“You want to be comfortable and our conditions are uncomfortable. And when you’re uncomfortable, you make bad decisions. These streets are vicious; they soak your ass up.” ~ Smurf, 17 Blocks
17 Blocks — a new documentary set in DC — challenges viewers to make sense of the many ways that sparse neighborhood resources, chemical dependencies and limited opportunities can rob futures from the District’s youngest. Recently featured at AFIDOCS and 13 other film festivals, 17 Blocks centers on a four-generation Northeast DC family: three siblings, their mother, their grandparents and, in time, their own children.
Director Davy Rothbart’s film includes footage from 1999, 2009, and 2016 to the present. Davy knew the family and they suggested, after events in 2009 (spoiler), that he use their home movies to make a film. They wanted Davy to highlight their struggles, which were also the struggles of their neighbors and friends in families throughout Southeast and Northeast DC.
Settings in 1999 and 2009 are seen almost entirely via home movies shot by the youngest of the three kids — a gregarious boy named Emmanuel, 9 years old when we first meet him in 1999. He follows his sister Denice, older by a few years, and his 15-year-old brother “Smurf.” The camcorder footage captures candid perspectives of children raised by a drug-addicted single mother, a “father figure” boyfriend, and DC neighborhoods presenting odious influences to the offspring of even middle-class parents.
The family in ‘99 is living 17 blocks from the Capitol Building: just off Barney Circle SE near the Sousa Bridge; the story follows them on visits to their grandparents’ home at 17th and Franklin streets NE in Langdon. Smurf has already dropped out of school and has started selling marijuana. Emmanuel captures Smurf drafting a list of women he’s slept with, and later tapes Smurf and a friend violently beating another kid over a drug debt. You can hear the victim call out “Somebody help me.” Cut to the mother in the middle of a chemical trip, berating her boyfriend and kids. Later, speaking to the camera about Smurf’s drug dealing, she says, “I exposed him to that life.”
When the documentary flashes forward to 2009, the family lives in the Fort Totten neighborhood, at 2nd and Webster streets NE. Smurf is now 24; Denice, 21; and Emmanuel, 19. The family takes video of Emmanuel and his girlfriend; she goes to Archbishop Carroll, a nice private high school, and lives a clean life. Emmanuel is clean too, the mother says: “a homebody, no weed, no cigarettes, no alcohol.” Emmanuel had recently graduated from Theodore Roosevelt, a public high school in Petworth, where he earned a five-figure scholarship from Kappa Alpha Phi for future tuition at a college or trade school.
Emmanuel’s straight living and seizing of opportunity is contrasted by his mother’s as she sells off family items to pay for drugs. Smurf, too, has advanced in the dope game; his sales volume is up, and he’s selling harder drugs like heroin. Emmanuel’s camera captures Smurf discussing his recent release from prison; he says that within a month of leaving jail, he was selling drugs again. Denice has a son she’s raising in the family’s home and contributes to household expenses with wages from a child care job.
The documentary continues with a final flash-forward to recent years where the film crew captures the latest developments, which include some second chances for Smurf and his mother.
A nagging question of 17 Blocks is how the mother, a daughter of middle-class parents in a safe neighborhood, could fall victim to such harmful habits, for herself and her children. You ultimately learn that she disobeyed those parents who were trying to get her into a better set of social connections and influences. You learn she was raped as a teenager and that traumatic experience may have transformed bad habits into chronic disabilities.
Just into my 10th year of living in DC, I was challenged by 17 Blocks to make sense of the interplay of agency and circumstance, of discipline and explanation, in the outcomes of the lives on screen. I know DC residents who are like the family in this movie. They are my neighbors in Brookland, a Ward 5 neighborhood that like many others is still anchored by working- and middle-class African Americans with a sense of upward mobility. These are people whom I meet several times per week in community meetings across the city, talking about their decades living in Washington.
The neighborhoods profiled in 17 Blocks are those I defend to recent transplants and skeptical Northwest denizens as being “safer than you’ve heard” and “worth a visit.” These are neighborhoods where gentrification means something much more complex than seeing a new apartment building and a coffee shop replace the corner liquor store. “Displacement” is much more nuanced than the bludgeon anti-change community members swing at housing and transportation projects.
Families like the one in 17 Blocks benefit from the streets around them getting better. Smurf benefits from a DC program designed to lift Washingtonians up when they make mistakes, rather than lock them up. Smurf’s mom benefits from subsidized addiction care. Denice benefits from job opportunities in DC that come from new commercial and residential development.
Even in these prosperous times for DC, families like this one still live in uncomfortable conditions. These streets are getting better, but they can still “soak your ass up,” as Smurf says. NoMA and Union Market are two of the District’s fastest-growing neighborhoods, but people experiencing chronic homelessness live under bridges there. Our city — which facilitates expensive development — hasn’t housed and positively intervened in the lives of people living on the streets next to those projects. The most DC seems to do is permit the homeless to move their encampments before sidewalk cleaning and allow them to resettle in the same spot afterward without losing their belongings — though that’s the best-case scenario that often fails to materialize. DC razes old playgrounds and recreation centers for brilliantly colored artificial fields and playscapes, but its agencies do little to address citizen worries about potential dangers from the whizz-bang new.
17 Blocks is an important watch for all who live and work in the District. I spend most of my time in Northeast and Southeast DC, where lots of things are getting better on first approximation: new and restored buildings, new mixed-use development, safety-enhancing street improvements, and investments in community centers and schools. But I’m reminded by 17 Blocks to keep in mind that there are lots of people living uncomfortably in these areas.
DC still needs more jobs that lead to careers with living wages — plus enough new affordable housing to increase the total stock rather than simply minimize its losses. Our city may be embracing legalized weed and sports gambling, but there are still far worse addictions out there that require resources for prevention and treatment. DC is safer than it once was. But violent crime in DC this year shows the persistent harm to livability and vibrancy wrought by guns and neighborhood animosity. It’s hard to stay optimistic dealing with the stress of burglary, harassment and other non-lethal crimes. Grief catches up with people over time who see friends, family and neighbors fall victim to violence. Those trials cause exhaustion and even destroy communities.
Gordon Chaffin is a reporter for Street Justice, a daily email newsletter covering transportation and infrastructure throughout the Washington region.
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