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New homeowners want safe streets

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Posted on: July 10, 2024

By GRIFFIN LIMERICK

surveillance system installed in a local neighborhood
A mobile surveillance system has been installed at the playground on Carnaby Street.
Photo credit: Griffin Limerick

It took a shooting for the residents of Gateway West to get organized.

On Jan. 5 of this year, around 12:05 p.m., when most students were in school, a 14-year-old boy was shot at the 3500 block of Carnaby Street after refusing to give a trio of robbers his Moose Knuckles winter jacket. 

Several Gateway West residents who had heard the gunshots from their living rooms called the police and waited with the boy in the cold until an ambulance could arrive. The new development of 131 townhouses had just turned a year old.

Prior to the shooting, resident Saswathi Natta said crime around the new development had been mostly minor in nature — littering of glass bottles and syringes on the ground, and some trespassing, particularly through the chicken-wire fence that separated the neighborhood from the apartment complexes along Toledo Terrace and the Mall at Prince George’s beyond that.

Natta believes two things contributed to these offenses. One is that the land on which Stanley Martin developed the townhouses used to be entirely wooded. A portion of the local unhoused population, some receiving aid at the University Christian Church down the street, congregated in the woods and set up an encampment there.

“There was a population that didn’t have legal spaces to be in and had found a home in this area,” Natta said. “Therefore, when the construction comes and things change rapidly, those folks are pushed out. They don’t have a place to go to easily, so right now they’re on the fringes of this community.”

Although the woods have been reduced to a strip of land the size of a small Christmas tree farm, old habits persist. Sofas appeared in the clearing in early June. A few Gateway West residents dragged them out to the curb, only to find the sofas returned a few days later.

The second, and most pressing, issue is the abutment of Gateway West with Northwestern High School. Carnaby Street lies in back of the school property and borders the football and baseball fields, as well as an improvised school exit path, making the street a favorite shortcut for students to apartments north of the mall.

This also means that Gateway West — particularly the playground on Carnaby — is a frequent hangout for truant teenagers. 

At a June 6 meeting at the Hyattsville Municipal Building, one Gateway West resident said she sees Northwestern students in the neighborhood daily during school hours.

suspects pictured at a local playground
Carnaby Street has been the home of numerous crimes this year, including the stabbing of a teenager on May 2. The mobile surveillance system didn’t prevent the crime, but it did capture an image of the suspects, as pictured above.
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Hyattsville Police Department

“You would think school was letting out,” she said. “We’re seeing kids come out 10, 20 at a time. There are regular kids that eat lunch on the playground. And they have their lunch trays, so I know they’re students.”

The teenager shot around lunchtime in January was, in fact, a Northwestern student. After the incident, residents mobilized by forming a WhatsApp group to petition Stanley Martin for increased security. Chain-link fencing replaced the chicken wire. Three mobile surveillance units were staggered along Carnaby Street — two by Stanley Martin, one by the Hyattsville Police Department (HPD). The fence separating the neighborhood from the school was replaced and repaired. All of this occurred in April.

“It was a little slow,” Natta said, “but they did it.”

And then, on May 2, a 17-year-old was stabbed near the Gateway West playground, along the 3500 block of Carnaby Street. Although the teenage victim wasn’t a student at Northwestern, Natta says she can confirm, both through being an eyewitness and her doorbell camera footage, that he was meeting a Northwestern student.

At this point, City Councilmember Kareem Redmond (Ward 3) reached out to residents to gauge their interest in meeting with city officials. Many residents had requested some kind of forum already. Because an additional 200 townhouses are currently under construction in the Gateway West development, residents are still not in charge of the HOA, and thus have no organizational structure to lobby on their behalf. Several residents said that when they have complained to individual entities, those complaints have been deflected to other parties involved.

“When we sent emails to each person, it was, ‘Oh, it’s Stanley Martin who has to do that.’ ‘Oh, it’s the school who has to do that.’ ‘Oh, it’s the councilmember who has to do that,’” said Keith Juarez, a Carnaby Street resident.

