A Nightmare in DC: Chandra, Southeast, & Other Rotting Corpses
Great Society is ten years old.
Much of the Southeast quadrant of Washington, DC is riddled with crime and poverty.
The redevelopment of the H Street Corridor in Northeast DC is in full force, which will revitalize buildings untouched since the 1968 riots that erupted after the assassination of Martin Luther King when parts of H Street were nearly burned to the ground.
Chandra Levy is still dead.
Great Society has always been a “blog” about Washington, DC and its environs. Hell, we were blogging before people even knew what blogging was. Were we ahead of the curve? Maybe, but I don’t think there’s enough there to have the term “blogging” legally changed to “GS-ing,” or get us some money. Whatever the case, due to the proximity of the original “Dirty Freaks” to DC there was always a decidedly “nation’s capital” vibe to the pieces of the early days. Even after Cassander brought his fresh southern voice to the page, most of its stories of gentrification, politics, and suburban madness were still very obviously a creation of a mid-Atlantic mindset.
One of the first “serious” pieces of writing featured on Great Society was a multipart essay I authored on the disappearance of congressional intern Chandra Levy who you’ll remember disappeared May 1, 2001, a month before she was supposed to move back to her hometown of Modesto, California. A police search of her Dupont Circle apartment found U.S. Congressman Gary Condit’s DNA in her underpants. Condit later admitted to police that he had broken off an affair with Levy not long before she vanished. It looked bad. For people across the country the Levy/Condit story was a sensation; Monica-Gate 2.
For us in the DC area, it was a local story. In that long, hot summer of 2001, throwing out hypotheticals about what happened to Chandra was everybody’s favorite bar game. Those of us with girlfriends who walked the city streets worried that it could have been a random attack. On a national level however, the favorite theories involved Condit either killing Levy or having her killed. “This ain’t no dark skinned crime on crime here. This is a white woman gone missing!” Besides, the film version of Alan Moore’s Jack the Ripper fiction From Hell was due out in October and theories abounded of a “royal baby” like the one whose existence the Ripper was (supposedly) sanctioned by Queen Victoria to keep silent. For a political town like DC, Condit and royal babies were a sexier sell than Levy heading down to Rock Creek Park for a jog and simply running into fatally bad luck. With no trace of her, dead or alive, to offer up any clues, the wild story of 2001 just got wilder.
Then came a Tuesday in September and, well, everything changed.
Great Society was born in the gap between the pre-Y2K freak out and the post-9/11 freak out. Looking back now, it seems a calm and innocent period of time for the transient no-man’s-land often referred to as “The District.” As is typical in and around DC, it was anything but. The winds of cultural change had long been blowing through the District. By the first year of the twenty first century, when I had actually made the city proper my home, it had already kicked up quite a storm.
When I came of age in the early 90s and began exploring DC’s streets and clubs in search of girls, drugs, and the always elusive “good time,” I felt like I had just missed DC’s greatest era. The punk scene was ten years dried up. Go-Go, which nearly broke through nationally via Rare Essence and E.U., had been strip-mined to feed hip-hop’s exponentially growing popularity. Corporations bought up local eateries as well as radio and TV stations. By the time the party ended for disgraced mayor Marion Berry in 1990, the lights had already been turned on and the bar had pretty much stopped serving anyway. Bitch set us all up. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.
Even before Berry’s fall, the crack epidemic had made life in DC hell. Crime was rampant. Gang violence was decimating life and property. (“What’s changed?” I hear someone cackle.) Gentrification in all its racial and class inequity seemed the only way to save the city. It was either take extreme steps to fix large and long standing problems or let the drug lords finish the job started in the ‘68 riots.
In the glorious year of 1995, when I had six pack abs and the physical stamina to stay up for days, I frequented a DC nightclub called Tracks. Predominantly a gay dance boutique, on Thursday nights they hosted a new wave/goth/industrial night where the legendary DJ “Mohawk” Adam spun everything from Ministry and KMFDM to Erasure and Depeche Mode. It was a genuinely underground scene, spread almost exclusively by word of mouth in those pre-internet days before it moved to The Capital Ballroom (later to become the nationally renowned nightclub, Nation), and blew up in that way that seemed to suck the fun out of it. At least it did for me.
Tracks was situated in Navy Yard on the edge of the Anacostia River which separates the rest of DC from its Southeast quadrant. In the mostly white (at least back then) suburban Virginia county I grew up in, Southeast was mentioned in the way dark evil forests were spoken of in fairy tales. In it were black, fire-breathing monsters, fueled by crack, liquor, and a hatred for all things white. Brave knights went in to this cursed land never to return.
