private school when the time came.

Then a few years ago the positive changes in Columbia Heights seemingly started to reverse. The streets of Columbia Heights filled with unbelievable quantities of trash. It was as though people from all over DC were coming to Columbia Heights specifically to throw trash on the street. The amount of crime skyrocketed. Robbery’s, assaults, burglary became a more frequent issue. Not a week went by in the last couple of years living there where at least one car on the short street I live on hadn’t gotten broken into. I had to get one of those roll down steel doors across the back of my lot because all of a sudden, out of nowhere 4 years after we moved in, people started breaking into homes via the alley. Nearly every house (15 in total over 6 months) on our block got hit, some twice and despite the cops taking prints and finding the criminals already had been in the system, there was seemingly no consequence to their actions. People also started defecating with some regularity in the alley and on the sidewalks. Constant pleas by the entire neighborhood to the ANC, the police the Council member go ignored for months and years. The only time someone from the ANC or Council gets involved is around election time, and the involvement stops immediately after.

At least 2 or 3 times a year I would walk out of my house in the morning to go to work and find some passed out / strung out guy on my lawn or adjacent neighbors lawn, covered in his own urine or vomit or actively hitting the crack pipe in the middle of the day. People started ripping out landscaping plants and bushes we (or my neighbors) had planted, apparently to take home and plant because they simply disappeared. Who does that?

A new and very visible drug trade has appeared in multiple places in the neighborhood. Unbelievably the most visible example is right at the Columbia Heights metro stop where it happens in full view of cops who sit there in their cars on their Facebook, or otherwise couldn’t care less. And I am not talking about weed here, but serious narcotics.

The straw that broke the camels back was when I apparently had the audacity to remind a young twenty something that my lawn wasn’t his trash can as he walked by and threw his discarded chicken wings on my lawn. I was standing less than 10 feet away when he did it and decided to ask him what he was doing.

Like all young thugs I’ve encountered, he “ran hot” which meant he went from zero to full-rage in about a millisecond. After ~20 seconds of screaming every four letter word and negative gentrification invective in the book at me (he and I are the same race but that seemed to elude him), he started towards me, pulled up his shirt to show me his gun and told me he was going to shoot me (I’ve actually cleaned that language up quite a bit, I will let your imagination run with what he really said). I grew up in rural VT, hunted in my childhood, spent time in the Corps and am extremely comfortable around firearms, but I had never had one pulled on me before, or the threat of it. I simply reacted out of fear, grabbed him by the neck with one hand, put my hand on his gun with the other so he couldn’t draw it and slammed his head into the retaining wall in front of my house while trying to disarm him.

As a side note, having grown up in a rural VT community as a minority, I was always one of the few non-white people around, yet in all my travels personally and professionally, the District of Columbia is by far the most racist place I’ve ever been, and the overwhelming bulk of the racism is generated and perpetuated by fellow members of the black community. It is incredibly disappointing.

Anyway, the police came, ran him through the system, discovered he had a couple outstanding warrants (one for assault and another for weapons). He was 24 and had been in the system a number of times already. Police told me this would be the last straw, he would go away for some real time on this.

Less than 72 hours later he was throwing glass bottles at my front door.

Fast forward a year. He came to my house to threaten me and my wife a half a dozen times over the previous 12 months. We got a restraining order but he of course ignored it (or couldn’t read it, who knows). Each time I called the police and a couple times they got there in time to arrest him, but he would be out in a matter of days. We’ve had this guy and a couple of his friends break a number of windows, cause random damage to my house and leave piles of trash in my yard over that period (all caught on camera mind you). All of this in a neighborhood that now unbelievably commands $700K for 900 SF condos and $1M dollars for row houses that need work.

The best part is that he and his family had the temerity to try sue me for 6 figures for “pain and suffering”. Apparently the fractured jaw he got when I slammed his head into my retaining wall while trying to disarm him was sufficient cause in our local DC courts to allow this lawsuit to go much further than it should have, resulting in me spending thousands of dollars to defend myself because some DC taxpayer funded non-profit (i.e, funded in part by me) had decided to try to help this guy make some point “against the man”. The fact that any judge wouldn’t just laugh uproariously and immediately throw such a case out considering the circumstances boggles the mind. I was encouraged to “settle” by the Court and even got admonished by the judge (black woman) about my actions and that I should have just looked the other way as he dumped trash in my yard. Excuse me? This felon with multiple outstanding warrants pulled a gun on me and threatened my life, and you are encouraging me to settle and lecturing me for reacting and protecting myself. “Mind blown”!

I’ve read now (and not in the Onion, sadly) that DC is seriously considering actually paying criminals like this guy upwards of $9,000 a year to “bribe” them not to commit more crimes. You read something like that and you don’t know whether to cry, or get irate. Probably a little of both. I guess crime does pay.