The resulting June 6 meeting at the municipal building was something of a reckoning; in addition to about 50 Gateway West residents, attendees included Hyattsville Mayor Robert Croslin, several city councilmembers, county State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy, county school representatives like school board member  Pamela Boozer-Strother (District 3), HPD Chief Jarod Towers, representatives of Stanley Martin Homes, and various city staff members.

A slideshow presentation delivered by Natta at the start of the meeting outlined recent crimes committed at Gateway West: Jan. 5, shooting on Carnaby; Feb. 11, multiple car break-ins; Feb. 16, student fistfight on Carnaby; Feb. 21, fire set by Northwestern students; April 2, car break-in; April 16, fence vandalism; May 2, stabbing and theft on Carnaby; May 28, playground vandalism and gang signs; May 28, students filmed shooting BB gun outside high school; June 4, student fight and arrest between Carnaby Street and Stella Blue Drive; June 5, fire set by students, baseball field.

Ultimately, speakers at the meeting narrowed the issues down to two key problems: fencing and truancy. The fence surrounding Northwestern’s campus contains two large gaps that are used by truant students as shortcuts into the Gateway West community. 

Back in January, Northwestern resource officer and HPD Acting Lt. Christopher Evans completed a crime walk with residents around the property and concluded that better fencing was needed. Stanley Martin has repaired the fence twice since then, but someone has knocked it down each time. 

“The chain link is being cut by some sort of metal snip or metal cutter,” said Joseph Trubiano, the Maryland division president of Stanley Martin homes. “The other one that’s actually attached by bolts, someone is coming out with a wrench.”

Trubiano went on to say that welding bolts in some of the fencing could be a solution. Towers noted that a prison-quality fence, such as a 10-foot steel fence, is a possibility, but City Administrator Tracey Douglas said that several residents have voiced opposition to such a stark perimeter.

“We do like the idea of fencing, we do think it should be a little more reinforced, we do think it should be a little taller,” Douglas said. “But we do want to be sensitive to the residents who do not want to have a fortress.”

Towers said that although militarized fencing would reduce trespassing, students would still cut through the neighborhood wherever the fencing ends.

“They’re always going to take the path of least resistance,” he said.

On the topic of student truancy, Braveboy said chronic absence from school is a countywide problem, but that Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) is piloting a program that promotes parent meetings with nonprofits and school counselors. ABCNews7 has reported that the pilot also involves charging more parents with misdemeanors for not sending kids to school. 

For Northwestern students leaving campus during the school day, Gary Cunningham, PGCPS director of safety and security services, said the best practice is for Gateway West residents to call the police.

At least one resident, however, said she is “terrified to call the cops on some Black children.”

“I remember the first time I saw it, I called the school and I was like, ‘Some students are at our playground eating. I’ve seen them three times this week,’” the resident said. “And they were like, ‘Call the cops on them.’ It was so matter of fact, like they didn’t care about the students.”

Resident Juarez said he faced similar communication problems when reaching out to the school about errant baseballs from the Northwestern field hitting cars and houses along Carnaby Street. 

“I reached out to the principal, I reached out to the athletic director, as well as the board of education representative for District 3 who is in charge of that area,” Juarez said, indicating Boozer-Strother, who was the only person to reply. “I was told for the most part, ‘Why did we place ourselves smack up against Northwestern High School?’ and ‘Maybe we should go to the HOA because we can’t tell [the school] how inconvenient it is every time something happens because we bought next to Northwestern High School.’”

Since the meeting, Natta said the school system has been more responsive, particularly the security officer.

“They’ve attended another meeting here at the model home with the builder and some homeowners present,” Natta said. 

Still, problems in the community persist. The week of June 18, neighbors found squatters in the home of a Gateway West resident who had moved and put their home up for sale. Then, on June 20, someone set fire to a large swath of grass by the playground. 

The residents have formed an impromptu Neighborhood Watch. They take walks along the perimeter of the fence, pick up broken glass bottles and syringes. They set up caution tape around the playground and scrub off graffiti. All of this is coordinated through the chat.

At sunset on June 24, as Natta finished talking to this reporter on the 3500 block of Carnaby Street, a police cruiser accelerated past, lights flashing, engine grinding, before coming to an audible halt at the intersection near Natta’s house. She looked over her shoulder at the disturbance and then began walking hurriedly back home, toward the lights.

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