After two women were murdered on Castle Boulevard last month, should residents be afraid to leave their homes? Police Lieutenant Stephen D'Ovidio doesn't think so.
"Look at Southeast D.C., those places have murders there every day and people still live their lives," he said. "I'm not trying to say there's nothing going on at Castle Boulevard, ... but during the day, I don't see it as being that bad. It's a difference in perception."That's what he told the Gazette this week after Greencastle Elementary School, many of whose students live along Castle Boulevard in Briggs Chaney, didn't participate in International Walk to School Day October 7. According to Principal Andrew Winter, his students aren't allowed to play outside and his teachers are afraid to be at school after dark.
It's disappointing that kids living in a neighborhood within walking distance of a school don't feel comfortable walking there. This creates a huge burden for the community: the extra cost of buses to carry students who'd otherwise walk; increased obesity as kids are forced to stay inside, deprived of physical activity; and a deteriorating sense of community as people feel they can't trust their neighbors and move away as soon as they can afford to.
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Garden apartments were built through the mid-to-late 20th century with the best of intentions: providing a place where young professionals and families alike could affordably live in a suburban setting. But this didn't take into account the fact that the spread-out, disconnected layout of suburbia isn't sustainable at higher densities. As it's currently laid out, the Briggs Chaney area creates traffic and encourages crime. It's not density; it's design.
A concentration of rental housing creates a revolving door of tenants who aren't wedded to the community. The neighborhood is Balkanized into dozens of self-contained apartment complexes whose residents are physically and psychologically isolated from one another with fences and a lack of road connections. Groups of apartment buildings with no defined public and private spaces make it easy for ne'er-do-wells to prey on unsuspecting residents. This is a place where people don't feel a sense of commitment because the built environment says they don't have need to.
It's also hard to improve conditions across the community because residents are represented by landlords and management offices, not civic organizations. When someone does try to create change - like Dexter Price, a leasing agent and self-defined "activist" at the Windsor Court and Tower Apartments who organized the East County Community Day celebrations - it's usually limited to one complex and ends if the individuals involved switch jobs.
And whether or not reports of crime in Briggs Chaney really make it a less safe place to live, the resulting fear affects everyone, not just those who live there. My brother, who goes to the adjacent Galway Elementary School, where principal Shahid Muhammad says students "do not feel unsafe in their neighborhood." We don't live in Briggs Chaney, but our parents are concerned about crime enough to have my brother ride the bus a mile to school.
Most of East County's community leaders are preoccupied with preventing another Briggs Chaney from happening; i.e., keeping more apartments or affordable housing from being built. But that doesn't really address the issue of what to do with people who already live here and have to deal with a neighborhood that's designed to work against them. Making kids and adults alike feel safe in Briggs Chaney goes much farther than hiring a few more police officers, but the benefits of doing so will be felt all across East County.