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Fear of Violence Shifts From Town to Country

Washington area has been turned inside out. Urban mean streets are safe haven and the suburbs have become the combat zone.

October 24, 2002|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- As dusk brings a chilly darkness down over the Anacostia River, the panhandlers in front of Steve Chon's corner market burrow deeper into smeared parkas; the men pop their beer cans in paper sacks. And as the evening news repeats the saga of the elusive sniper, residents of these D.C. streets say they've never felt safer.

"I don't have to worry about snipers here," says Chon, stacking six-packs into his glass cases. "Especially where I'm at."

The urban enclaves around RFK Stadium and Anacostia aren't exactly known as havens of community safety. People who don't live in southeast D.C. generally steer clear, frightened off by the gun violence and drug crimes that plague the troubled neighborhoods. Most days, the residents here are widely regarded as the vulnerable ones. But these aren't ordinary times. The Beltway sniper's random gunfire has temporarily stood the conventional wisdom of urban crime on its ear -- and effectively turned Washington inside out. Suddenly, it is the suburbs -- the snug, smug domestic grids designed as sanctuaries from the dangerous District -- that have become skittery combat zones.

"Ironic, isn't it?" says 31-year-old Victoria Cooper, a secretary who paused on a southeast street corner with cut flowers. "It is so ironic that now it's safer to shop in the inner city."

Gun violence is, of course, still primarily an urban phenomenon. Sooner or later, the sniper will slip up or stop shooting, and life in the suburbs will resume its insular feel. But not now.

White-collar commuters are ferrying their children to playgrounds in the heart of the city because they are afraid to let them roam the leafy lawns back home. Government workers have taken to hauling home bags of groceries from downtown markets and plowing through thick traffic to fill their gas tanks in the safety of the city -- shopping centers in Virginia and Maryland suddenly seemed too vulnerable. Last weekend, the lines to get into the downtown museums were thicker than usual as frazzled families trooped into the city, eager to let their guard down and relax.

These days, people such as Cooper and Chon are counting the virtues of their gritty neighborhoods. The narrow streets provide no easy getaway, they point out. Besides, they say, people around here are skilled at spotting a suspicious stranger, at catching on -- and slipping away -- when they realize that an outsider is up to no good.

And so they watch as the rest of the region freezes into a state of controlled panic.

"We were just joking about this," said Bob Howard. Clad in a three-piece suit and leather cap, the retired guidance counselor stopped in to visit his buddies at Langston Golf Course in southeast Washington recently .

"They're wringing their hands," he said, gesturing at the clubhouse television, which blared yet another report about the sniper. "They're really bemoaning that this is happening out there, where it's supposed to be safer."

Howard and his wife live behind a thick fence in Congress Heights. They lock the gate at all hours -- when Howard's wife nears home, she calls from her mobile phone, and he lets her in. "But I've never felt unsafe," he says.

"Those people most people are afraid of are my neighbors and my three sons."

The nation's capital is a murderous city, a place where thousands of gun crimes unfold each year. The city of 67 square miles has logged 200 homicides in 2002. About a third of those occurred in neighborhoods along the Anacostia River, which cuts across the southeastern corner of town. Here, graceful old row houses have gradually given way to boarded windows, graffiti and shattered panes.

"This sniper is the sort of thing that goes on in our neighborhoods," says resident James Culley, 60. "You more or less expect it. Now, out in Montgomery County, you don't expect it."

Suburbs have been retreats from the dangers of the metropolis ever since the wealthy families of ancient Rome built pastoral sanctuaries -- villa surbana -- far from the city. But recent years have witnessed widespread rejuvenation of America's historic downtowns and warehouse districts, coupled with a surge of crime in the crumbling neighborhoods of the nation's older suburbs.

The sniper is a harsh reminder that guns are ubiquitous -- and that tree-lined tranquillity isn't a promise of security.

"It's changing people's perceptions about life in the inner city versus life in the suburbs," said Cooper. "I'm from the suburbs, so I know the thought of being isolated in your own enclave. And, really, that's a self-delusion."

The faceless gunman stalks suburbanites at gas stations, grassy lawns and schoolyards. Just one of the 13 victims was gunned down in the District of Columbia proper, and a Washington police spokesman said Pascal Charlot was killed by a bullet fired over the border from Maryland. It suddenly seems fruitless -- menacing, even -- to retreat to the wide streets, neat shopping centers and open spaces that usually testify to affluence and security.

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