Housing Complex

What’s in a Fence? At Potomac Gardens, It Doesn’t Matter What Side You’re On

The beloved/infamous fence.

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: ldepillis@washingtoncitypaper.com.

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    the 'gated community' paradigm is interesting. it kind of speaks to the fact that some people are thinking of housing and community in a suburban context, versus those who are thinking of the urban setting of the neighborhood.

  • Alright now…

    I must agree the fenced-in area or gated community. Well, that was enough to make many ponder and the rent-control consider an increase. The brochure for Potomac Gardens will be reprinted to say "gated-community" and that is about a hundred-dollar a month rent increase. The cameras in the area are not surveillance but CCTV for our safety patrol officers. The concrete landscape is nothing more than a spacious patio. Instead of Potomac Gardens...put the accent on POTO-mac Gardens.

  • Brian

    2 blocks of housing project slums in the middle of a capital hill community. what a mess

  • andrew

    Pretty sure that the residents of Potomac Gardens would be somewhat offended at the comparison of their homes to a slum.

    Yes, there are issues that need to be worked out at Potomac Gardens. However, to call the complex is belittling to those who live there, as well as to the people who live in *actual* slums.

  • andrew

    *to call the complex a slum

  • oldmh

    Uh, Potomac Gardens is *part* of that Capitol Hill community, not an alien space ship that landed last year. And it has been there for years, much longer than Jenkins Row, for example, so maybe it's Jenkins Row that's the alien invader. Or not. Maybe we could for once not set this up as "us against them" but a real community where we care what each other thinks and solve problems together.

  • NoDocClifford Thomas,karatedud

    Negroes and I hate that I used to live nearby and I am a GAY karate teacheress at Bladensburg Rec Ctr in PG County and do not like the peeps in the slum known as Pot Gardens. My name is Dr. Clifford Thomas of PGC and I approve this message to teh slium dwellers in Potomca Gardens.

  • Rick Mangus

    An interesting question, is the fence to keep the criminals in, or keep the crininals out!

  • er

    i had thought it was used to control access, and to deter loitering in the greenspace.

  • hillman

    We could build three times as much public housing, with much nicer modern amenities, plus probably provide real daycare and job training for all if we would just sell the Potomac Gardens land to a developer, then rebuild a modern facility with daycare, job training, etc., in a part of town or the region generally if we just had the guts to do so.

    But no. Apparently we value the symbolism of keeping outdated public housing complexes in very high dollar locations, for the political value of it.

    That choice tells me all I need to know about the priorities of affordable housing advocates in DC.

  • antr

    re: Hillman

    And where do you propose the new housing should be located? Out of Capitol Hill (your neighborhood), right? So we should sell the public housing land in the tonier parts of NW, NE, etc and put them where? Across the river? And I guess you have no problems with public housing as you want the numbers to increase, but as long as it's not in your neighborhood?

    Shouldn't you be able to have sensible public housing located in a neighborhood like Capitol Hill?

  • Hillman

    By definition 'sensible' public housing should be where you get the most bang for your buck.

    And that ain't Capitol Hill. Or upper NW.

    So, yes, you should sell the massive public housing complexes on what is some of the most expensive real estate in the country. Particularly when you can get the same amenities for 1/2 or 1/3 the price in perfectly good suburban locations. Or even in some east of the river locations. Or in any of the other 2/3 of the District that is predominately low income (and therefore cheaper) already.

    But the real savings would be in relocating to suburban locations, and splitting the residents up into smaller buildings, mixed use townhouse communities, etc.

    Suburban DC makes up far more space (land-wise) than DC itself does. So unless we are keeping public housing in DC for strictly symbolic reasons (never mind what a raw deal that is financially for all involved), why not spread it to the suburbs?

    You could easily sell the Potomac Gardens land for, what, $100 million plus?

    That would buy a whole bunch of land in plenty of perfectly safe suburban locations. Where there are far better schools. And good bus or metro access. And far better role models.

    Break it up. Buy or build small buildings, and mix the residents so it's not all the very non-working poor.

    You could actually make the developments make a profit, particularly if you could attract working class and middle class residents as well.

    I guarantee you I could find or build housing for at least three times as many residents as there are at Potomac Gardens, for what I could sell that land for.

    And I could provide real child care, job training, etc.

    Integrated fully into various locations where the children born into this mess would have a better chance at a decent future.

  • Rick Mangus

    Put it in Prince Georges County that where the migration seem to be going!

  • K

    Um - Potomac Gardens has been in the neighborhood far longer than anyone would consider actually calling this part of the neighborhood Capitol Hill. Heck even many in "Hill East" wouldn't consider south of Pennsylvania Avenue part of their neck of the woods until the Harris Teeter showed up.

    It's already not all non-working.

    And if you spend any time learning about fence design you'll know to look which way the fence slants at the top to know if it was meant to keep people in or out. The top slants out - it's meant to keep people from coming in.

  • anon

    Good point about the fence design, and unlike "prisons," there's no razor or barbed wire. When the Naval Hospital yuppy comminity center renovation is complete it will be fenced in as well.

    Some CH residents (I can attest that it's not all) treat PG as the boogeyman whenever there's a spike in criminal activity on the Hill -- it's a big and easy target, but it's often blown way out of proportion.

    It would be nice if some of those ezpressing such concern were equally concerned about the fire that displaced dozens of residents from the LOW INCOME SENIORS tower portion last week.

  • Hillman


    I lived a block from Potomac Gardens for years. I know it's history.

    And actually your very point sortof makes my point. Potomac Gardens is a terrible old-school design.

    And yes, it's been there forever.

    Just like many of it's residents have been.

    Remember, public housing was supposed to be TEMPORARY. With obvious exceptions for the old and the disable.

    Just saying it's been there forever isn't really a justification for it continuing as is for eternity.

    Since you feel passionate about this, and I admire that passion, could you address any of the points I've made in this thread?

  • http://www.AccessTheDMV.com Mr.Access

    I'm starting a new site that is geared for disabled persons in the Metropolitan area. This site will be for disable persons to submit areas in Wash. DC, Maryland and Virginia to give credit to businesses, theaters, bars, clubs etc that are TRULY handicap accessible.

    The setback is...I don't have a disability, you see. I've been a paratransit operator for 3 years and alot of my riders have become friends. One day I dropped a guy off at the Marriott hotel in Greenbelt to go to the bar. He told me he had called ahead to ask if they were accessible. They told him they were. When I picked him up 6 hours later, he told me that they made him go out of the front, around the parking lot and he and his date entered through the kitchen. When they went to eat, they had to wait 45 mins as other diners were uprooted and reseated..WITH food in hand. The look of embarrassment and shame doused his face. When he went to the bar section, there was a 7 inch step that hindered him from entering the bar area.

    I'm looking to set up a "directory" as well as an interactive community on this website. Somewhere that they can submit places that are TRULY accessible by persons with ALL disabilities.

    Please check out http://www.AccessTheDMV.com

    I'd be happy to add your site as a backlink.

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