Potomac Gardens Divided: The “Prison-Grade” Fence Raises Questions and Controversy
It would be easy to walk past Potomac Gardens Apartments writing it off as just another old building in need of fresh paint, but there is more to the building that what first meets the eye. Potomac Gardens Apartments has a rich history filled with violence and controversy. Built in 1968, Potomac Gardens Apartments is a public housing project owned by the District of Columbia Housing Authority. The complex is located at 1225 G Street SE, just thirteen blocks southeast of the United States Capitol Building (“Potomac Gardens”). Most known for the eight foot tall iron fence that surrounds it, the large, run-down, and bleak looking building houses low income families and a large senior population. While many believe the prison grade fence that surrounds the perimeter of Potomac Gardens Apartments facilitates a safe environment for all, my essay argues that the fence is a deterrent to residents and visitors alike.
When first walking up to the complex, it is difficult to notice anything besides the “prison grade” fence that surrounds it. The tops of the fence are bent out, making it is impossible for anyone to get in. In an effort to combat drug related violence, Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly had the fence installed in 1991 (Sheir). Before the installation, “local and federal law enforcement authorities described Potomac Gardens as the largest open-air drug market in the Washington area and estimated that more than $2 million worth of drugs were being sold on the grounds each week” (Kovaleski). While drug arrests significantly declined after the installation; the fence was built against the wishes of many residents who often compare themselves to prisoners or caged zoo animals (Blakely and Synder). In the late 1990s, teenagers who lived in the complex even referred to Potomac Gardens as “Baby Lorton,” referring to Lorton Reformatory, a Virginia prison that closed in 2001 (O’Donnell). In a 1994 article, Washington Post reporter, Serge Kovaleski describes the drastic change in the daily lives of Potomac Gardens’s residents after the installation. Kovaleski writes, “children frolic in the clean courtyards… and the pillows and stuffed animals that once sat in apartment windows to slow down stray bullets are gone, replaced in some units by flower boxes.” Residents even felt safe enough to host cookouts and to rent the corner units that were once vacant due to fear “of being exposed to to gunfire on two sides” (Kovaleski). In the year before the installation, Metro Police made 150 drug related arrests at Potomac Gardens; in 1994 only four arrests were made (Kovaleski). While many things changed for the better after the installation of the fence, many residents still had reservations, questioning authorities as to why they were being treated like caged animals (Escobar and Gaines-Carter). Twenty-six years have gone by since the installation of the fence, and while drug crime has diminished significantly, the fence remains of symbol of Potomac Gardens’s violent and dreary past (Blakely and Synder).
Today, the fence still stands, sending a bleak message to anyone who walks by. According to a Metro PD lieutenant, the fence surrounding Potomac Gardens, while helpful in apprehending possible suspects, gives “the impression that something dangerous is going on” (Depillis). If crime has gone down significantly, why is the fence still standing? Residents and fellow community members do not need an eight foot tall reason to be afraid of Potomac Gardens. I have a difficult time accepting that the fence still exists under the false pretense that it keeps residents safe. In reality, the fence is merely a tool used by MDP to apprehend possible suspects. How is that acceptable? Keeping an entire community locked up in their own homes so that one or two possible suspects can be detained. Crime in this neighborhood has gone down significantly since the 1990s (Depillis). The area surrounding Potomac Gardens is booming and has even become relatively high income (Sheir). Right next door to Potomac Gardens is Cambridge Row luxury condominiums. These two complexes are so close to each other that you could throw a paper airplane from one building to the next.