This event is just a small example within the larger microcosm of general governmental dysfunction and crime tolerance in the District. My wife and I don’t have one friend without a number of stories of DC dysfunction. I figured that with the influx of tens of thousands of new residents that the status-quo, the “catering to the lowest common denominator” would phase out. It actually is getting worse, substantially worse, but the effects are largely hidden by virtue of DC having been the benefactor of the Federal “boom-town” effect for the past 16 years.

There isn’t a budget DC can’t seem to raise nearly double digits per year in an effort to spend their way out of poor governance on everything else, but it is embarrassing how low of a bar our elected officials set, and even more embarrassing how much that bar is abused and then lowered again the next year. Even accounting for the additional spending required by new residents and a increasing population, the District has raised its yearly budget at more than twice inflationary levels per capita over the past 13 years.

The latest example I’ve seen is nearly ~$650M in proposed new spending over 30 years to house only 250 homeless families per year in dorm rooms. Total cost per family per year to District taxpayers? $90,000 dollars per year, per family. Or $7,700 a month per family. You can get some pretty swank 3 bedroom apartments for half that per month. Heck, at current rates, that is the monthly mortgage and tax payment on a $1.3M dollar mortgage in DC. This is of course, on top of the already $120M per year the District spends on existing homeless services that does next to nothing for the homeless, but keeps a large number of homeless services non-profits and CBE’s on the gravy train.

At every level, from the Department of Public Works all the way up to the Mayor is complete and utter dysfunction that garners embarrassing national attention. At least a dozen or so times a year my trash inexplicably didn’t get picked up that week. The weather is perfect and it isn’t a City or Federal holiday. It just gets missed and one missed trash pickup means the alley (and adjacent streets) are all of a sudden awash in more trash than they already are. When they do pick up the trash, it seems as though it is some kind of competitive sport as to how much of the trash the collectors can dump in the alley rather than in the truck. Nothing but pure laziness and disregard.

DCPS is enough to make even the most hardened, die hard public school advocate cry. DC tax payers are in the top 2 in terms of the money spent per student nationwide, yet rank in the bottom 2-3 in terms of performance. And now to solve the low graduation rate we apparently think it is a good idea to give high school diplomas for extra curricular activities to those unable to manage to get one by graduating, from what is by all relevant metrics, a low rigor curriculum. The ultimate participation trophy!

DCRA seems to be a joke that someone is purposely playing on District residents. Three and a half months to get a permit to replace an existing one story porch in-kind and keep the same dimensions? 3.5 months, more than 13 phone calls and 7 total hours waiting in line downtown, yet this crack team of construction and permitting guru’s seem unable to stop the illegal construction at the end of the block which had been reported half a dozen times and resulted in tens of thousands in damage to the adjacent property. Sadly, everyone I talk to has had a similar experience with them.

The transportation agency DDOT can spend $200M, more than twice the budgeted amount ($130M more) on a streetcar that was half a decade late to deliver, and doesn’t actually serve any functional transportation purpose, while the actual streets of DC deteriorate to the point of looking like the surface of the moon, or like downtown Baghdad after the invasion.

DC has 2000 lane miles of local streets, streets that aren’t eligible for federal money and have to be paid for entirely by the District, yet DDOT decreased its road repaving budget so much over the past 6 years that it has only set aside $7M dollars a year to repave those streets the past few years of its own money (out of a $160M/yr capital budget). Put another way, DDOT spent 3 times more per year on one project, an ill planned streetcar on a two mile stretch of road, than it spent cumulatively resurfacing streets in the entire rest of the city.

For what the District spends repaying roads, it could have repaved 500 lane miles of DC streets, a full 25% of the entire city total, just with the budget overage of the streetcar. But no, DC instead only has been allocating enough for 50 lane miles of repaving per year. DDOT actually spent more per year the last few years on “street light management” (whatever that is) than it spent repaving local city streets. Hardly a mystery as to why my car was always out of alignment.

The DC tax office, seemingly unsatisfied with the embarrassing dysfunction of having tax employees steal $60 million tax dollars and funnel it to friends and family over a 12 year period, decided to continue that dysfunction (for me anyway) 3 out of 4 years as they tried their damnedest to keep (steal is better word) my tax refund for the year.

It went something like this. File taxes, expect a couple thousand dollars back and yet nothing happens. Months goes by, no notice or call or anything. Then you call them up and you get someone who is clearly unqualified for most jobs, let alone this one on the line who simply says “Yeah, your tax forms were wrong and you owed us so we just kept it”. No explanation as to how much I owed, or what was wrong, just “they were wrong”.

Excuse me? Even assuming for a second that they the tax office was 100% correct and my taxes were done incorrectly, on what planet or in what jurisdiction can you simply decide to keep money supposedly owed to someone else without the benefit of a notice of any kind? Oh, thats right, DC. Even the IRS does a better job communicating these issues when they arise. The IRS!!

