District of Columbia
By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 12, 2006; B01
Youth outreach worker Ahmad Braxton-Jones was barely in the door yesterday before several young people surrounded him at the Woodland Terrace community center to ask about plans for their next escape.
"Am I on the list to go to Six Flags?" one kid asked.
"When is the camping trip?" another asked.
For the past year or so, Braxton-Jones has worked at the center full time, taking youths on field trips, getting them to keep diaries, helping them get jobs and, when necessary, squashing beefs. The trips, including a recent one to Virginia Beach, are a big hit.
"They just want to get out of the 'hood," said Braxton-Jones, 32, who also is an advisory neighborhood commissioner. "They get to see new things."
Hard luck is easy to find in the complex's low-slung brick buildings, which house about 400 residents. There are boards on some windows, leaking metal trash bins in mostly concrete courtyards and a recreation center that residents say offers few activities.
A police car is nearly always stationed nearby, and headlines from there over the past two decades often have been about tragedy: shootings, children hit by cars or burned in apartments. At night, the area is an open-air drug market.
But at 9 a.m. today, two mayoral candidates -- Adrian M. Fenty and Marie C. Johns -- will come here to debate in the only one-on-one event thus far in the District's mayoral campaign. The five major candidates for the Democratic nomination agree that the city's economic advance in recent years has left swaths of the city untouched.
Woodland Terrace is one of those out-of-the-way places. It is east of the Anacostia River, in Southeast Washington, amid communities long-known for crime and poor schools -- a short distance from official Washington but a place that feels far-removed from the vibrancy of downtown.
Around the corner from the complex is the Smithsonian Institution's Anacostia Museum. But unlike that tidy place, this one is littered with trash. There are no corner stores within walking distance, so residents go to a couple of "candy ladies" who sell snacks out of their apartments. Yesterday, several young men gambled while others milled around, bored.
"We need jobs that don't require a high school diploma," said Monica Watts, 17, who works as a youth intervention specialist for Peaceoholics, a nonprofit organization that attempts to tamp down neighborhood violence. "Most of these boys don't have high school degrees or GEDs."
The disparity between rich and poor has been acknowledged by all five major candidates. D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp says that, in her administration, the prosperity of the past several years would be extended to all parts of the city. Her council colleague, Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), said he has a similar goal that all residents can prosper, obtain affordable housing and health care and enjoy basic services.
Michael A. Brown, a lobbyist who, like Orange, is running far behind, has been an ardent critic of the city's recent development, especially the baseball stadium deal, which he says has left poor people behind.
Johns, who once lived in low-income housing, strikes a similar theme, frequently citing an "opportunity gap" for people who live their lives largely isolated from good schools and good jobs, creating a breeding ground for discontent. Running a distant third in the polls, she hopes a strong showing in the debate will improve her standing.
"The emotion that propelled me into the race was anger and frustration that we have not figured out how to build a stronger city -- educating our people, keeping them healthy and keeping them safe, the basics," Johns said.
By contrast, Fenty said he chooses to focus on the areas where people agree.
"We're all Washingtonians," he said. "We have to run the city more like a business. We need better schools. Everyone believes that."
Johns challenged Fenty, considered the front-runner, to a debate, and he agreed. But she had to agree to his terms. He selected the debate location, and the event is slated to be held outside. "The Johns campaign offered two air-conditioned, [Americans With Disabilities Act]-compliant, Metro accessible locations -- one in Ward 2 and one in Ward 8 -- but the Fenty camp refused," says a Johns release announcing the event.
Philip Pannell, president of the Ward 8 Democrats, said he has no intention of attending, finding the location objectionable.
"I think it's a shame to use poor black people as a political backdrop," he said. "They're using the projects as a photo op."
Yesterday, workers for both campaigns knocked on residents' doors to remind them of the debate and tried to get others across the city to attend. Denise McDuffie, a mother of five, was glad to have the attention, but she was skeptical.
"They are talking about things they are going to do," said McDuffie, 45, who has lived in Woodland Terrace for 24 years, "but seeing is believing."
She wants to believe. Her daughter is getting married today, a joyous event the family hopes will dampen the hurtful memories of a year ago when McDuffie's brother William, 39, was killed as he was caught in the crossfire of a neighborhood gunfight. Residents, she said, must dedicate themselves to be more involved with their children.
"We have smart kids, but they need leadership," she said.
Her 14-year-old son, standing next to his mother, said that if he could change anything in his community, it would be the crime. "I'd put more police on the street at night," said Eric McDuffie, a 10th-grader at Accotink Academy in Springfield.
So does he stay in at night to stay safe?
"Sometimes," he said before his mother interrupted.
"No," she said, glaring at him. "He chases girls."
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