Built in the lot of the previous Salvation Army Capitol Hill headquarters stands Cambridge Row. Cambridge Row describes itself as a “boutique community of 25 thoughtfully designed condominium residences… located in a beautiful and walkable neighborhood” (“Cambridge Row”). The price of these condominiums range from $200,000 to $650,000. A price quite high for a neighborhood that is supposedly ridden with crime and drug violence. The building’s appearance is vastly different from Potomac Gardens. Green grass, fresh cement, and newly paved sidewalks welcome you to Cambridge Row. Next door at Potomac Gardens you are greeted with broken windows, chipped paint, and security cameras typically found in prison yards. While both of these complexes reside on the same block, they cater to very different residents. Cambridge Row appeals to young professionals by describing the complex as follows: “Located just moments to two metro stations, Barracks Row, Eastern Market and all of Capitol Hill. Cambridge Row offers the finest quality living in a beautiful walkable neighborhood filled with the Capitol’s best restaurants, bars, cafes, shops, open markets, grocers, and public transportation” (“Cambridge Row”). Potomac Gardens appeals to families by describing each apartment as a “family unit,” and by providing a list of nearby schools on their page on the District of Columbia Housing Authority’s website (“Potomac Gardens Family”).
According to Google Maps, 197 feet separate the “family friendly” Potomac Gardens from the “boutique community” also known as Cambridge Row Condominiums. Roughly 200 feet away from an apartment building defined by its violent past is the newly renovated Cambridge Row. In 1989, the neighborhood surrounding Potomac Gardens was deemed “the most dangerous in America” by talk show host, Geraldo Rivera (Sheir). Today, McWilliams Ballard Real Estate, the developer of Cambridge Row, describes the neighborhood as “beautiful” and “walkable.” How can the same neighborhood be both “the most dangerous is America” and beautiful and walkable? While there is a twenty five year time difference between the two comments, Cambridge Row developers purposefully try to distance themselves from Potomac Gardens Apartments.
Cambridge Row’s website contains images of many of their units. Large windows are shown in many of these images, but the view of the outside cannot be seen because the image is either blurred or backlit. Cambridge Row is positioned in front of one of the complexes that make up Potomac Gardens. For many Cambridge Row residents, their bedroom window overlooks Potomac Gardens’s iron fence, broken windows, and security cameras. This detail would go unnoticed by someone looking at the images Cambridge Row provides on their website. If this was intentional, what is McWilliams Ballard Real Estate trying to hide? They purposely fail to mention that the majority of the building’s “beautiful views” include the back of Potomac Gardens.
Does Cambridge Row really need to hide their proximity to Potomac Gardens Apartments? Why is being next-door to a public housing complex such a big deal? In reality, it probably wouldn’t be if Potomac Gardens did not have a prison-grade fence surrounding its perimeter. Like the MPD lieutenant said, the fence sends a message that something dangerous is happening. While the fence may allude to a dangerous environment, the neighborhood surrounding Potomac Gardens and Cambridge Row is “far from being the worst neighborhood in the city” (Abrams).
Often referred to as Hill East, the neighborhood surrounding Potomac Gardens and Cambridge Row, is “bursting with new retail, restaurants, and bars… scaffolding for new apartments and condos is popping up all along Pennsylvania Avenue corridor” (Sheir). In July 2016, Donatelli Development announced plans to redevelop the area around the Stadium-Armory Metro Station, which is a mile away from the two housing complexes. Their two building plan includes 400,000 square feet of retail space, 354 apartments, and 225 underground parking spaces (Perry-Brown).
Gerard DiRuggiero of UrbanLand Company says that Hill East development “gives the area a sense of promise… it creates opportunities for people to take a chance. They can expect to pay a decent price for something that’ll grow in five to ten years” (Abrams). In addition to the redevelopment of the Stadium-Armory Metro Station, Hill East is a new home to many up-scale apartment buildings, like the already sold out Jenkins Row, Axis, and The Chelsea (Abrams). Developers would not choose to invest in an area that is ridden with crime. Since new developments are popping up all around Potomac Gardens, the neighborhood must not be as bad as everyone believes.
