Housing Complex

Do Fence Me In: Capitol Hill’s Potomac Gardens isn’t as dangerous as it was, but its gates remain.

Apartment complex, or prison? (Darrow Montgomery)

It is by now a familiar pattern in gentrifying District neighborhoods: A brutal, unprovoked attack prompts neighborhood outrage and an examination of what might have caused the violence.

In eastern Capitol Hill, those periodic cycles often center around Potomac Gardens, the 352-unit public housing complex that occupies a full city block between 12th and 13th streets SE, south of Pennsylvania Avenue. The latest incident happened in November: A young woman was walking with her groceries from Harris Teeter when a young man punched her in the face, breaking her jaw.

During the subsequent heated community meeting, the eight-foot tall, prison-grade wrought iron fence that surrounds the complex emerged as a focus. But where Potomac Gardens residents once opposed the fence, now it’s wealthier neighbors who want it down.

“The fence creates an issue for them,” says Kirsten Oldenburg, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission representative for the area directly west of the complex. “I think it affects their property values. It makes it very obvious that they’re living across from some kind of gated community.”

Others have more philosophical concerns.

“It’s like a mental divide. It’s us versus them,” says Erik Holzherr, owner of a cocktail bar near the Potomac Avenue Metrorail station. “We’re all part of the same community, but that gate...” he trails off, with a pained expression. “It looks like a moat. It looks like a castle.”

Last week, Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells convened a meeting on the subject at Tyler Elementary School. He used to live across the street from Potomac Gardens, and remembered homeowners having much more normal interactions with residents before the city fenced the property two decades ago to help police contain a burgeoning crack epidemic.

D.C. Housing Authority Director Adrienne Todman seemed open. “It is very possible that the fence has outlived its time,” she said, as diplomatically as possible.

But when the time came for Gardens residents to speak, the group—all women, some with children in tow—turned the meeting’s premise on its head. “Basically, a lot of people want the fence to stay,” said Resident Council president Melvina Middleton. “It’s not a jail at all, it’s what keeps us safe!” said one lady, explaining how it kept kids from running into the street, while keeping troublemakers out.

Aquarius Vann-Ghasri—an imposing woman who serves on the Housing Authority’s board of commissioners—even offered a withering sociological critique of fence detractors, asking point blank: How is their fence any different from a wealthy enclave’s? “When I enter my gated community, I feel like Sheba,” she said.

Middleton is surveying residents to see what everybody thinks, not just those who make it to public forums. But unless there’s a substantial majority for removing the fence, it’s unlikely anything will happen. Most likely, the two communities will just grow further and further apart, as Capitol Hill gets richer and denser, while Potomac Gardens remains cut off from the changes going on around it.

Nineteen years ago, residents weren’t exactly crying out for a fence. When Sharon Pratt Kelly’s administration installed the barriers in 1991, it took 45 police officers to quell a violent negative reaction. “It’s disrespectful. We aren’t animals. We don’t need to be caged,” one resident told The Washington Post.

Security then was much more stringent. The 21 buildings were divided into four quadrants with separate entrances, all of them guarded. Lights and cameras were installed, and drug dealers were evicted from the complex. Kids started calling it “Baby Lorton,” after the Virginia prison. The resident council president favored the new security measures, but saw them as temporary, given how inconvenient they made everyday living.

As the Post tells it, Kelly was vindicated, at least in the short term: Drug arrests declined dramatically after the fence went up. But much of the drug activity just shifted to other areas, and assaults and robberies remained high—to the point in 1995 that Marion Barry’s administration hired the Nation of Islam on an emergency contract to restore order.

After that, life slid into an uneasy stasis. The compound became less of a war zone, and the Housing Authority removed some internal fences to make the place easier to manage. (Meanwhile, fences went down at other complexes where they were installed; Potomac Gardens’ barrier is now the only one of its kind in the city.) After a big drug bust last June, most deals now happen outside the fence; residents see cars with Maryland and Virginia plates pulling off the freeway, conducting their business, then peeling out again.

Police, though aware of the neighborhood divisions the fence creates, aren’t quite ready to let it go. According to Housing Authority Police Chief William Pittman, they’ve barred 450 people from Potomac Gardens, more than any other public housing complex, and the fence is critical to keeping them out. “How do we stop all these people?” he asks rhetorically. “I don’t have the answer.”

Except the fence doesn’t seem to be doing a particularly good job of keeping anyone out—gates are wide open, and the guard posts unmanned. It’s just unfriendly for anyone on the outside looking in. “A lot of people don’t want to come visit us,” says resident Melinda Wheeler, who’s lived there since 2006. “You tell your company to come, and they don’t know what side to come in on, because all they see is fence.”

