Five years ago this month a 12-year-old boy named Darryl Hall from Southeast D.C.’s Benning Terrace public housing was shot and killed. His death was the latest in a series of violent confrontations between two warring youth factions known as the “Avenue” and the “Circle” in which dozens of young lives had been lost.
The January, 1997 execution-style death of young Darryl Hall galvanized the city and made national headlines because of his age. Residents of the Benning Terrace area became virtual hostages in their dwellings, fearful of retaliatory gunfire and the all-out war that was sure to erupt between the two factions. While the mayor and other city officials held candlelight vigils in the safety of locations well away from the area, the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and its grass-roots partner the Alliance of Concerned Men mobilized to go into the war zone and try to find a solution.
Today, Benning Terrace is a vibrant community where children play outside and mothers freely walk. Landscaping with grass and flowers has replaced the desolate patches of dirt that once were battlefields, and the graffiti has been painted over by the very youths who once put it there to stake out their turf. There have been no crew-related deaths in five years.
What caused the change in Benning Terrace? First it was the courage of a group of committed men who themselves had grown up with the street life.
Having transformed their own lives, they resolved to try to stop the young men they saw on the street from making the same mistakes they had made.
These members of the Alliance of Concerned Men, because they were known and trusted in the neighborhood, were able to locate the leaders of the warring factions and convince them to enter peace negotiations. With coaching from grass-roots leaders from other cities who had experience in dealing with gang violence, the Alliance brought the youths to the offices of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, where they agreed to stop the violence.
The truce received front-page newspaper and television coverage, prompting a call to NCNE by then D.C. Housing Receiver David Gilmore, who asked how he could help. A plan was created to provide jobs for the youths painting, landscaping and working at apprenticeships in the construction and maintenance area.
The model initiated at Benning Terrace was adapted in D.C.’s violence-torn East Capitol Dwellings, and in Hartford, Conn.; Indianapolis, Ind.; Los Angeles, Calif.; and Dallas and Houston, Texas. The targeted neighborhoods, dubbed “Violence-Free Zones,” also experienced significant reductions in youth violence.
This remarkable story should be cause for celebration. But despite pockets of success, the nation’s capital still is a very violent place. For instance, New York, with 8 million residents, had 632 homicides as of Dec. 23. DC, with only 579,059, had 231 homicides. In other words, D.C., with about one-fourteenth the population, had more than one-third as many homicides. Put another way, New York’s homicide rate was roughly 1 in 13,000 people. DC’s was 1 in 2,500. And while D.C. homicides were down about 5 percent from the previous year, they went way up in neighboring counties of Prince George’s, Montgomery, Loudoun, and Prince William.
The Violence-Free Zone approach investing in trusted neighborhood leaders and building support programs, jobs, and other opportunities around the transformed youths-has saved hundreds of young lives in the most violent neighborhoods in D.C. and other cities around the country. With proper support, the model can be brought to scale, and it could have a dramatic effect on the city and country’s homicide rates.
Robert L. Woodson Sr. is president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.