Ironically, CBS-WUSA-Channel 9 new anchorman Bruce Johnson told me years later that a lot of the media professionals were going through the same issues that I was going through with drinks, drugs, alcohol and women. – Marion Barry, Mayor for Life
This is the story of one of those people, The Washington Post’s Ruben Castaneda (@RCastanedaWP), who was himself addicted to crack while he was covering the crack addiction of Washington, DC.
Drugs that consumed people, not the other way around
Ruben’s book, Barry’s book, and even Janet Mock’s book (see: Just Read: Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood – memoir of a young trans woman) portray the lives of 3 different people, in different parts of society, all touched by the cocaine and death epidemic in the late 20th Century. It’s hard to believe they didn’t know each other, they are so connected.
In Castaneda’s and Barry’s case, the very thing they were working to stop they were promoting at the same time. Is it lack of individual control, or is it greater social determinants and community conditions out of a person’s control? What happens when a community already without a strong foundation is flooded with an addictive substance? It didn’t seem to leave anyone untouched, including the President of the United States and the infamous Lafayette Park incident.
The Post had gone into overdrive after the Barry bust . Reporters were assigned to keep an eye on the disgraced mayor or his house around the clock. My colleagues downed coffee to make it through their late-night Barry watches, but when it was my turn, I took a couple of hits of crack . The irony of riding a crack high while conducting surveillance on a mayor who’d been busted for possessing the same substance was lost on me.
Castaneda, Ruben (2014-07-01). S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in D.C. (p. 4). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
What caused the violence spiral to end? It’s unclear.
S Street slingers
Castaneda takes us through the S-Street Northwest of the 1990’s, destroyed once in the 1968 riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and again by drugs and murder. S Street and 7th is just 1.5 miles away from the White House and downtown Washington, DC. If you visited Washington, DC in your youth (the most common way people seem to experience it), you wouldn’t believe that just a 20 minute walk away from the majesty of our monuments are a people struggling to live. Actually, that’s still the case today, you just walk in a different direction.
The BBC did a great job putting together a show about Ruben’s work and Washington, DC, which is a good summary, as well as heartbreaking.
Since I am an afficionado of all things in the district, I took the time to visit some of the places mentioned in the book, including the most notorious open air drug markets in the city. Some of them are just blocks away from the current Kaiser Permanente Center for Total Health. One of them is adorned with a very large Kaiser Permanente billboard:
How did it all end?
I can’t seem to find a good explanation as to how/why the drug wars as they are called ended. Was it because of increased law enforcement? Did the drugs consume enough people that the demand subsdided? Did economic development make a difference? There’s an interesting analysis here from 1999: Cracked up – Salon.com.
Really makes you think about social determinants of health.
The fact is that the murder rate in Washington, DC is down, but it is still significantly higher per capita than New York City, by a factor of 4 (Homicides remain steady in District, Prince George’s – The Washington Post), and we still live in something of a divided city (“New Maps of DC health data – Not yet one culture of health”).
Just as I once took a wrong turn into Janet Mock’s neighborhood in the early 90’s, I also did a student rotation in Washington, DC in 1995. It was true, walking even 2 feet east of 16th Street Northwest was like walking into a different world. It it is an interesting feeling to walk in the neighborhoods today that were the places that no one would dare go. It’s…. a feeling of respect and honor for our nation’s capital, which is hard to explain.
If you love Washington, DC, or need a reminder of where our cities came from, I highly recommend this book. There’s so many amazing stories about people brought together with little to no hope, in a place that should be overflowing with it.
Neighborhoods that are less comfortable places still exist; it is our challenge today to not wait until they are safe enough for us to spread health.