- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The last thing somebody would likely mistake the tiny, fledgling garden tucked into a corner of Girard Street Northwest for is a crime-fighting initiative to restore calm to this often dangerous and deadly stretch of Columbia Heights.

The Metropolitan Police Department has long put forth its effort - including the addition of a surveillance camera around the corner, officers on horseback, gang-prevention task forces and stationing a patrol car near a murder scene.

Now a collection of groups has come together to start a children’s garden at Girard Park, between 14th and 15th streets Northwest, with hope that the tranquility of the garden will help residents pause and think more about the safety of themselves and others.

“The community enthusiasm has been great,” said Lola Bloom, whose District-based Cityblossoms, is leading the effort.

Miss Bloom helped start the nonprofit group nine years ago and is getting help on the Girard Garden from such tenant associations and community-based organizations as Centronia and the Columbia Heights Youth Club.

Cityblossoms’ other District projects include ones at the Barbara Chambers Children’s Center and the Carlos Rosario Career Center and Public Charter School, in the Mount Pleasant-Columbia Heights neighborhoods.

“Neighbors and the children have really pitched in to make it a good experience for everybody,” Miss Bloom said. “You have the ability to take ownership and change the community. The area has a completely different feel and attitude when people take charge and change it for the better.”

The corner of 14th and Girard is one of the most notorious crime areas in the city.

Two homicides were committed within 500 yards of the corner in 2006 and in 2007.

The first last year occurred June 2, when Terry Cutchins, 13, of Northwest, was killed at about 10:20 p.m. from shots fired from a dark-colored sport utility vehicle, according to the Metropolitan Police Department.

Two months later, Tayon Glover, the brother of actor Ralph Anwan Glover, was fatally shot by two gunmen also at about 10 p.m. Police said his death started a wave of retaliator violence in the neighborhood.

However, crime in police District 3 is down this year. No homicides have occurred on the corner. The number of homicides in the district through June was five, compared with 11 over the same period in 2007. And the number of assaults with a deadly weapon so far this year is 194, compared with 279 over the same period in 2007.

Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, said the “relative calm” appears to the result of the combined effort of community members and city officials - including the City Council in 2006 approved $3 million in gang intervention.

Mr. Graham also hopes the garden will attract more people to the playground, helping to diversify and expand the population that uses the playground.

“Large efforts have been made on the part of the city and the community to help prevent violence before it happens,” he said. “These measures have been able to give projects like the Girard Garden more chances to be successful.”

The garden, was planted in June and is just the most recent effort to improve Girard Park, which has recently received a new playground and water center. Funding for the $30,000 garden came from the Columbia Heights Shaw Family Collaborative and is part of the Pro-Urban Youth Initiative.

The garden has about 12 rows of organic fruits and vegetables. Group members teach workshops on such topics as composting, harvesting and planting during the week to children 2- to 16-years-old.

Liz O’Connor, a nearby resident and mother of 2-year-old Diego, has been coming to the park for years and says she has seen big changes in recent months.

“This used to be an area that was unkempt and overridden with a lot of violence and things you don’t want around children,” Mrs. O’Connor said. “Now it’s really turned around, and it’s become a place where we can always feel safe.”

She also said the strong effort by parents to clean the park has lead the rejuvenation effort and kept out troublemakers.

“The dynamics of the park have changed,” said Mrs. O’Connor. “Once the kids come, you have to leave, and that’s become a pretty general rule for the area.”

Though the classes focus on gardening, Miss Bloom said that the main goal of the garden is to teach children the importance of ownership and responsibility. “We always tell kids, ‘this is where you live, you’re just as responsible as anyone for making change,’ ” she said. “We’re giving people in the area an idea of what they want, and helping these kids realize the potential of their neighborhood.”

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