Cease-Fire in Simple City
The day gangs declared a truce in an urban war zone
The housing project known as Simple City in Southeast Washington, D.C., was so desperately violent that some homeowners nailed their windows shut and bought heavy china cabinets to block their back doors, preferring the more distant threat of death by fire to the ever present one of stray bullets and home invaders. Until about two years ago, there had been only one gang in the neighborhood, the Simple City Crew. But gradually, tensions built over disagreements no one can now recall, and these former friends squared off like the Hatfields and the McCoys, enemies by tradition.
The two gangs, the "Circle" and the "Avenue," would stand atop the hills at either end of the neighborhood football field and throw curses and threats across the gridiron for long minutes at a time. This chest-beating served a practical function for locals: They knew they had five or 10 minutes to scramble for shelter before the shooting began. Ellen Mundaray, who lives next to the field, recalls that she and her family were indoors most days before 3 p.m. (though "the shooting could start as early as 11") and they hadn't used her living room in two years. Her patio door, which abuts the playground, still bears a bullet hole; the projectile missed her daughter by inches. Mundaray used to watch her loud-talking young neighbors pass by her bedroom window brandishing guns. All she could do was draw the drapes. By January 1997, the Circle and the Avenue were exchanging gunshots nearly every day.
David Gilmore, the court-appointed "receiver" supervising the city public- housing authority, tried to inspect Simple City, but his driver refused to drive into the heart of the area. What he could see from the moving car was sufficient, though. Wary young men neither at work nor in school, despite the hour, stood bundled to the jowls in tufty Starter jackets, despite the heat. They presided with vigilance over an open-air drug mart in the project's cul-de-sac--the Circle--strewn with 40-ounce malt-liquor bottles and drug paraphernalia. Gilmore doesn't mind admitting they frightened him. As he sped away, there was no missing the warning most prominent among the ugly graffiti marring Simple City's walls: "You Are Now In the War Zone."
As Gilmore reviewed the crime statistics, the unpaid rents, the maintenance reports describing never ending vandalism, he concluded that Benning Terrace--the official name of Simple City--was a lost cause and some of the buildings had to be razed. On Jan. 15, 1997, everything changed. A 12-year-old boy named Darryl Hall was abducted from the project in broad daylight and found days later, beaten, killed execution style, and frozen so solid that it took days to thaw him for autopsy. The Circle was assumed to be responsible. So no one was more surprised than Gilmore when shortly thereafter the press began to tell a different story, one that made him suspend his demolition plan: The gangs had made peace.
In the span of just over a year, there were eight murders in Simple City, including Hall's. Since armistice day on Jan. 29, 1997, there has been only one--and police believe it was unrelated to the Circle-vs.-Avenue feud. Overnight, it seemed, the gangsters traded in their guns for paintbrushes, their drug dealing for manual labor, their nihilism for community spirit. They traded one identity, one destiny, for its exact opposite. The middle-aged survivors In 1991, five 50-something friends were hanging out in Tyrone Parker's beauty shop in the suburb of Capitol Heights, Md., less than 2 miles from Simple City. Most were former criminals, substance abusers, or both. They had rehabilitated themselves, and one another, through a convoluted string of interventions, recriminations, and religious reawakenings they are hard pressed to re-create now. Having survived both prison and the streets, in middle age they had become increasingly saddened by the carnage in their hometown. Parker, a reformed bank robber now a parole officer, especially despaired after losing a son to the mayhem. As they sat among the hair dryers at the shop Parker owned, the group's after-hours sports talk kept returning to talk of community renewal.