Culture clash in Old Town

Culture clash in Old Town

If Betina Dusauld could do it all over again, she wouldnt have moved her family into Chatham Square, a mixed-income development in North Old Town, six years ago.

Chatham Square was touted as a great accomplishment in terms of doing away with some of the older subsidized housing and integrating it with market-rate homes, she said. Thats not been my experience.

Dusauld recalls seeing a young man urinate out of the window of a neighboring home and there have been incidents of vandalism and theft. To combat crime, the homeowners association paid for the installation of surveillance cameras in the communal parking garages and theyve hired an off-duty police officer, she said. 

While Dusauld hasnt taken her complaints to the city, some of her neighbors have, calling on officials to tamp down on criminal activity in a neighborhood known as The Berg, a traditionally black community near the Potomac in Old Town. 

Part of the public housing that once defined the neighborhood remains, nestled between Royal and Fairfax streets and run by the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority. While some newcomers to the neighborhood feel as though theyre beset by crime, those with roots in the community feel they and their community culture is under attack. 
Were getting accused of a lot of stuff were not doing, said resident Cegurna Thomas Shelton. [Theyre saying] people are getting robbed, but its not true. I can go out at three or four in the morning and I dont have to worry about it I know some people, the millionaires out here, and they want it [to be] different and I dont know what that is.
Tension in the neighborhood boiled over last week after the Alexandria Gazette Packet published an article highlighting complaints of growing lawlessness in the area. The allegations incensed public housing residents and police officials, who cite statistics showing nuisance calls and part one criminal offenses have either stayed the same or dropped since 2008. 
Lenny Harris, a longtime community organizers, called for a meeting of public housing residents at the Charles Houston Recreation Center to counter the allegations Thursday. Mayor Bill Euille, ARHA CEO Roy Priest and city police attended. 
They can’t tell us how to raise our children, Harris told the largely black audience of about 150 people. They can’t tell us how to walk down the street.
Harris plans to lead a march on City Hall, he said after the meeting.
A culture clash has played a key role in current tensions, according to Harris. Chatham Square sits in the heart of a black community that was about 150 years old when developers built the mixed-income row houses in 2001. As property values rose, the neighborhood underwent change, according to Harris.   
We welcome change, but the way you go about change is a whole different matter, Harris said. An association full of 15 people shouldnt be able to dictate the course of a culture or the lives of people who live in surrounding neighborhoods.
Nearby Queen Street is a perfect example, he said. A decade ago, there were drug dealers loitering on the street and though theyve since been forced out, the residents still meet, talk and relax on the city sidewalks. 
The same thing happens in The Berg, though some of the new neighbors are less comfortable with the practice, he said. 
Now here comes the white people and now they see congregation, they see us hanging out, Harris said. Theyre not used to that Thats a part of life for us, standing on the corner.
But its not standing on the corner that Dusauld objects to; its the crime and the mess. While she doesnt believe the neighborhood has gone downhill in recent years, theres no reason taxpaying residents should have to provide for security. Shes lost faith in integrated housing. 
Theres a huge difference in terms of what I would expect of myself and what I see ARHA [residents] expecting of themselves, Dusauld said. I feel, as a community, were spending a lot of money to keep our community looking nice because of other goings on. 
Its a divide Harris hopes to help bridge. Ultimately, it will depend on the residents of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds coming together and getting to know each other. 
It was advice he gave friends and supporters at Thursdays meeting. 
This is serious, were talking about our homes and families, Harris said. So you [need to] talk to the white folk so they get to know you, and you get to know them, and let them know youre all right.