Mt. Pleasant Residents Join Hands To Shake Riots' Stigma of Violence
In the wake of recent turmoil, Washington, D.C.'s most ethnically diverse neighborhood is looking for ways to break down racial walls and overcome alcohol's ugly grip
WASHINGTON — 'MT. PLEASANT - Invincible/Invencible" proclaim the bilingual signs and banners emblazoned on shops and restaurants along the neighborhood's main thoroughfare. They are a statement of collective spirit by a neighborhood badly shaken by rioting. Three weeks after Mt. Pleasant erupted over the police shooting of a Hispanic man, this most racially integrated of Washington neighborhoods seeks to rebuild, correct false impressions, and address the underlying issues the disturbances brought to the fore.
Hurt by the recession and working long hours just to keep their heads above water, the neighborhood's mostly mom- and-pop businesses must now also fight the stigma of Mt. Pleasant as a dangerous, riot-torn area.
For many residents, constant media references to Mt. Pleasant as "a rundown Hispanic neighborhood" added insult to injury. In fact, Mt. Pleasant's population of just under 14,000 people has a broad ethnic mix: 35 percent white, 30 percent black, 22 percent Latino, and 13 percent "other," mainly Asian.
The neighborhood has long been home to writers, professors, artists, and politicians. Helen Hayes, Bo Diddley, and Taylor Branch have all lived here. Former Iowa Sen. John Culver, Communist Dorothy Healy, and artist Sam Gilliam live here now.
"Mt. Pleasant attracts people who are different, people who want to live among different cultures," says Alice Kelly, who chairs Mt. Pleasant's elective Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC).
Mt. Pleasant is also a story of haves and have-nots living cheek by jowl. According to a recent Washington Post survey, the neighborhood's white households tend to be small (one or two people) and have large incomes ($50,000 a year or more); Hispanic households tend to be large (four or more people) and have low incomes ($20,000 or less); blacks are in the middle.
The neighborhood's main artery, Mt. Pleasant Street, has long been dominated by minority-owned businesses that cater to a down-scale clientele, including 21 establishments with liquor licenses. The street is dirty; drunks congregate in the parks and young men loiter and harass female passers-by.
Ms. Kelly and other activists have tried to convince local businesses to stop selling alcohol or at least be more vigilant about not selling to inebriated people and to minors. Juan Llerena, a Cuban immigrant who owns and operates Don Juan's restaurant, recently decided to change his liquor license for one that will not allow sales of alcohol for carryout.
"I want to attract more Americans," says Mr. Llerena.
But many of the street's other businessmen don't see the potential long-term benefits of limiting alcohol sales, says Rod Case, executive director of the Mt. Pleasant Business Association. For many shops that are barely surviving, the dollar earned now by selling a bottle of beer is too important to forgo, says Mr. Case.
Alcohol helped start the May 5-6 rioting. Young people rampaged after a policewoman shot a Salvadoran immigrant who had allegedly pulled a knife on her. The man was being arrested for public drunkenness.
Though the disturbances have pulled Mt. Pleasant together and produced a new resolve to solve its problems, they have also brought some underlying tensions out into the open. Michele Burke, a young mother of two, was taken aback when a man she describes as a "Hispanic leader" accused her of being "one of the yuppies who caused all of this" by leaning on the police to crack down on drunkenness.
Ms. Burke, like many neighborhood residents with young families, is torn over what to do. "On the one hand I think, 'Let's sell the house and run, she says, holding her baby Luke. "But I don't want my kids growing up in a lily-white neighborhood."
On a recent evening, 150 Mt. Pleasant residents jammed a meeting room in the local library to vent frustrations and air ideas. One suggestion will be the focus of the next neighborhood meeting: using nonpolice intervention techniques in the battle against public drinking.
More important, the tone of the meeting was not "send 'em back to El Salvador" but rather one of genuine desire to help, whether it be through volunteering with literacy programs or helping an undocumented immigrant gain legal status.
Ken Fealing, a Mt. Pleasant ANC commissioner who represents lower-income blacks, Hispanics, and Asians, plans to learn Spanish. He also plans to redouble his efforts to heighten awareness of American civic processes among his constituents.
"Part of the problem is that renters don't feel they have a stake in things," he says. "Homeowners vote. Renters don't even register. They say, 'Why bother? I'm not going to be here long.
The bottom line for Mt. Pleasant, local activists say, is that the neighborhood will have to help itself.
The district's new administration is absorbed by its fiscal crisis. And the "multicultural task force" announced by Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon after the riots exists only on paper. The new independent Latino task force has preempted the mayor and adopted an agenda that extends well beyond the needs of Mt. Pleasant.
Meanwhile, on Mt. Pleasant Street, more Spanish-speaking police are walking the beat. And the drunks and idle young men are back.
One in a series of occasional articles on life in the United States.