It takes a tragedy to get public officials moving
The gears of municipal government turn most efficiently in the wake of tragedy, when some horrendous event exposes a big city's inattention to seemingly small details. A child dies, and the neglect that contributed to it -- once inconspicuous, but suddenly embarrassing to elected officials -- gets fixed, and fast.
So it is for residents of 1433 Columbia Rd. NW, the four-story apartment house where 9-year-old Oscar Fuentes was shot to death Saturday night. Tenants awoke Wednesday to find that the shabby old building in Columbia Heights had got a long sought and much-needed improvement: A new front door, a sturdy metal one, with an actual knob and lock.
Oscar, a fourth-grader, was standing in his family's second-floor residence when a bullet pierced the apartment door and hit him in the back. Police said it was fired blindly by a would-be robber in the hallway, a 26-year-old man who was able to enter the building because the old front "door" -- using the term loosely --was broken and unsecured.
Sitting on the building’s stoop Tuesday morning, before a squad of city workers with notebooks and tape measures arrived to examine the front entrance, residents said their frequent complaints about the door had gone mostly unanswered by the landlord and District officials. It took a murder to get it fixed.
The old door, if you could call it that, was cracked and warped, with nine of 16 screws missing from its bent and rusted hinges and see-through holes where the knob and lock used to be.
“Because of the door, everybody come in the lobby to smoke weed, use drugs,” said Daniel Lopez, 28, who lives on the fourth floor with his wife and three children. “Sometimes that lobby is looking like a barroom, all kinds of different cans of beer on the floor. ..... Sometimes they patch it up; two hours after that, it’s all busted again.”
Maria Arias, 35, a mother of three teenagers, said, “They fix it a little, then the gangs come and break it.” Her apartment is right above the Fuentes’s. “Now they haven’t fixed it for like five months.”
But that soon changed, after Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and a bevy of police officials gathered for a news conference at the building Tuesday to announce an arrest in Oscar’s killing. With an innocent boy in the morgue, the broken door quickly became a top priority for the Fenty administration.
“I could say more about the unfortunate fact that buildings like this are too commonplace,” the mayor said. “And we, both as a government and certainly as property owners, have to do better.”
He said the building’s owner had been cited by the city for numerous code violations, including the unsecured front door. But he didn’t elaborate on what follow-up action, if any, the city undertook. “What we’re going to do is fix this building ourselves and give the bill to the owner,” Fenty declared. And so it was done.
After the mayor and others had left, after the TV news trucks and police chief’s car had pulled away, two men in work clothes, Ron Duke and Paul Waters, showed up from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, followed shortly by the agency’s chief inspector, Don Masoero, in a tan suit and tie.
They studied the old door, inside and out; they measured and took notes; they conferred; they walked around; they pointed here; they pointed there; they talked on cell phones and nodded a lot.
“I want to make limited comments,” said Masoero. “I’ll just say we’re here to put the new door on.”
Told that the old door had been wrecked for quite some time, he sounded surprised.
“Has it?” he said. “That’s news to me. I thought it was a result of the incident.”
-- Paul Duggan
November 19, 2009; 10:16 AM ET
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