Crack Cocaine and the Keys to Infrastructural Revival
Located in the northwestern quadrant of Washington, D.C., the downtown D.C. area has served as the political, social, and economic epicenter of our nation’s capital for numerous decades. Beginning with the construction of the White House in 1791, downtown D.C. has transformed from a political powerhouse to a cosmopolitan neighborhood overtime, developing into a mix of innovative restaurants, high-end shopping, historic museums, and government-run institutions. As D.C. has evolved over the years, the downtown area has witnessed significant changes first-hand, taking shape from the city’s dynamic past. Along with this past includes the violent crack epidemic of the 1980s, a time in D.C.’s history scarred by the rise of violent crimes, homicides, and addiction. Describing a time that was seen to, “usher in a wave of bloodletting in the nation’s capital and a death toll that ticked upward daily,” (LA Times), the crack epidemic in D.C. brought about considerable changes to the city’s infrastructure, urban-growth, and development, altering the capital’s history forever. As the crack epidemic deteriorated parts of D.C. in the 1990’s, downtown D.C. experienced considerable infrastructural changes and urban growth, making the unexpected survival of several pre-epidemic businesses all the more significant and reflective of D.C.’s dynamic past.
Defined by the surge of crack cocaine use in almost all major U.S. cities throughout the 1980’s, the American crack epidemic resulted in numerous social, infrastructural, and developmental consequences, increasing the number of violent crimes and homicides across the nation. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, “by the late 1970’s there was a huge glut of cocaine powder being shipped into the United States. This caused the price of the drug to drop by as much as 80%.” (DrugFreeWorld). With the origins of the national epidemic tied to the cocaine boom of the 1970’s, which lowered the costs of the drug, the use of crack cocaine was widespread within inner-city neighborhoods by the mid-1980’s. The surge of the use of the drug, occurring mostly between 1984 and 1990, thus became known as the American crack epidemic, increasing the number of Americans addicted to cocaine substantially. It’s reported that usage levels were so high that, “in 1985, the number of people who admitted using cocaine on a routine basis increased from 4.2 million to 5.8 million.” (DrugFreeWorld). Of these admitted users, most were of African-American or Latino backgrounds, impacting the lowest-earning neighborhoods in almost every major U.S. city.
While crack infected every major U.S. metropolis by the 1980’s, the nation’s capitol was no exception, as violent turf wars and soaring homicide rates soon took over the city. As the, “homicide rate more than doubled in less than 15 months,” (LA Times), D.C. found itself at the center of an addiction crisis. Recalling the situation, Reuben Castaneda, a Washington Post crime reporter, described seeing, “bodies…dropping nightly in violence propelled by crack turf wars,” (LA Times). As the drug became more and more available, young drug dealers were seen to traffic crack cocaine throughout D.C., bringing crack-related activities into the political epicenter of our nation. Along with this increase in crack activity, the murder rate quickly climbed over 400 a year, branding D.C. as the murder capital of the nation. While the drug’s prevalence increased, parts of D.C. quickly deteriorated, as low-income neighborhoods, composed of mostly minorities, were the first to become rundown.
Located in northeast D.C., Langdon, sometimes called Langdon Park, is a neighborhood that witnessed some of the worst effects of D.C.’s crack epidemic. It’s in Langdon Park where places like, “the Avenue…a nearby strip of road then home to an open-air drug market,” (Vice), existed. Drug hotspots like Langdon Park were seen to generate violent, crack-inspired turf wars, destroying this minority-dominated community. Crime within the neighborhood became increasingly rampant in the late-1990’s, as one encounter describes a time when, “police were dispatched to Langdon Park in the center of the neighborhood, where they found a grisly scene. On a grassy slope and under a canopy of trees lay three bodies, each of which had been shot multiple times, facedown and lined up side by side.” (Vice). While downtown D.C. was not immune from the epidemic-influenced surge of violence, neighborhoods like Langdon Park were seen to deteriorate overtime, as the long battle between crack and the city eventually took its tool on the infrastructure of this region. As the city gradually cracked down on the drug’s prevalence, “months passed without an arrest, then years, and eventually decades. At that time, the crack epidemic subsided, and a new, safer DC emerged. Langdon has since seen much of that era’s residual damage papered over with remodeled homes and new construction.” (Vice). It’s this time period, following the epidemic, that witnessed several inner-city demographic shifts, as the crack epidemic damaged certain regions of the city’s infrastructure beyond repair. Peter Tatian, a writer for the Los Angeles Times, described the shift as, “a virtuous cycle that began as people started to reinvest in cheap land and housing, encouraged by city authorities.” (LA Times). Similar to Langdon Park, entire regions of D.C. were demolished and rebuilt from the ground up, marking the end of the violent decade at the cost of some of the city’s iconic architecture. With the city’s revival, vacant buildings were torn down, parks were used to plant flowers and trees, and the average D.C. home’s rent skyrocketed, forcing those who hadn’t recovered from the city’s dark past to leave. While the post-crack era of D.C. was defined by an out with the old and in with the new aura, downtown D.C. was seen to evolve more than any other neighborhood in the city.
