D.C. hopes to lift troubled neighborhood

On a Sunday afternoon the only visible people in Sursum Corda, the low-income, cooperatively managed housing development just north of the U.S. Capitol, were either coming out of the Mount Airy Baptist Church or standing nearby smoking marijuana.

Throughout the neighborhood, groups of teenagers and young adults stood out in the open smoking drugs, and despite the proximity to New York Avenue, men stood casually around cars playing loud music and rolling “blunts,” or marijuana cigars.

“It’s been rough here,” said Sennie Edmond, a 35-year resident of Sursum Corda. As Edmond talked inside her sparsely furnished townhouse, “rough” seemed like an understatement, but residents there are looking toward a brighter future.

Partially funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and built by a Catholic activist group in 1968, Sursum Corda – meaning “lift up your hearts” in Latin – was supposed to bring urban renewal to this blighted area of the District by offering poorer residents yearly rent that was set at 25 percent of their income. At first, the neighborhood flourished, but an influx of crack cocaine in the 1980s and corrupt private management turned the area into one of the most notoriously poor and crime-ridden locales in the District. It was a place where drug dealers freely roamed the streets and murders were common.

“They messed this place up,” Edmond said, while complaining about bad telephone lines and non-functioning phones. “Back in the day it was okay, but it got terrible due to some bad landlords.”

But then there was a murder that changed it all. In January 2004, 14-year-old Jahkema “Princess” Hansen was shot to death, execution-style, in Sursum Corda after witnessing a homicide the weekend before. Robert Bobb, D.C. city administrator and deputy mayor, called the crime “one of the District’s most heinous murders in recent history” in testimony Nov. 16 at a D.C. City Council public oversight hearing. Since the murder, which got extensive media attention, the government resolved to make changes in the area.

Bobb organized a list of the top criminals in the development and started taking them off the streets. A year later, crime in the neighborhood was down 40 percent.

“It’s just gotten better here last year. There’s not the drug activity anymore,” Edmond said, though she pointed out in the past, “There’s been a lot of killing.”

But Bobb realized that arresting the dealers wasn’t enough. “As crime started to abate to a certain degree, we realized we needed to expand our focus to the root causes of human suffering in (this) area,” he said at the testimony.

As part of D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams’ New Communities initiative, the city targeted Sursum Corda for redevelopment. Residents and developer KSI Services Inc. worked out a deal this fall, and now the city and KSI plan to replace 199 housing units in the development with more than 500 townhouses, condominiums and apartments – many of which will be starting at $400,000 – to attract affluent families and create a new mixed-income community.

But city officials have said they are not going to shortchange the residents. Under a deal cut with the residents in October, KSI will give them 49 percent of profits on the redevelopment, as well as a one-time payment of $80,000 per household, which they can choose to reinvest as homeowners in the new neighborhood – which promises to still provide low-income benefits – or take the cash and move somewhere else.

Edmond, who has been through it all in Sursum Corda, said she plans to get out of the neighborhood as quickly as possible, even if the city is painting this perfect picture of a new Sursum Corda. She plans on using the money wisely.

“I’m packed and ready to go, just waiting for the (money),” she said, adding that she hopes that the new community will turn out for the better. “But I’m not coming back here,” she said, adding that the city and KSI have “got their work cut out for them.”

While Edmond is in a rush to get out of Sursum Corda, many of her neighbors don’t seem to share the sentiment. Shareka Roberts, a 13-year resident who said she’s already noticed improvement in the community, plans on remaining in the area as a homeowner.

“It’s a gated community now – the playground is new, new computer labs, the crime rate is lower, and there’s Nation of Islam security patrolling the grounds 24-hours-a-day,” she said, referring to some of the changes KSI made in the community earlier this year.

Outside Roberts’ home in the housing cooperative, several kids were playing football in the neighborhood’s playground. “I go out a lot in the summer – it’s nice here … it’s a close-knit community,” she said, adding that some women spend the warmer days on their porches, knitting.

Roberts’ neighbor, 34-year resident Mary Gordon, agreed. “It’s a good neighborhood. We get along,” she said, adding that “the crimes are down – way down.” She said she does not think the neighborhood deserves its bad reputation.

“Everybody talked about the drugs, but of course it wasn’t that bad. They exaggerated,” she said.

Roberts and Gordon both said they approve of KSI, which has already fixed up some of the homes in the area.

“We’re very happy they’ve come,” Gordon said.

However, Roberts said that there’s still a long way to go before the community and its housing problems make a turnaround.

“The houses need to be a lot sturdier,” she said, pointing out that much of her house feels flimsy, and the cabinets “could easily fall apart.”

John Hirsh, a Georgetown English professor who is the faculty adviser for a tutoring program that the university has had with Sursum Corda since the 1970s, said he’s always seen a strong sense of community in the area, even during the rough times.

“The residents are like residents everywhere … they are, in general, hardworking, attentive to their children and concerned for their future and for that of their community,” he said. “There was a sense of community within the community of Sursum Corda unlike that which exists in many places.”

In his testimony, Bobb described the residents as “a mix of retirees, small and large families, single parent homes and disabled people – mostly black and mostly poor – all sharing many of the same values, affordable housing concerns, and quality of life priorities as … most other District residents.”

The new Sursum Corda, expected to be a mixed-income community, is still five years away. KSI and the city say residents who wish to remain a part of the new Sursum Corda should be able to do so, though some residents remain skeptical. For better or for worse, it seems the “rough times” in the neighborhood may be almost over.

-Sam Sherraden contributed to this report.

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