A City Divided: Hyattsville’s older neighborhoods suffer lack in public services

By: Ashley Edokpayi

MAY 11, 2014

A walk through Hyattsville’s Arts District strip on a Friday evening allows a voyeur’s glimpse at the new population that has migrated into the city. Boutique retailers close up shop as the Busboys and Poets restaurant begins to fill for poetry night. Gym goers finish up at the Lustine Fitness Center’s juice bar and jog over to the local MOM’s Organic Market before returning to their high-rise modern condos secured by city police.


In a community called the “darling of the area” by Hyattsville residents, the Arts District has rapidly grown over the past four years and attracted a higher income hipster-crowd that has seen little to no crime. The same can’t be said less than a mile across town.


Hyattsville, like many gentrifying cities, is a tale of the haves and have not’s. The priority to keep the Arts District a secure and attractive tourist area has caused a lack in public services and safety in the older, less gentrified western parts of the city.


“We can enact policies that help development, but we can’t fix the problems directly,” said Hyattsville council member Bart Lawrence who represents the Arts District. City council members can be a voice for residents and suggest solutions to electric companies like Pepco, but action stops there.


“I do care what happens in all the other wards but it’s too big a city, there’s too many challenges,” said Lawrence. “I’ve got to keep up with the challenges in my ward,” he said.


The Arts District was completed in 2010 as a $200 million mixed-use revitalization project in downtown historic Hyattsville, and has continued its economic development over the past year with new small-scale businesses. It has become the city’s attraction as it has a vibe similar to downtown Washington D.C. hotspots like U-Street, and has brought the arts to Hyattsville with dance studios, art galleries and events for local artists.


The sporadic growth of the Arts District over the past four years has brought residents making more than $60,000 in annual income to a city that had a median of $57,000 in household income in 2011. With pricey condos and townhomes, the area has drawn higher income individuals from D.C. and northern Virginia.


“Once I saw the city building this place up, I made my move,” said Arts District resident Harley White. In 2012, he moved into a condo in the neighborhood from his home in Cheverly less than ten minutes away.


“I like that it’s convenient and safe around here, I don’t worry about much,” said White.

A short drive west of the district along rickety roads with uneven sidewalks and burgundy brick homes dating back to the 1970’s brings one into older Hyattsville. Instead of a Busboys and organic market, there are restaurants and shops offering Hispanic or west African cuisine—reminiscent of the immigrant and ethnic residents who have lived in the city for decades.


Although these neighborhoods are less than five minutes from the downtown area, their broken street lights and the paranoia of being mugged make them seem like another world.

A combined total of 49 property theft-related crimes were reported from police in west Hyattsville and Arts District for the months of March and April, 38 of which happened in west Hyattsville neighborhoods.


“I check out my surroundings before getting out of my car and going in my house,” said 36-year-old west Hyattsville resident Dameion Russ. A New Orleans native, Russ has lived in the neighborhood with his girlfriend Gloria and her two sons for nearly four years and often works late nights at a restocking company. He said that lights on his street can take up to a month to be replaced.


“Sometimes I don’t get home until four in the morning from work so anything can happen,” said Russ.


Queens Chapel Manor is one of the neighborhoods close to the West Hyattsville Metro Station on Hamilton Street which has had an increasing trend in theft crimes in recent years because of a lack in proper street lighting. This Metro station is walking distance to many homes of daily commuters who’ve been victims of robbery.


Officer Patrick Ojong has worked for Hyattsville City Police for seven years. He said that robberies near the Metro station in West Hyattsville haven’t gone down much.


“It’s dark over there so people can’t really see who is approaching them,” said Ojong.


Poor street lighting has also been a possible reason for car theft and vandalism between the hours of 1am and 9am on residential streets in older city neighborhoods. A total of 11 theft crimes have happened in this area from January to the end of March according to Hyattsville police reports, three of which residents’ cars were broken into. One car was left with punctured tires, a shattered windshield and stolen license plates the week of March 9.


Jefferson Street resident Shirley Fisher has also observed situations that have resulted from broken streetlights in west Hyattsville. “There’s an older lady who walks home from the Metro on my street and I feel bad when I can’t pick her up on some days,” said Fisher. She expressed her concern at a council meeting last December where council members stated that the issue would be addressed as soon as possible. While some lights have been fixed since then, more are now out.


With brightly-lit parking lots and streets, the Arts District hasn’t had theft issues recently, but car break-ins were an issue for a short period in late 2013.


There was a spike in auto break-ins in a city owned parking lot and a private lot behind Busboys and Poets in the district, but council reacted quickly and implemented new strategies that ensure lots are patrolled by at least four city police on weekday evenings and weekends. No break in’s have happened in the lots since February.


Security cameras and talking security boxes are also in busy Arts District lots. Car owners are reminded through loudspeakers to lock their doors and keep their belongings in a safe place. While the same boxes were placed in West Hyattsville lots in 2010, several of them no longer work. Ojong said they should be fixed soon.


The city announced in early March that $200,000 of its 2015 budget would go towards fixing street lights on several West Hyattsville roads that have been left dark.

“That’s just not soon enough, between now and then who knows how many more thefts will happen,” said Russ.


While the Hyattsville city police chief has not commented on reasons for disparities in the Arts District compared to that of west Hyattsville neighborhoods, police records have shown that theft and property crime have stayed primarily in west Hyattsville and aren’t going away.


“Growing up in New Orleans and later living in Holyoke, Massachusetts I saw these same things like I do here,” said Russ. “It’s just what happens.”


Hyattsville City Public Works has not commented on street light repairs.

(Word Count: 1,150)


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