For a visitor, walking around the complex is disorienting, with no continuous sightlines and barriers everywhere—but to the young people who grew up there, it’s like a big familiar playpen, and nearly all of those I spoke with expressed fear at the idea that the fences might go away. “Keep ’em up,” a 12-year-old boy responded unhesitatingly, when I asked some kids what they thought about the fence. Why? I asked. A younger girl meshes her fingers. “Altercations,” she explains. “A lot of unwanted visitors.”

Why have so many residents of Potomac Gardens grown to embrace the bars that surround them? A new exhibit about fences in American life at the Silver Spring Civic Building, “Between Fences,” says walling yourself off to outsiders is a veritable piece of the American Dream: “The home fence is a symbol of self-sufficiency and stability,” it notes. “The fence stands for security, order, and privacy in a country that seems to offer these things to anyone willing to work for them.”

Maybe not in public housing, though. “There are ways to design subtle devices that barricade without reflecting fear,” wrote Neal Katyal, now the U.S. solicitor general, in a 2002 Yale Law Review paper, suggesting arches or landscaping instead. “Gated communities are a byproduct of public disregard of architecture, not a sustainable solution to crime.”

Last year, students from the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of city and regional planning produced a report on Potomac Gardens, characterizing the gates as a serious obstacle. “This fence creates a clear line of demarcation and separation, and portrays a hostile message to both the residents and the surrounding neighbors,” the authors wrote. “These issues inhibit physical and social integration.”

But no matter how strong the academic consensus against security fences, or how much neighbors dislike having something that looks like a prison across the street, the fences aren’t coming down unless the residents demand it—and for many, it’s become a comforting barrier to the rest of the world.

Just ask Howard Campbell, 24, who estimates that he’s been living in Potomac Gardens for the last 15 years, and most days prefers not to leave the complex at all. “When I’m on the outside of the gates, I feel like I’m someplace else,” he says, his hand on one of the bars. “When I’m inside, I feel like I’m at home.”     CP

Visit the Housing Complex blog every day at washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/housingcomplex. Got a real-estate tip? Send suggestions to ldepillis@washingtoncitypaper.com.

  • Rick Mangus

    Relocate the residence of Potomac Gardens and watch the crime rate on Capitol Hill plummet, my suggestion, move them to P.G. County!

  • Hillman


    Can you tell us more about Howard Campbell, 24, who has lived at Potomac Gardens for 15 years, and most days prefers not to leave the complex at all.

    Is he somehow handicapped or unable to work? Has he ever held a job?

    Is there a reason a 24 year old has lived at Potomac Gardens for most of his life?

  • Josh

    As a resident of that part of the Hill, I'd like nothing better than to see that whole complex bulldozed. It's a detraction on the entire area.

  • howsthisforanidea

    In the past few months I have been asked to buy drugs, seen people vandalizing houses, and propositioned by prostitutes - all people from Potomac Gardens. There was the brutal attack. The grafitti on the wall in a local restaurant says "young niggiz thuggin", and the triangle park is the center for drug dealing. Now we see cocaine in a local grade school? Please close Potomac Gardens. Enough is enough. Why are tax dollars helping pay for this? They need to face the same reality most people do: get an education, get a job, work hard and pay your own way.

  • Kito

    yea go ahead and send them over to PG so the boyz in blue can knock them off one by one. Alwayz "send them to PG" "send them to PG" here's an idea...STAY IN DC!!! behind your fence!!! or better yet....GO TO VA!!!!

  • RL

    Develop that area with 25% workforce housing units. Yes, folks would have to work if they want to live there.

    It makes no sense to have public housing in a hugely desirable location.

  • FJ

    Tear down Potomac 'Gardens'.

    Like the crime fence, it is a blight on our community.

  • Morgan

    If the rest of the city has to deal with public housing so should capital hill. Point blank period.

    And I know about the roughness that surrounds Potomac Gardens, I taught their kids at Friendship Chamberlain, but I don't want all the derelicts in my neighborhood either so keep them in yours, unless you ship them out to PG, and spread them out. Having a concentrated area of public housing in one place is unhealthy. Of course there will be problems.

    Sorry East of the River shouldn't get ALL the craziness, share the wealth!

  • John

    Morgan- with all due respect you are out of your mind. This section of the City has more than their fair share of social services. Not only is there Potomac Gardens but there is also Kentucky Court. In addition, to these two facilities let us not forget the fact that the DC Jail and DC General are just blocks away. There are still inmates in the jail and the hospital campus holds over 1,000 homeless and provides methadone treatment to over 1,000 patients, a good amount of whom end up meandering through nearby neighborhoods, defecating on private property and verbally assaulting residents. Not too mention using drugs. Oh, all of which is west of the Anacostia. Now, next time before telling us to deal with things, learn the facts (key NBC the more you know music).

  • Rachel

    I think it's really unfortunate that some residents of Potomac Gardens feel like the neighborhood outside the gates is inaccessible to them or somehow "other." There are so many opportunities outside those gates, it's just a matter of taking advantage of them.

