So How Safe is DC Really?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about househunting in DC and our preconceptions of the city as somewhat dangerous. Recently a number of American cities have experienced riots sparked by police actions and racial tensions, but DC has remained quiet – so far. 

The other night R was out till very late. In London I wouldn’t have worried. In London I knew the areas he was likely to be out in, probably knew who he was out with, and generally I feel that London is pretty safe these days, with so many people on the streets that it discourages violent crime.

In DC I started to worry. Especially when 1am came round. I didn’t know what part of DC he was in, and I didn’t know who he was out with. I knew he’d be coming back through Adams Morgan, which is our area and where I usually feel pretty safe, but he’d be drunk – maybe obviously – and therefore potentially viewed as easy prey. Yes, there are plenty of people on the streets in Adams Morgan, but there are also plenty of alleyways and the number of helplessly drunk rich college kids on the streets can attract predators. In the end, it turned out he’d been at a friend’s house in Northeast, had come back via Adams Morgan, stopped in one of the fast food places and had eaten pizza walking up the dark alleyway near our apartment building. Perhaps not the best idea – especially as he was visibly drunk – but as he reminded me, he can look pretty scary when he wants to.

I’m more cautious in DC than I am in London. The number of times back home I got staggeringly drunk and ended at my London Bridge flat hardly knowing how I’d got there is testament to how safe I felt in that city (or maybe I was just younger and stupider back then). If I’m out alone here I make sure not to get drunk and I plan a route home that keeps to streets I know will be busy and well lit. DC is not as crowded as London. One evening, during the snow, I set out to find a pub north of Columbia Heights. It was dark and my phone died, so I ended up overshooting by quite a way. As the street around me became darker, emptier and more residential I started noticing any crunch of footsteps behind me and wishing it wasn’t so slippery so that I could walk faster and get out of there. Eventually I gave up, crossed the road and, attempting to look like I knew what I was doing (in case anyone was watching me) started back southwards. Columbia Heights is deceptive. The bit around the metro, for about 2 blocks, is pretty new and shiny, very well lit and bustling with a range of people. A couple of blocks up and suddenly it’s quiet, dimly lit and you’re into the realm of dark dive bars and seedy chicken restaurants before even this thins out and all you’re left with is pay day loan type shops, liquor stores and boarding houses.

I was fine – on my way back I found the bar – but the friend I was meeting was rather dismayed at how far I’d wandered and helpfully told me about a rape that had happened up there not that long ago. Recently there was another report of an attempted rape somewhere on 16th street NW.

And NW – our area – is actually the safest. Of course things are changing when it comes to the other three quarters of central DC. Capital Hill, a no go area in the very recent past, is now a neighborhood of young families and their young professional lodgers; markets; and the beginnings of cafe culture. NE is becoming increasingly gentrified, numbered street by numbered street. And SE around by Nationals Baseball Park is really nice now – luxury flats by the river. Of course there are still no-go areas. When R’s colleagues were helping us work out where to live when we first moved here,  they said pretty much what I just said about SE being ok now, but R’s enquiry of ‘you mean across the river?’ prompted almost comically horrified reactions of ‘Oh no, not Anacostia!’

If you watch crime dramas set in DC (‘Bones’ for example) they usually find the bodies amongst the warehouses of Anacostia or in the river nearby. But apart from this area, it’s getting harder for such dramas to realistically portray the city as at all gritty. The run-down barbecue place that Frank Underwood frequented in early seasons of DC was actually shot in Baltimore – you wouldn’t find that sort of place anywhere near Congress these days.

DC’s reputation for danger probably mainly dates from the time of the riots. Following Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, riots broke out in DC and lasted for six days. Various bits of downtown DC (like 14th street) were reduced to rubble. Although some of these riot corridors ended just minutes from the White House much of the damage was not repaired until about five or ten years ago. People didn’t live in DC, and the town was developed with that in mind; the metro system was not designed to get around DC but rather to get commuters quickly in and then out again to the leafy suburbs of Virginia, Maryland and NW DC. Conditions in the city for those who did end up living there were not good, and this, combined with racial tension following new waves of Hispanic immigration, led to more rioting, in the areas of Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan, in the early 1990s.

We live in a completely different city now. 14th street is where the hipsters go to eat in shiny new restaurants. People don’t move to the suburbs until they’re choosing high schools for their kids. The metro now attempts to transport the young, fun-seeking population between the hot new bars and restaurant areas, the ball-park and their city-center apartments. While crime exists and there are still places you don’t want to walk at night, the problems of DC are now no different from those faced by most towns and cities.

So, in conclusion: ‘Crime. Boy, I don’t know.’

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