The Kenilworth Project


      Below are two articles I wrote about my neighborhood that were published in the Washington Post in February, 2004 ( a good month for me, I guess). The first one, about sirens, is a short essay that might appear in "the book," if the book ever appears. The second is an opinion article about a neighborhood (and city-wide) problem I've been active in combating.

      While these two articles showcase some of the dark underbelly of my beloved Kenilworth, know that there are many good things about living here as well.

The Siren Call of Disaster at Our Door

published in the Washington Post; Thursday, February 12, 2004; page DZ04 (District Extra)

      Here in Kenilworth, sirens lure us out of our houses into the night, drawing us to the sight of flames, of quiet forms rolled away on stretchers, of the faces of men in the back of squad cars, of yellow police tape stretched from tree to fence.

      We know them all-- the high-pitched wail and short air horn blasts of the fire engines; the slow rise and fall of the ambulances; the shrill, fast-moving police sirens that come with the sounds of gunned engines and squealing tires.

      Surrounded by water, woods, and highways, Kenilworth is an urban island. Like the islands of Greek mythology, Kenilworth has its shoreline rocks and treacherous shoals where unwary wayfarers meet their destruction.

      For as long as I can remember, since I was a boy here, sirens have brought us out of our houses like no other thing can. Calamity seduces us, and we go. We go to gawk, to gossip, to from whence destruction has come, summer or winter, rain or snow.

      Shod or barefoot, in jeans or nightgowns, unshaven, uncombed or with curlers- we join the crowd.

      When I was a boy, my parents tried to keep me away.

      "It's not polite to put your nose into the misfortune of others," they would say.

      Still, sometimes I could slip away, grab my bike and join the crowd that formed where the sirens stopped.

      I remember the excitement of watching firemen at work.

      Buildings flamed, hydrants sprayed, hoses filled, men with pikes and grimy faces climbed to fight the flames. I jumped my bike over the hoses that lined the streets.

      I remember watching paramedics carry a stretcher from house to ambulance. Family members lined the concrete walk and cried as neighbors watched from second story windows.

      Twice in my life the sirens came to my front door.

      Once, a strange man pointed toward the house next door. Creeping flames were melting the plastic siding.

      I handed him the phone. He called a 911 operator while I scrambled to find our garden hose. It was winter. The hose was frozen and the outside faucets turned off. We all shivered as trucks with blinking lights lined our street. Water arced over my house and rained down on the flames. Icicles formed on unburned eaves. That evening, a thin sheet of ice covered the street.

      Another time, a stolen car being chased by police couldn't navigate the corner in front of my house. It ran into a tree and wiped out in our yard. We had been eating dinner and ran to the windows to watch. I was eight.

      One of the car's passengers hid in the shadows for a time, then ran hard up the street, outdistancing the middle-aged policemen who gave chase. Officers pinned down the driver on my neighbor's front yard, pistols drawn.

      "They were pointing their guns almost right up at us in our window," my neighbors said later, excited. "We got down on the floor."

      Last November, another high speed chase ended in my neighborhood. Three teens in a stolen vehicle rammed a police car out in Prince George's County. "If you try to hurt one of our officers, we're going to catch you," a tall man in a tan uniform said later in an angry baritone.

      The chase cars thundered from Walker Mill Road to Kenilworth, home of the chased car's driver. They hurtled past my house once, then again, as I ran to the door to watch. A helicopter's spotlight played along the street, car tires squealed.

      When the loud procession came to rest nearby, I walked toward the scene. Along the way, I met an officer. He grasped a gun in both hands and pointed it into the shadows behind the homes that line Douglas Street.

      "If you live in this neighborhood, I strongly suggest you get inside your house," he said.

      I kept walking. In an alley just off 45th Street, I found the place where the 14-year-old driver of the chased car had been arrested not far from his own front door. His car hadn't quite made a tight alley turn, had hit a parked auto and ended up on a concrete laundry area. Hemmed in by laundry line poles, a brick wall, and a dumpster, he'd decided to get out and run.