Located in the northwestern quadrant of D.C., downtown D.C. has long been considered the political, social, and economic epicenter of the city. Historically, downtown D.C. was almost exclusively cooperate, composed of several office buildings, attracting an audience of primarily businessmen and politicians. As the region’s political and economic activities gradually increased, the region evolved, attracting both local and foreign investments to the area. Though the area was characterized by the strong presence of the private sector, downtown D.C. included a small, Italian restaurant named Casa Luca. Located only five minutes away from the White House, the small restaurant was one of very few businesses to live through the region’s crack epidemic and, later, transformation. Throughout the region’s post-crack evolution, Casa Luca remained a stronghold within the area, serving as a reminder of the old D.C. that was torn down in order to repair the damage crack cocaine inflicted upon D.C.’s infrastructure. While the region developed, a commercial strip known as Gallery Place slowly transformed into a major hub of bars, restaurants, theaters, and upscale retail shops. Additionally, affluent young professionals soon began flocking to the region, arriving for the convenience and buzz of living closer to the city centre. Following the creation of Gallery Place and the arrival of several thousand residents, business after business moved to the downtown area, claiming their own piece of D.C.’s new, renovated neighborhood.
Following a time of considerable change for downtown D.C., Casa Luca’s surprising survival is reflective of the older D.C. that was seen to die out, following the end of the city’s crack cocaine epidemic. Situated on the ground-level of an 11-story building on New York Avenue, Casa Luca appears out of place. The dissimilarity between the restaurant and its surroundings are clear, as Casa Luca sits under a 4-level parking garage, rooftop deck, and fitness facility. Surrounded by stores like Tesla, organic restaurants like Sweet Greens, and up-scale hotels, Casa Luca appears older, as the restaurant has visually aged from the outside. Though not considered part of downtown’s massive renovation, Casa Luca’s survival is significant, as it has remained a stronghold, representing the pre-crack era of D.C. that many contribute to the city’s character. This aspect of Casa Luca connects the restaurant to D.C.’s dynamic past, as the restaurant’s doors have remained open throughout some of the city’s toughest times.
While crack cocaine spelled havoc for our nation’s capital, throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, D.C. has come a long way from the violent, crack-filled metropolis it once was. As the addictive substance ruined sections of D.C.’s infrastructure, the tearing down and revival of multiple neighborhoods across the city have almost completely covered up the signs of the violent epidemic. Looking back in time, BBC writer, Aidan Lewis, describes the new D.C. as, “booming.” (BBC). Recalling the progress that has been made, Lewis observes, “14th Street, cocktail bars and cosmopolitan restaurants jostle for space. Around the junction of 9th and U, cranes work round the clock, and at 7th and O, the O Street Market that was the scene of a brazen early-evening shooting in 1994 now houses a swish grocery, backed by an apartment block with an infinity pool and a dog-walking park on the roof.” (BBC). This quote shows just how far our nation’s capital has come, evolving through the decades, as crack, the addictive substance that once sank the city into darkness, is almost seen as the very key that unlocked this infrastructural potential. As crime rates decreased, following the dark times of crack’s rule, the city was seen to revive itself, rebuilding the damaged infrastructure that served as a visible scar, pointing to the epidemic. While the wave of violence and crime that came with D.C.’s crack epidemic attempted to overthrow the city and everything D.C. stands for, the capital’s true colors, eventually, shown through, creating a dynamic environment with a detailed past. Casa Luca’s survival, throughout both the crack epidemic and downtown’s revival, has served as a valuable reminder of just how far the nation’s capital has come. As the once dormant downtown has experienced re-innovation, Casa Luca has remained a downtown staple, factoring into its perception as reflective of D.C.’s dynamic past. Since the buzz surrounding downtown’s renewal, important figureheads, like Donald J. Trump, have come into the picture, as the new Trump Hotel is set to compete against several, existing luxury properties in the downtown area, including The Four Seasons, St. Regis, The Mandarin Oriental, and The Ritz-Carlton. This aspect of downtown shows the region is continuing to evolve, as more and more businesses are moving towards the capital’s direction, influencing the downtown region that was once characterized by widespread addiction. While the future of downtown D.C. is largely unknown, the city’s dark past serves as a reminder, topic of motivation, and reason to continue to applaud the long distance D.C. has travelled since the 1980’s, propelling D.C. forward. Through my research of D.C. and the America’s crack epidemic, I’ve found D.C. to resemble the locomotive, forging ahead and continuing to persevere, especially in times of despair, a quality I believe is central to D.C. While the crack epidemic deteriorated parts of D.C. in the 1990’s, downtown D.C. experienced considerable infrastructural changes and urban growth, making the unexpected survival of several pre-crack businesses all the more significant and reflective of D.C.’s dynamic past.