What’s in a Fence? At Potomac Gardens, It Doesn’t Matter What Side You’re On
There's been a lot of acrimony around Potomac Gardens in recent months. Besides the low drumbeat of crime and drug busts around the public housing complex near the Potomac Metro station, an attack in November that broke a woman's jaw as she was walking with groceries provoked an outpouring of outrage from the surrounding community.
At subsequent meetings, an ongoing issue emerged: What's the role of the 8-or-so-foot-tall metal fence around the property, which was installed 20 years ago as part of another crime crackdown? Does it further divide a community that already explodes in anger whenever the next tragedy occurs? Does it really do any good, when people can just vault it or squeeze through if they really want to?
To explore the question, Councilmember Tommy Wells called a meeting on the subject this last Wednesday, and in his usual diplomatic style, facilitated a discussion between Gardens tenants, the police, Housing Authority director Adrienne Todman, and residents of the surrounding community.
The impetus to consider tearing down the fence seemed fairly clear: At previous meetings, some Gardens residents said they felt that it was dehumanizing to keep them caged inside the fence, and wanted it gone. And on Wednesday, an MPD lieutenant even said that while the fence helps them apprehend people who run inside and can't escape, and is useful in keeping out the 450 people who've been barred from the complex, it does create a negative impression of what's inside. “In my opinion, the impression it gives you is that there’s something dangerous going on," he said.
But the Gardens residents who showed up to Tyler Elementary had a very different idea. When Wells polled the group of women, not one was in favor of getting rid of the fence. "Keep the gates!" one woman said. "It’s not a jail at all, it’s what keeps us safe.”
Besides being a safety issue–the women also liked the fact that their kids could wander around without ending up in the street–DCHA family commissioner Aquarius Vann-Ghasri, also a Gardens resident, mounted a passionate sociological critique. Why should this fence be perceived as a prison, when fences around wealthy neighborhoods are called "gated communities"? “When I enter my gated community, I feel like Sheba," Vann-Ghasri said.
Surprised, the officials gathered decided to put the issue down for the time being. But it's sort of a question, right? Would the Housing Authority put in a similar fence today? None of the other properties have them. But if the fence is as great as the mothers of Potomac Gardens say, shouldn't they be put in elsewhere?
Anyhow, I'm working on a longer column about this for next week's issue, so if you've got relevant information or insight, drop me a line: firstname.lastname@example.org.