One of the crew I clubbed with, a pretty blonde from the same suburbs as me had her car break down deep in Southeast on the way to Tracks one night. What she was doing there is a mystery. I can only assume she either went or was taken there to buy drugs for the night ahead. I was at my table-waiting job when it happened and had met her and our other friends at Tracks. She was of course distraught that her car was trapped in the most dangerous part of the city. Because we were young and on drugs, the rest of our crew and I convinced her that the best idea was just to party on as normal. Then at the end of the night we’d all head into Southeast and retrieve her car. Ah, youth.
So, my first and only trip deep into Southeast DC was at 3AM on a Friday morning in the summer of 1995. I was twenty-one years old. And even high as a kite I was scared out of my mind. I think we took the Frederick Douglas Bridge across the river, but I could be wrong. Directly on the other side were the types of sights I expected to see; rundown buildings, dealers sitting on porches, and crackheads huddled against walls. As we delved deeper into the area, my drug addled mind thought we had stepped back in time. Electric light seemed to all but disappear. Cars became scarce and what few we saw were old and decaying. Houses betrayed years of disrepair.
The worst aspect of this trip was an eerie silence. Cities are noisy places, even in the dead of night. The aural landscape of an urban area is one filled with the hum of people living. Yet in Southeast that night, I was confronted with a tomblike quiet. What little ambient buzz there was seemed far away and otherworldly. Silence in a city speaks of death. Years later, after being one of the few people trying to get back into DC on September 11, 2001 (a different story for a different time), I was once again unsettled by the sound of a silent and deserted city and my mind flashed on that late night trip into Southeast.
Suddenly, a scream pierced the air. Whether it was a man or woman screaming, I couldn’t tell. I just knew it was loud and fairly close by. There were no words. What was most terrible is that the scream wasn’t one of pain. Nor did it hint that the screamer was being attacked or struck with anguish. It was the scream of someone doing so because they simply didn’t know what else to do. Later, I would read that in addition to having low income housing, Southeast was also home to federal “Section 8” housing for the mentally ill.
We eventually reached our friend’s car, got it started, and left. I haven’t been that deep in Southeast since, nor do I have the desire to revisit it. From what I’ve heard, not much has changed.
Today, Tracks is gone as is its successor, Nation. Condos are there now, and the Navy Yard neighborhood has been revitalized (gentrified) by the multi-million dollar stadium nearby where the Washington Nationals play.
In the late 90s, I lived a mile across the DC/Maryland line in Silver Spring where I waited tables at the now defunct Flanagans Irish Pub in Bethesda, Maryland. (They turned that building into condos too.) It was there that I became reunited with Nacho with whom I had attended college with but never really knew well. That story’s been been told before, I think. Look it up. The Flanagans bartenders were young, first generation American Irishmen. They liked to play as hard as they worked and were way into cocaine, never my drug of choice due to my being pretty naturally “up” without any narcotic help. Still, I liked hanging out with them.
They would often buy their blow from a guy down off 14th St and U in Northwest DC. I went with them sometimes. Like H Street Northeast, the U street corridor was decimated during the ’68 riots. During my Flanagans years, the gentrification sweeping through the city had begun to get a firm grip on the area. Condos had started to go up, and music and art venues like The Source Theatre, The Black Cat, and Republic Gardens were bringing money and affluence into the area. It was still pretty sketchy in those days though, the kind of place you’d expect to be able to buy drugs.
Last fall, I was near U Street for the first time in years. The renovation of the Studio Theater further down 14th brought business, prosperity, and white people to a street that used to be lined with run down, boarded up buildings. Some still scorched from the black revolution of ’68. Now there are fusion Thai restaurants, high end dance clubs, and expensive clothiers. The Black Cat, once the only bright spot on the street, looks rundown and seedy by comparison. I exclaimed to my friends, “I used to buy drugs here.” They laughed even though it wasn’t meant to be funny.
