D.C. at War

Review: Ruben Castaneda's 'S Street Rising'

Old and new construction on S Street, NW / Wikimedia Commons

S Street Rising by Ruben Castaneda is at least five different books, all for the price of one. It is a score-settling D.C. memoir by a veteran Washington Post reporter; a well-reported account of a particular corner of the Washington neighborhood of Shaw; an urban noir thriller with betrayal and high-level criminality; a love letter to the reporter’s favorite source, a Metropolitan Police Department officer who commanded the city’s homicide unit during the drug wars; and—most marketably—it is the memoir of a crack addict, complete with rock-bottom-to-redemption narrative arc.

Such diverse elements do not easily coexist. Much like I imagine would be the case in a polygamous marriage, the various components jostle for advantage and the reader’s attention, leaving one alternately entertained, confused, bored, informed, and sometimes overwhelmed. The writing style is that of a man who made a successful career as a metro reporter, which is to say that it is admirably clear and factual, but also that it lacks the registers needed to convey some of the human terrain being covered.

To be a journalist is to be, by definition, peripheral, and the principal flaw of the book is that its author tries to find the narrative unity of his tale by focusing on his own role in events. But—the story of his struggles with addiction notwithstanding—his friends and sources crowd him out of his own book, because their lives were lived on the business side of the police tape. The agent or editor who told Castaneda to lead with his own story of addiction went for the easy marketing cliché, but cheated all of us out of a better book.

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For all these flaws, S Street Rising has substantial value, perhaps mostly as an historical artifact—a first person account of Washington, D.C., in an hour so dark it was reasonable to wonder if morning was ever going to come. Reporters in particular might consider paying attention to it. As Castaneda observes, "Washington has always been lousy with journalists who are drawn to the nation’s capital to cover national politics and government." He never took to those subjects because those reporters "were at the mercy of the people they covered."

This is no doubt true to an extent, but the critique can be sharpened. Young reporters come to D.C. armed with graduate degrees and a working knowledge of data analysis and the antiseptic methods of social science, ready to explain social and economic policy to the benighted many, or at least to one another on Twitter. Yet they are, virtually uniformly, shockingly naïve about how the world actually works, and most remain so well past an age when naiveté is still charming. A few years covering stories like Castaneda did would do them all some good—and, as Castaneda ably demonstrates, one of the most interesting urban stories in the world is happening all around them, every day.

During the bulk of Castaneda’s career, that story was grim. D.C. clocked up murders in the early nineties at per capita rates that could give Baghdad in the last decade a run for its money. Castaneda’s job involved racing from one gangland shooting to another in neighborhoods that, today, offer the discerning hipster plenty of choices of venue for the purchase of craft beers and the enjoyment of indie music. In Castaneda’s day, the same corners—14th and U or 7th and S in Northwest, or H Street and anything in Northeast—offered junkies plenty of options for crack or for strawberries. (You’ll have to look it up.)

More than occasionally, the young and troubled Castaneda indulged, going so far as to follow his coverage of Marion Barry’s arrest at the Vista International Hotel by inviting a young woman with whom he had an ongoing financial relationship up to his room—booked for the evening by the Post—to enjoy the sorts of activities Barry had been up to before being interrupted by the FBI. Castaneda’s recklessness eventually became too obvious and, with remarkable decency, his editors instead of firing him pressed him into rehab, which almost certainly saved his life.

Barry presided—shamefully, multiple times—over a city in total collapse, which would almost certainly today look like Detroit, had not the economic weight of the federal government been anchored here by statute. The riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, followed by a wave of heroin, which in turn was followed by waves of cocaine and then crack, sent whites and the black middle class fleeing to the suburbs. Barry and a class of rapacious criminals looted the city, race hustling less out of necessity than out of habit—they were going to win the elections anyway—and corrupting every institution they touched.

The Metropolitan Police Department is at the center of Castaneda’s story. His most interesting friend, and (perhaps unintentionally) the emotional and narrative anchor of his book, is the source who made his career: Lou Hennessy, a police officer who, in Castaneda’s telling, was the principled, rock solid type who comes straight from central casting. Journalists of a certain age delight in writing sweetheart notes to the sources who helped them, but Castaneda makes a compelling case for Hennessy, who, somehow—despite not being part of a clique aligned with those running the city—rose to be the head of the homicide unit at the peak of the killing.

Hennessy instituted operational changes that started to turn the homicide rate around. Predictably, rather than being rewarded, he was swiftly punished by his bosses and the mayor’s office. The problems arose when Hennessy’s detectives linked the murder of a man named Carlton Bryant to an ex-con and Barry administration official named Roach Brown. Brown worked what mobsters and union officials would call a "no-show" job at City Hall during the Barry regime, and when word got around that he was the target of a murder investigation, Hennessy was transferred, without explanation, from homicide to a departmental backwater.

In case that wasn’t enough, the chief of police at the time—Larry Soulsby, as loathsome a reptile who ever led any Washington institution, local or federal—took to telling reporters off the record that Hennessy was the target of a grand jury investigation. Castaneda was one of the reporters Soulsby told. He quickly realized that the claim was a complete fabrication. There was no grand jury investigation. Soulsby was just following orders to neutralize Hennessy as a danger to the mayor’s administration. Let it be forever recorded: Larry Soulsby was a chief of police that Marion Barry could depend on.

In what technically constituted a breach of journalistic ethics, Castaneda warned his source Hennessy about the grand jury slur, a good deed for which he earned the lasting enmity of his then-editor at the Post, Jo-Ann Armao. Armao, adopting an oddly Jesuitical interpretation of the principle of off-the-record communications, ultimately exiled Castaneda to Prince George’s County, rather than—as justice would seem to demand—immediately publishing the news that Soulsby was abusing the custom to deceive reporters and the public about an honest public official. In a way, it’s cute that Armao took the Washington Post’s institutional reputation so seriously. At least somebody did.

None of which is to say that Armao didn’t have her hands full with Castaneda who, having once been saved by the Post from crack addiction, ultimately threatened to file a discrimination lawsuit against the paper for not receiving the raise he felt he deserved towards the end of his career. He got his raise, and made good in the ‘burbs, breaking a number of stories about police brutality in the county police force before being encouraged to write his personal story for the Washington Post Magazine—a story which eventually became this book.

The neighborhood where most of Castaneda’s action goes down—in every sense—is Shaw, which looks a lot different in 2014 than it did in 1994. The junkies and gangbangers moved on, replaced initially by hipsters—who with the rising price of real estate moved on themselves, migrating like nomadic tribes and returning to the neighborhood from their new encampments in Petworth and Brookland only for the occasional raid.

The hipsters have been replaced in turn by wealthy professionals who work on K Street and eat at Fiola Mare. Poor and middle class African Americans cannot afford to buy in Shaw anymore, despite its history—a proud one, before ’68—and have been exiled to the borderlands of D.C. and Prince George's County, which are nearly as violent today as Shaw was in the '90s. Back in the old neighborhood, S Street is rising, to be sure: New commercial developments and stunningly nice residential edifices are going up everywhere, with the approval and close involvement of local politicians in the deals. There are stories there, if anyone wants to tell them.