Suffice to say the DC tax office was 100% wrong all 3 times, and I eventually got every penny that was originally due to me, but that is of course after having to spend months and dozens of phone calls to an ever changing series of people to get it “fixed”.

The DC summer “jobs” program, if it can be called that is another mistake I made, twice. Asked personally as a business owner to participate by a Council member, I agreed to it and took 3 students one summer. All three were 10th or 11th graders and all were sadly functionally illiterate. I mean seriously illiterate, as in they were reading at probably a 4th or 5th grade level. The real problem was they only ever bothered showing up one or two days a week and when they did they all had unbelievable attitudes. They couldn’t be bothered to do anything and when asked would tell me or my staff off. I actually had to explain to two of them why watching porn (at high volume no less) on a work computer in the reception area was inappropriate. Another time, one of the students boyfriends showed up at the office one day and they had a screaming match about something that only teenagers think is important in our lobby, in full view of some clients who certainly don’t pay us hundreds of dollars an hour to watch that crap. I was absolutely mortified. I said never again.

4 years later, after being asked every year since the first experience, I got pressured into again. “It can’t possibly be worse than the first time” my wife said, “give it another try”.

Suffice to say the second experience was worse, and now apparently DC has again “lowered the bar” by allowing “youths” up to the age of 24 participate in this taxpayer funded “free money bribes to young people to keep them from committing crimes during the summer” program. To add insult to injury to anyone with common sense or dignity, the District actually renamed the program after Marion Barry as a tribute to the man.

Why anyone with a minuscule shred of dignity would try to give even more tribute to a man who embarrassed an entire city for decades boggles the mind. The man was a proud womanizing, crack addict, alcoholic, multi felon, multi-dui, multi-probation drug test failing, two decade long tax cheat who illegally directed city contracts to girlfriends/friends with the stipulation he get paid on the back-end, and who left the District taxpayer (i.e. his employer) hundreds of thousands of dollars in arrears for unpaid income taxes when he died. We should be scrubbing his name from every building it was on out of embarrassment, not trying to “honor” him more. But, considering the waste, dysfunction and general “no-show for pay”, lowest common denominator nature of the “jobs” program, it doesn’t surprise me the city named it after him.

I’ve luckily never needed the services of an ambulance while living in the District, but if I did I am pretty sure the process would be pretty substandard. For some reason, a city that has seen a couple billion dollars in budget surpluses the past dozen years despite the aforementioned eye popping budget increases every year, seemingly can’t figure out how to buy or fix ambulances. I mean, the city owns 98 of them, but only 50 are in operable condition, the rest out of service. So instead of expecting the city to perform one of its 3 basic municipal functions, the city pays an obscene amount of money to hire private ambulance services. Bravo!

A brand new, fully outfitted ambulance is $225K. DC could replace the entire ~100 unit fleet tomorrow for ~$23M. DC’s budget surplus last year alone was $200M. Why is this still a problem?

All the above eventually took its toll, so my wife and I left the District. Life is challenging enough as it is, being constantly treated like the enemy and dealing with the constant level of “fail” of the District is just exhausting. I moved my residence and my business over the border, which one (VA or MD) isn’t germane to the discussion. I could have probably just moved my residence to Woodley or Cleveland Park and solved the trash, crime and strung out addicts defecating on my sidewalk issue. Our income would allow us to live anywhere in the District we wanted, but that doesn’t solve the long list of other problems listed above.

I know, I know, no biggie. “Someone bought your house and moved in, you won’t be missed because DC is awesome” the staunch defenders of the District will say. True, another DINK couple bought our house, and I wish them the best, but there is no way the valuation of my former neighborhood, or the supposed intrinsic value of living in a “vibrant”(the most painfully overused word in the urban handbook by the way) neighborhood is supported by anything in the area other than speculation and insanity, which I am sure they are already getting accustomed. Getting to know the buyers of my house briefly as I did when we sold to them, I bet they are already feeling some level of buyers remorse as they constantly walk over the broken glass, discarded chicken bones and empty cans and liquor bottles thrown on the sidewalk that I made a point of sweeping up daily the entire time my house was on the market until settlement so potential buyers wouldn’t be confronted by it.

My business loss to the District is perhaps slightly more of an noticeable issue to the powers that be but again, not really. Half of my employees happened to be non-DC residents already and it is only a small 15 person firm. The loss of taxable corporate and my personal income is symbolic in the grand scheme of things. I could have left my business in DC and still moved across the border, but it was an important symbolic point for me to make. I just couldn’t justify letting the District continue to benefit from me, my business or my family in any way when the city seemingly did nearly everything it can possibly do for years and years to take folks like me and my wife for granted, and then treat us as second class citizens while going out of their way to cater to and make any excuse on behalf of the lowest common denominator crowd. Well…no more.


Former District Resident”

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