With the new housing and retail developments emerging, it is obvious that Hill East is an up and coming neighborhood. While there is a clear vision for the future of Hill East, it is currently far from perfect. Crime rates in Hill East and the neighboring Capitol Hill might not be the highest in the city, but crime in this area is far from non-existent. According to Metropolitan Police Department crime statistics, from January 2008 to January 2009, the area surrounding Potomac Gardens experienced 50 violent crimes and 157 property crimes. From January 2015 to January 2016, the same area experienced 40 violent crimes and 294 property crimes. While the property crime rate increased, violent crime decreased. At 250 reported crimes, the current total for all reported crime in this area is the lowest it has been in years. Overall, these numbers may not seem like an improvement, but crime rates, specifically violent crime rates, in Hill East are steadily decreasing each year (“Crime Map”).
If the fence around Potomac Gardens keeps its residents safe, why does the District of Columbia Housing Authority not mention it? While there is not a website specifically for Potomac Gardens, there is a page about the complex on the District of Columbia Housing Authority’s site. All of the images of the complex found on this website do not include the fence. The images were specifically taken inside the fence or cropped so the fence is not visible. While the blocked views found in Cambridge Row’s images may be a coincidence, the lack of fence found in Potomac Gardens’s images is most likely not.
In 2001, the residents of Potomac Gardens met to discuss the fence and whether or not it should be taken down. Similar to the early 1990s, when the installation took place, the fence had supporters and oppressors. Unsurprisingly, the opinions had not changed very much. Many residents, a majority of them mothers, believed the fence kept them safe and appreciated that their children could play outside without having access to the street. DCHA family commissioner and Potomac Gardens resident, Aquarius Vann-Ghasri, even compared the fence around Potomac Gardens to fences that surround wealthy gated communities (Depillis). Oppressors believed the fence to be dehumanizing and repeatedly compared themselves to prisoners and caged zoo animals (Depillis). After this 2011 meeting, DCHA officials decided to “put the issue down for the time being” (Depillis). Five years later, in December of 2016, the fence is still standing and the DCHA is silent. If the fence around Potomac Gardens is as great as all of its supporters say it is, why doesn’t DCHA install fences around other public housing projects? Why doesn’t Cambridge Row install a fence? Also, when residents say the fence keeps them safe, it insinuates that there is something that they need to be kept safe from. While I realize crime in Hill East raises some alarm, there are many complexes and housing developments in the neighborhood that do not have a fence surrounding their perimeter and they appear to be doing just fine. According to MPD crime statistics, Potomac Gardens (prison grade fence and all) currently has a higher crime rate than Jenkins Row Condominiums, one of the new luxury housing developments of Hill East.
While it is obvious that crime rates in Hill East are higher than they could be, I do not believe the prison grade fence surrounding Potomac Gardens Apartments is necessary. The fence was installed in 1991 in order to decrease the number of drug arrests and to prevent drug related violence. Since its installation, drug crime at Potomac Gardens has practically become nonexistent and total crime is decreasing (“Crime Map”). While crime may be decreasing, it is still present in Hill East and at Potomac Gardens. If the fence is as effective as all of its supporters believe it to be, shouldn’t all crime rates be close to non-existent? Times have changed, and it is obvious that the population and neighborhood surrounding Potomac Gardens has as well. It is no longer necessary for the complex to look like a prison and residents should no longer have to feel caged in their own homes. While the fence may have been effective in the early 1990s, it is not effective today, and does not even appear to be deterring crime. If the fence’s sole purpose is to prevent crime and it is not achieving this, why should it still stand?
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O’Donnell, Santiago. “More Than a Fence: 8-Foot Barrier Helped Cut Crime, Instill Hope at Potomac Gardens.” The Washington Post, 10 December 1992, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post, http://search.proquest.com/hnpwashingtonpost/ advanced?accountid=8285.
Perry-Brown, Nena. “The 1,267 Units Headed for Capitol Hill and Hill East.” Urban Turf, 2016, http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/the_capitol_hill-hill_east_development_rundown/ 11435.
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