Washington Notebook

May 5, 2005
Vol. 2, No. 17

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Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


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Lift up your hearts

By Joe Feuerherd

Fourteen-year-old Princess Hansen was watching television at about 11 p.m. on a chilly Friday night at a 12-year-old friend's home when she was assassinated. A gunman burst into the room and executed Princess because, the Sunday prior, the teenager witnessed a murder and could presumably have identified the killer.

A 14-year-old girl killed because she knew too much.

The scene of the crime was Sursum Corda (Latin for "lift up your hearts"), a northwest Washington housing complex within view of the Capitol Dome.

Some 40 years ago, Sursum Corda was meant to be a jewel of urban renewal - a progressive solution to the more common approach of warehousing the poor. With the backing of the neighboring Jesuits of Gonzaga College High School and St. Aloysius parish, Sursum Corda would not be a "public housing project." Instead, middle class amenities such as air conditioning and garbage disposals would be included in each of the attractive town homes and apartments. Sursum Corda was a cooperative, owned by the low-income residents, who would select management and take pride in their neighborhood. Members of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, nuns committed to the social justice they preached, lived there.

The community's horseshoe design and enclosed areas shielded it from the bustle of busy North Capitol Street and encouraged community interaction. Or so it was thought.

The community layout, however, served another purpose, allowing drug dealers who terrorized the neighborhood for decades to shield their enterprise from the police. "That place is designed for criminals," D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey recently told the Washington Post. Sursum Corda quickly became not only a "project" but the city's most dangerous and most notorious.

And then, in January 2004, a 14-year-old named Princess was gunned-down, which was too much for even this city, which is used to ignoring the crime and violence that is a fact of life in its worst neighborhoods.

The media rediscovered Sursum Corda. The Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development sent inspectors in with the goal of evicting the criminals for housing code violations. Mayor Anthony Williams designated the community a "hot spot" and threw the city's resources, not least the police, to the task of improving day-to-day life. Today, crime is down by more than 40 percent from a year ago and community activists, including their church allies, who previously longed for attention from city and federal policymakers now have a seat at the table.

More change, transformation really, is coming to Sursum Corda. What the change will entail for its 1,000-plus residents, and the increasingly gentrified neighborhood where they live, represents the next chapter in the 40-year-old story.

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To oversimplify a complex situation: The city proposes to raze Sursum Corda and replace it with a mixed-income housing development, apartments for people with a broad range of incomes, from the very poor to the middle class to those who would pay market rate rents. Sursum Corda, strangely enough, appears perfectly situated for a mixed-income housing solution. It sits on some of the most valuable real estate in Washington, an area ripe for both public and private investment. In real estate terms, to repeat an old saw, Sursum Corda has the three most important qualities: location, location and location.

The mixed-income plan is something that community activists, at least in principle, support. The devil of Sursum Corda redevelopment, however, is in the details.

Among the community's non-negotiables: Not only must there be "one-for-one" replacement of the existing low-income apartments, but those apartments must serve the same people who currently live there. In other cities with communities facing similar transitions from low-income to mixed-income communities, such one-to-one replacement without displacement has been difficult if not impossible to achieve. But after much discussion and negotiation, the city, which recently sold bonds to fund the redevelopment, seems prepared to accept those terms.

From a national perspective, the residents of Sursum Corda are, ironically enough, relatively fortunate. The underlying value of Sursum Corda's land in a sizzling real estate market creates opportunities that don't exist in most other cities. Meanwhile, potentially devastating cuts in the federal programs that support such redevelopment (the Bush administration proposed zero dollars for the multi-billion initiative that supports mixed-income housing) means that cities will forgo plans that only such federal subsidies make possible.

Even by today's coarse standards, it's hard to ignore a 14-year-old assassination victim in the Capitol's backyard. Princess Hansen's short life put a face and a name to long-ignored problems, but there are thousands upon thousands of boys and girls living in places where they are sure to know too much.

It's a helluva price to pay.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

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