      Minutes later, the police found and arrested him. His two friends stayed in the car. One took over the wheel and banged the vehicle around in the tight space like a bull in a cage until the officers finally broke the windows and hauled them out.

      As the police mopped up, the neighbors stood in clumps around the crime scene, shaking their heads at the bent laundry poles and discussing the evening's events. Someone's little sister was outside in a short night shirt. "Get in the house, girl," we all laughed at her, "before you catch a cold."

      She went in; we stayed a bit longer to survey the wreckage.

      A news camera man appeared. He talked to the police.

      "Hey, cameraman, come over here and talk to me." A teenage girl struck a pose.

      "Nah, don't come over here," a neighbor jokingly ducked down behind me. "I don't got no makeup on."

      In my neighborhood this is how we see ourselves: bystanders at a crime scene, exposed and without makeup, at the same time victims and voyeurs.

      This is how we live in Kenilworth; this is how we live on the thin edge between the good life and destruction. When we sense the sirens on the highway, coming our way, we go to see the flashing lights, feel the spotlight's glare, hear the sirens, and watch the scenes that destroy our peace but give us our most active communal life.

      We don't want to listen, but we can't help ourselves.

Joe Lapp grew up in Kenilworth as the son of an Amish-Mennonite pastor. He is working on a book about his family and the neighborhood.

stolen car

Wild In the Streets

published in the Washington Post; Sunday, February 8, 2004; page B08 (Outlook section)

      For almost a year, neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River have been under siege by juveniles who steal cars to go joy riding.

      In the 6th Police District alone (about half the area east of the Anacostia), 2,724 vehicles were stolen in 2003. That's roughly seven vehicles a day. Officers think that more than 75 percent of the thefts can be blamed on juveniles.

      Profit is not usually the motive. Youngsters- average age 13 to 14- take the cars to play high-speed chase games on neighborhood streets. They do doughnuts in intersections, tear through yards and parks and commit other reckless driving offenses. This results in accidents involving parked and moving vehicles and in damage to lawns, street signs and fire hydrants.

      A few weeks ago a stolen vehicle hit a parked minivan so hard that it pushed the minivan across my street into another neighbor's parked car. In the Benning Heights area this summer, youths driving stolen vehicles killed two people.

      But more than the damage to personal and communal property, it's the injustice of the situation that angers residents. Here are young people who ought to have been taught better, stealing and destroying personal property, and no one seems to be willing or able to do anything about it.

      Residents fear these juveniles, who show no respect for the law and property. I have been threatened and punched in the jaw while trying to address these teenagers about their activities. Older people at times are afraid to come outside. Neighbors park their cars in each other's yards just to get them off the street.

      Some people talk about moving away. Even more disturbing, some residents are so frustrated that they ponder taking the law into their own hands and going after the kids themselves.

      Sometimes even the police feel powerless. By departmental policy, officers cannot chase stolen vehicles. I've heard reports of teenagers in stolen cars taunting an officer before peeling away. When officers are able to make arrests, they say, the teenagers are often back on the street before they finish their paperwork.

      The D.C. Council is considering a round of juvenile justice proposals, some of which are in response to complaints from my neighborhood about juvenile crime.

      Specifically, what many residents want is more parental accountability. The three most promising parental accountability measures in the legislation are ordering restitution of as much as $10,000; requiring parents to attend court hearings and participate in court-ordered services; and allowing police to notify the D.C. Housing Authority when juveniles living in public assistance properties commit crimes. (Note that the proposed law does not require eviction; it simply allows for notification of the housing authority.)

      Much of the response that I've seen to the juvenile justice bills has been misdirected and, in some cases, misinformed. Some detractors have not looked at all of the legislation, condemning the whole while ignoring the good parts. Yes, some ill-conceived proposals may be on the table. However, in my area of the city, many people believe that the proposals, if passed, might tip the balance of power back in favor of law-abiding citizens.

Joe Lapp is a resident of Kenilworth and a member of the Eastland Gardens Civic Association.