Am I lamenting the revitalization of DC? A little bit. After Tracks and the Capital Ballroom (never Nation) turned into Bento boxes for white people, the industrial scene was forced to spread to the winds. U Street, once a haven for street kids (urban and suburban) seeking inexpensive but cutting edge hip hop, has followed the genre’s more decadent and money obsessed strains and caters to a more affluent crowd; proper dress only. H Street still has some interesting and affordable live performance venues, but how long will that last? In every case, the black, working class citizens of DC are getting pushed further east. DC’s crime and poverty isn’t being fixed. It’s being outsourced. Meanwhile, all these bright shiny condos and expensive shops and restaurants are just part of a top of the line embalming and casket package to bury the murdered corpse of DC’s underground arts culture, the real one built on working class people and ideas.
After a yearlong tenure in Chicago where I celebrated the turn of the millennium, I returned to Northern Virginia in the summer of 2000. Finances required moving back in with my parents for a few months and I spent the time writing screenplays, including the short script that would eventually evolve into my first feature length movie, Women’s Studies, about a school of homicidal feminists. I also rediscovered horror movies from my youth, specifically George A. Romero’s classic, Night of the Living Dead as well as read extensively about Jack the Ripper. If all that seems disturbing that my obsession with dark things is great, keep in mind there are those whose obsessions are even darker and weirder.
At the end of 2000, I moved into an apartment in DC’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood about three hundred yards from Rock Creek Park with my then girlfriend known to longtime GS readers as “Jezebel.” Though we probably weren’t aware of it at the time, it was a last ditch effort to save our doomed relationship. When we moved in, the area around the nearest Metro stop (14th and Irving) was sketchy at best. Now there’s a Target store there. In February and March of 2001, Nacho, Jezebel, and I brainstormed the seeds that would eventually grow into the beautiful, but possibly poisonous plant we call Great Society. I chose the name “Rotting Corpse” because it fit in with my obsessions of the time; horror, death, and decay. The site launched in April.
On May 1, Chandra Levy disappeared.
It freaked me out. The neighborhood where Levy’s apartment stood was a fifteen minute walk away. She had supposedly disappeared going to explore the Klingle Mansion in Rock Creek Park, an even shorter walk. I prayed it was Condit, because my girlfriend had to walk through our neighborhood by herself. My obsessive research turned up a dozen unsolved murders of DC area women. (There were three times that many murders of young black and Hispanic males, but shh, we’ll not speak of that.)
It’d be easy for me to say that writing about Chandra was a way for me to deal with the anxiety of being in close proximity to such a celebrated murder. And maybe subconsciously it was. However, at the time I was driven by morbid fascination as much as anything else. Those Chandra pieces are sensational, almost to the point of being gleeful. Most true crime writers say they’re looking for answers. But I think a lot of non-fiction crime writing is simply grave robbing. I was picking at Chandra’s decaying bones to serve my own prurient interests. That everyone else was as well shouldn’t really excuse me.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, her actual corpse was rotting not quite two miles from the apartment where I lived, just a few hundred yards off Beach Drive, my favored route when driving to and from Nacho’s place. Jezebel and I discussed how close or how far Chandra’s remains might be from us. We wondered what happened. Looking back now, I realize our relationship decomposed in tandem with Chandra’s remains. Then events of September came and went, and Chandra was forgotten. By the end of that magical year of 2001, Jezebel and I were through, I had left DC, and depending on the conditions, Chandra’s corpse was likely in the last stages of decomposition if not already bones.
When they found her remains in May 2002, it barely registered as news. By that point, the world had changed for everybody except maybe Gary Condit whose political career was in shambles, and Chandra’s parents whose lives were similarly shattered. Ingmar Guandique, a twenty-year-old Salvadorian already in jail for assault, was charged with Chandra Levy’s murder in March 2009. On November 22, 2010, another famous anniversary, Guandique was found guilty. In February 2011, he was sentenced to sixty years in prison. During sentencing, Guandique insisted he was innocent. Who knows?
H Street Northeast is still a mess, but the city officials tell us it’ll be beautiful one day.
Southeast is still a mess, but no one talks about that.
On May 1, the tenth anniversary of her disappearance, The Learning Channel will air Who Killed Chandra Levy?, a docu-drama that “weaves dramatizations with original on-camera interviews with those close to Levy and the crime.” I guess there’s still enough flesh on her bones to pick at.
Great Society is still here after ten years. In some ways, the original “A Nightmare in DC” pieces gave us permission to write about more than juvenile MAD magazine style insanity. Being who we are, I’m sure the page would have eventually gone in a more serious direction. However, Chandra Levy’s murder was the impetus that drove me to take that first step. It’s not much if you’re looking for positivity out of tragedy, but it’s something.
So Happy Anniversary, Chandra… from one Rotting Corpse to another.