  • Lora

    It should be up to the residents of Potomac Gardens, since they are the ones that live there. However, I wonder if something could be done to make the fences look residential and less prison like, like cutting off the spear-like tops. I'm sure everyone would appreciate preserving functionality while making things look better.

  • http://DefGlam.com VonniMediaMogul

    Send them to PG? Do you realize that PG County has the most millionaires in the country? Quit degrading the county. It amazes me at the ignorant comments I repeatedly read on this site suggesting to send ppl to PG. These are people that should be dealt with on an individual basis and not boxes of bananas to ship off somewhere. Thts the problem w/HUD. They need to address the reason they're in public housing instead of always trying to dispurse them in their social experiments. I am against housing projects and am pro tax-credit work force multi-income properties. But all this "send them to PG" foolishness needs to stop

  • Dave

    I live a block from Potomac Gardens, and I'm just as frustrated as anyone. From car break-ins to muggings to a daylight hold-up this week at Game Stop, most of this crime is obviously coming from Potomac Gardens. We all want a solution, but if we can really step back - shipping away Potomac Gardens residents to PG County or Anacostia is not a realistic solution. We're talking about the poor, those who require subsidized housing because they can't afford housing at market rates. Our world requires the poor. We need people who work at McDonalds.

    But the issue is the concentration of the poor in Potomac Gardens and frankly the poor moral fiber of the poor there. Poor people don't have to rob and steal. But those with poor values will rob and steal. In the long term, the solution is to break the continuing cycle of poor parenting and glorification of being a thug in the poor black subculture. I'm not holding my breath for this cultural shift.

    What is the short term solution? How do we handle 352 apartments for poor people? From what I gather through other things I've read, these subsidized apartments need have a 1 for 1 replacement. But does it have to be in the same place? Has this neighborhood gentrified to the extent that it's unreasonable for a housing project to be located within the neighborhood? Housing projects are clearly crime centers. Anyone who says different is living in a fantasy world. I'd say, and many would agree that, this neighborhood with an average home price probably well above $500k is not the place for a housing project. You don't put a crime center in a relatively high end neighborhood.

    But again, what do you do with the poor who are displaced? An answer has to exist before we expect the residents to be gone. I wish I had an answer, but I don't.

  • Najwa Weeks

    -, Son, This bullshit needs to stop. My friends live there and they are some nice people. Stop the hating shit.... I understand you want to be ghetto. Well so what if they rob and steal, they is steal human beings like us : )

    Making This Out To: Taty, Quita, Mar'e, Janiyah, Marketta, Damion, Saniya, Bryana, Queshawn, Bryant and LilAhk

  • http://pg dd

    here it is 2013,potomac gardens, has changed. people now want to come in side the gates, why? because we got what they need. yep, we got rental cars in our residents parking lot. the rental car company do take away our parking spaces, so what! when the legal residents get towed or tickets for parking where they live. what! poor people should'nt be able to buy a car, right. so take there parking spaces and sell it to the highest bidder. lol oh i forgot that they are poor. i guess the residents will just have to gaze out their windows and look at the way dcha, can make money with our sprites being taken. hey,how about investing in the poor people or cut the fence half-way down so we can see our way out.

  • Neighbor

    If I was a residence of Potomac Garden, I would be terribly upset with rock throwing, vandalizing, annoying, drug using, trashy, delinquent youth. Sorry to tell you this but you are the reason why the new neighbors want to tear down Potomac Garden. You are your own people's worst enemy. Self defeating morons.

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  • Teacher

    I understand that everyone who lives in the capitol hill area is frustrated and angry about this situation, but some of these responses are just ridiculous.

    I am a former teacher of Tyler ES, the neighborhood school for Potomac Gardens. For 6 years I saw the challenges these children face on a daily basis. I have been inside the apartments in Potomac Gardens when I made home visits. Walking through the housing unit is depressing. Many of the children growing up in Potomac Gardens are being abused physically and mentally. They live with single mothers who have SEVERAL kids with many different men. They are exposed to drugs and violence. One day these children will have children of their own and this cycle will continue. This is the only world they know because it is all they are exposed to. Most of the people who live in the beautiful row homes across the street had a VERY different upbringing than the residents of Potomac Gardens. If your parents do not teach you values, this is what happens. Drugs, violence, prostitution, etc. Being poor does not = being a violent human being. Being taught no values = being a violent human being.

    I agree that it is frustrating. I've experienced situations when working in the neighborhood. A few years ago, a student's mother tried to rob me, and the worst part was she didn't even know I was her child's teacher. So I get it. It's not fair to have to worry about being mugged, getting your car broken into, etc., but it is also not fair to assume all residents are this way. Please read this article and watch this video about a woman who lives in Potomac Gardens. There are many moms who reside in Potomac Gardens, who are just like her. I couldn't imagine "shipping her" out to PG county just because she is poor and lives in a housing project. It is not the solution and it is not fair.