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Walking the Beat

City leaders walk through the Inner City neighborhood.

As City Council members were preparing to walk through the Inner City last weekend, Mayor Bill Euille was presented with a surprising gift: a plastic bag with a used hypodermic needle and an empty crack packet. The present came from the troubled streets of the Inner City. An Inner City resident who was concerned about persistent drug trafficking in the community brought it to show to the mayor as evidence of an ongoing problem.

“I showed it to the city manager, and then I threw it away,” Mayor Euille said. “This is one of the reasons we came here today — to listen to people who live here and find out what they have to say.”

The city’s crime statistics are a lingering concern for residents of the neighborhood, which is sandwiched between the King Street corridor and the public-housing units clustered near the Braddock Street Metro. The area witnessed three murders last year, and police reports document a steady stream of violent crime. Since January, the area in and around the Inner City has seen two robberies, a violent attack and a shooting.

“Stray gunfire is not contained,” said Sarah Becker, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years. “It could hit anybody.”

Police Chief Charles Samarra said that crime has been drastically reduced in the past 20 years, and he said that efforts were underway to increase visibility and patrolling in the Inner City. He says that the department’s tactics are working to keep crime statistics low.

“I’ve been here 15 years, and crime reduction is greater now than at any other time in the history of Alexandria,” Chief Samarra said. “Citizens would like to see no crime. We’d like to see that too, and we’re working to keep it as low as possible.”

But some people say that the police are not doing enough. Leslie Hagen, a board member of the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority, said that she doesn’t think the police are working adequately to secure the public-housing units near the Braddock Street Metro.

“We just don’t see the police presence there that we have asked for a number of times,” Hagen said. “People who are not residents are coming in to commit crimes, and our people are becoming victims.”

DRUG PROBLEMS have been a persistent issue in the neighborhood, where abandoned paraphernalia frequently litters the streets. With the illegal market thriving in the Inner City, many public areas have become a concern for neighborhood residents. A picnic table in the park at the corner of Queen Street and Fayette Street, for example, was recently removed when police discovered it was being used to transfer drugs and money.

But removing one picnic table won’t solve all of the Inner City’s problems. City leaders say that a long-term effort must be made to combat crime. They say that all of the new development in the area — including two high-price condominium buildings and more on the way — creates an opportunity to transform the area.

“This is a neighborhood in transition,” said City Manager Jim Hartmann. “And it’s going to take all of the neighborhood to create long-term change.”

Inner City resident Leslie Zupan said that she would like to see more homeowners living in the area, taking pride in their homes and creating a sense of place that she says is currently lacking.

“One of the problems with this neighborhood is all of the rentals,” Zupan said. “One of the dirty little secrets of the Inner City is that many of the beat-up houses belong to white slumlords.”

FUTURE DEVELOPMENT could be the key to transforming the Inner City. With each new building proposal, the City Council is given the opportunity to ask for contributions. During the tour, Mayor Euille pointed out that when Eakin-Youngentob Associates built the Lofts next to the Andrew Adkins Housing Project, the development company made a contribution that paid for a series of iron fences that surround the property.

“We have a lot of development in this area,” said the mayor. “And we want to get developers working with public housing.”

Ultimately, the mayor said that he would like to see more projects like Chatham Square — a development that replaced a 60-year-old housing project that Mayor Euille grew up in. In 2004, the public housing project was demolished to build a “mixed-income community” that includes 100 units of market-rate houses and 52 units of subsidized housing.

The city manager said that another way to improve the area would be to pay careful attention to the planning documents that are now being assembled. He said that the Braddock Small Area Plan could be one way to work toward improving the area — using urban design concepts to create a safe environment for Inner City residents.

“We want to make sure that each new development compliments the others,” Hartmann said. “And developers have a role to play.”

IN THE SHORT TERM, city officials say, many things can be done to see immediate improvements. City Council members say they’d like to see new streetlights, better public landscaping and more trashcans.

“An effort to bring in new trashcans was stalled by the city’s recent spending reductions,” said Councilman Ludwig Gaines. “But we are going to find a way to put that initiative back in the budget.”

During Saturday’s walk through the neighborhood, City Council members were constantly picking up trash that littered the streets. They would often hold the debris for quite a while they searched fruitlessly for a trash can.

“This place is disgusting,” said Mayor Bill Euille as he examined the Untied States Post Office in the 1100 block of Wythe Street. “Can we get the postmaster to do something about this?”

Working toward change in the Inner City will take a concerted effort, with neighbors working together with police and developers to transform the area. As construction moves forward on several new high-price developments, City Council members rededicated themselves last weekend to working toward changing the neighborhood — one trashcan and streetlight at a time.