The Cat in the Hat: U Street Circa 2000

by Mark Wellborn

image
Harrison Square in 2011

Harrison Square was one of the first (new construction) residential developments to be built in the U Street Corridor, well before the area was coined with that now frequently used moniker.

Needless to say, the landscape and demographics of the area have changed significantly in the past decade, and it is probably hard for new residents to comprehend just how much change has taken place. To illustrate the evolution, UrbanTurf spoke with Billy Smith, the land development manager for developer EYA at Harrison Square when it was being built between 2000 and 2002. Below is Smith’s recollection (in his own words) of how the face of the neighborhood changed just in the two years he was there, the rampant drug activity and associated violence that used to plague the area and an interesting character nicknamed The Cat In The Hat.


We started construction on Harrison Square back in 2000. At that point, only one other new project had been built in the area.

When our team arrived at the construction site, it became clear that there was serious drug activity happening right across V Street from where we were working. While most of the block was filled with abandoned buildings, there were three row houses across the street that were the epicenter of a very active drug market. There were always people going in and out and there was always someone on the roof looking out. What was interesting was that every single day, 60 to 70 light blue cabs, all from the same taxi company, would pull up to the front of the house and the drivers would run in and run right back out. Most of the construction crew assumed that the taxi drivers were drug users, but then a store owner in the area told us that they were actually ferrying drugs all over the city.

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Porsche parked on V Street NW where
the Cat in the Hat once plied his trade

The ringleader of the houses was a tall man with long dreadlocks that he would stuff up into a large hat each day. We learned that the type of hat that he wore on a given day signaled to users what type of drugs were being sold. It wasn’t long before the guy received the nickname “The Cat In The Hat” among the construction crew.

The violence was pretty bad back then. At least once a week there would be gunfire, and our construction crew would dive into the trenches that were being built as a water inlet for the project. The gunfire was so frequent that diving into the trenches became a weekly routine. To shield ourselves from the bullets, we built a large mountain of dirt between the project and the street and an armed security guard was hired to patrol the site 24 hours a day. With the security guard we felt safer, however one night he got drunk, passed out and three of the new townhouses were cleaned out of all their appliances.

The houses across the street were busted three times by the police, and each time we noticed the Cat in the Hat sitting hunkered down in a car about a block away, so we think that he had been tipped off by someone when the cops were coming. Finally, after the third bust in the winter of 2001, bulldozers were called in by the city the very next day and the houses were demolished. The day after that the street filled with residents and neighbors, some of whom had lived in the area for 50 years but had been afraid to come outside.

Construction on the first phase of Harrison Square lasted until 2002, and in the two years we were there, we saw the landscape change right in front of our eyes. When we left, instead of seeing drug dealers, we saw young women in skirts walking to to the Metro to go to work. We did always wonder what happened to the Cat in the Hat again, though.

See other articles related to: u street corridor, harrison square, gentrification, eya, dclofts

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/the_cat_in_the_hat_u_street_circa_2000/3163

3 Comments

  1. David Bediz said at 4:24 pm on Friday March 18, 2011:

    At the urging of a close friend, I bought a rowhouse in 2002 just a few blocks east from Harrison Square. I had all my belongings stolen through the front door a few months after moving in, I had rose bushes stolen a year later (just before mother’s day… I presume as a gift), and once I turned on the sprinkler to wake up a guy who passed out sprawled on my tiny front lawn. But I hung in there for 4 years on the same block and by the time I moved back west I really loved the area. I still miss it actually!

    I just wish I had bought a bigger house back then… my tiny rowhouse appreciated more than 83% in six years.

  1. Dan said at 7:31 pm on Friday March 18, 2011:

    People new to DC just don’t even know what the neighborhoods were like just a decade ago. 

    I just hope affordable housing is maintained in the city and that places like U street don’t become walking malls like M street.

  1. StringsAttached said at 7:59 pm on Friday March 18, 2011:

    I’m glad it’s not like that anymore. That story makes SE seem like not so bad place to be.

    I hope to see David’s appeciation one day!

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