D.C. Activists Focus on Community
Mount Pleasant groups linked arms during recent riots and now seek ways to work together
WASHINGTON — WHEN trouble broke out on Mt. Pleasant Street late on May 10, the surrounding community - black, white, and Hispanic - pulled together.
Some withstood flying bricks and bottles as they appealed for calm; others put out small fires with home extinguishers or stomped them out with their feet.
The next night, a multi-ethnic citizens patrol of more than 100 people joined police in a show of force on Mt. Pleasant Street to convey a message: This neighborhood would not be destroyed.
Troublemakers showed up, but the neighborhood stayed calm.
It was a victory for a community sadly in need of one. A year earlier, rioting tore through Mt. Pleasant Street, the center of Washington's Hispanic community, following a clash between a black policewoman and an intoxicated Salvadoran man.
Since then, many of the issues that the rioting brought to the fore - Latino employment and housing, poor police relations, and street drinking - remain acute.
But there is no shortage of good will or activism in Mt. Pleasant. The question is whether existing and emerging groups that aim to "save the neighborhood" can work together.
In fact, just before the recent disturbance, the DC Latino Civil Rights Task Force and Mt. Pleasant-based community groups had just emerged from a dispute over how to commemorate last year's disturbance - symptomatic of their deep differences. The May 10-11 crisis brought everyone together, but just weeks later, the key players have gone back to their corners.
"My main concern is that the same forces that created Mount Pleasant, its multicultural makeup, will destroy it. The trend now is to kick everyone out," says Pedro Aviles, leader of the Latino task force, who played a leading role in quelling last month's outburst.
BY "everyone" he means the low-income Latinos who crowd the apartment buildings along Mt. Pleasant Street. Rightly or not, they are associated with the drinking, loitering, and harassment of passers-by that lead many neighborhood residents to avoid the street.
The Latinos' big fear is gentrification. Longstanding plans by groups dominated by white homeowners to "clean up" and renovate Mt. Pleasant Street are seen as a threat to eliminate the multicultural flavor of the neighborhood. Despite homeowners' repeated assurances that they live in this neighborhood because of its cultural mix, Latinos remain distrustful.
The neighborhood's poor Latinos, mostly from Central America, have tended to avoid the traditional forums for discussion, such as town meetings of Mt. Pleasant's advisory neighborhood commission (ANC), the lowest level of representative government in the District of Columbia.
"It's not that they're not interested," says Boris Canjura, a Salvadoran immigrant who heads a coalition of Hispanic agencies. "They don't feel comfortable there. Most can't vote, so they can't elect ANC [representatives]. And they don't think the ANC gets anything done anyway."
Latino leaders acknowledge that they themselves have yet to focus on organizing the Latinos of Mt. Pleasant to deal with community problems.
The disturbances of the past year have spurred a variety of responses. Some residents - white, black, and Latino - have moved out.
Others have redoubled their efforts to get city officials to pay attention to drug-dealing, public drinking, and alcohol sales to visibly inebriated people. That Mt. Pleasant Street has 21 liquor licenses on just a two-block stretch has not helped.
A chapter of "orange hats," a citizens' group that walks the streets with police as a show of force against criminals, has started here. But the group is all white, and some residents fear it is divisive.
Some are getting involved in the community for the first time. Mike Smith, a 15-year resident, has joined with a small group of largely white homeowners to start a new Mt. Pleasant civic association. Their agenda: to clean up the alcohol problem and to get the mayor's attention.
Mr. Smith is aware that this new group needs a healthy minority component to avoid charges of being anti-Latino. But, with anger and frustration rising in his voice, he says he and other homeowners have gotten fed up with being portrayed as "the enemy" and "gentrifiers."
"We are the ones who have invested time and money to make this neighborhood a better place," Smith says. "Someone needs to stick up for us, too."
A new faceoff may be in the works, however, between the civic association and a planned new "multicultural coalition." All are welcome, including "white progressives," says Ken Fealing, a black ANC commissioner in Mt. Pleasant and an initiator of this new coalition.
"I'd been hearing from a number of people about the direction of the neighborhood, that policy is `homeowner driven,' " says Mr. Fealing. "They [the homeowners] raise public drinking and crime as the No. 1 issue in the neighborhood. But low-income people see it as another attempt to drive them out of the neighborhood."
No one denies Mt. Pleasant's alcohol problem or that Latinos who get drunk in public need to stop.
But at this point, the alcohol issue has taken on greater significance as the "driving wedge" between Mt. Pleasant's haves and have-nots. Ultimately, the Latinos themselves have to address the problem, Mr. Fealing says.
At root, Mt. Pleasant's concerned citizens have many goals in common: safer and cleaner streets, less alcohol, and the preservation of the neighborhood's blend of cultures. The challenge will be for people of different backgrounds and income levels within the neighborhood to trust each other and learn to work together.
Even ANC leader Alice Kelly, who knows Mt. Pleasant's problems as well as anybody, holds out hope: "There are too many activists in the neighborhood to let it go down the tubes."