They called it Blood Alley. On Ridge Street, in a block of gutted and crumbling row houses in Washington, D.C., about 300 junkies used to gather every day to sell stolen goods, buy heroin and dope themselves in filthy, rat-infested “shooting galleries.” At night, hookers leaned in dark doorways and thieves stripped parked cars down to metal skeletons. Only a few families lived there, ducking behind triple-locked doors as gunfights broke out on their street. Though just a short walk from the Capitol, this beleaguered by-way made many a blighted neighborhood seem like Sesame Street.
Today Ridge Street has a different look. Stoops are bricked like new and houses painted in pastel colors. Kids play under newly planted sycamore trees. And instead of junkies, 45 or so clean-cut men, often in cowboy boots, jeans and black T-shirts printed “Ridge Street,” roam the block. They are the troops of the area’s unlikely new hero, homosexual Tom Garrette, 33. Tom and his friends gave Blood Alley a new image; now you can call it Gay Street.
In 1981 Garrette, a former building renovator, could no longer afford his soaring apartment rent. So he put $5,000 down on a dilapidated old hotel on Ridge Street and moved there. He lay low for a while, fixing up the place, then realized that Ridge Street’s crime was ruining his life. “I got tired of feeling like a prisoner in my house,” he explains. One day he called the police to complain about six junkies on his doorstep. The officer on duty told him, “Mister, I suggest you sell the house and get the hell out.”
Garrette refused the advice. Armed with a telephone instead of a gun, he decided to make law and order work. For 18 months, Garrette spent up to four hours a day calling city agencies again and again to demand help. When police accused him of exaggerating the violence, he brought in photos of a bleeding gunfight victim.
By 1982 Ridge Street began to see the results of his extraordinary doggedness. The city tore down some un-salvageable drug dens and stationed narcotics agents in homes along the street to stake out drug deals. “He was the most persistent person about getting some action,” says police Sgt. Allen Marshall. “For a long time he was a Lone Ranger out there.”
Garrette’s dedication wasn’t always appreciated. He found a bullet hole in the third-floor window from which he often spied on pushers, and in August 1982 someone set his house on fire. He doused the flames before they caused major damage. “The junkies threatened to torch me constantly,” says Tom. “I’d just say to them, ‘Knock yourself out, sucker. I’m insured to the teeth.’ ” Garrette even heard about a junkie’s plot to kill him. He thought it was just talk but, to be safe, fought hot air with hot air. “I had a friend plant a story that I had recently been released from St. E’s [St. Elizabeth’s Mental Hospital] for killing somebody. A little later this junkie yelled at me, ‘You’re a crazy mother!’ I said, ‘Yes, but I haven’t killed in six months.’ ”
Not everybody was as flippant about the threats. Says dockworker Albert Herring, a lifelong resident and Tom’s next-door neighbor, “For a long time I didn’t think he was going to make it.”
“Beneath this calm exterior beats the heart of a mad redneck,” says Tom of his persistence. Even so, Garrette, who is openly homosexual, decided to call in reinforcements. Realizing that women and children couldn’t battle Ridge Street’s lowlifes, he encouraged other gay men to buy and rent on the block. “Couples and families took one look at the street and blanched,” says Garrette. “Gays are the only ones who would risk their lives to move in. I don’t know who coined the word sissy, but that’s a myth.”
Gay white men now make up about 40 percent of the street’s 120 residents; the rest are black families. This change doesn’t thrill all of their neighbors. Some don’t like their kids growing up among homosexuals. Others fear the gay crowd will cause rent increases that will force the poor out. A rent refugee himself, Garrette tries to calm their fears. When Albert Herring ran out of cash because of his wife’s hospital bills, Garrette took up a collection to pay their rent. That kind of deed breeds tolerance. Says Herring: “Some people complain about homosexuals, but I don’t judge Tom. God’s got to judge him. Tom respects me and mine. I respect him and his friends.”
The son of a building contractor in the rural Virginia town of Farmville, Garrette has found good use for the carpentry he learned as a boy. He shares these skills with neighbors while completing work on his second Ridge Street home, a two-story town house where he lives alone. Since moving, he has gotten by on the money he earned in rent from apartments, renovation work for neighbors and the 1 percent commission he gets for arranging house sales.
Frank Wright, a 20-year Ridge Street resident, recognizes the change Tom Garrette has brought to the block: “Nobody’s been cut, shot or hurt. And this is an area where at one time no white person—not even a cop—would walk alone down the street.” Bob Almstead, a gay cop and new resident, sees another advantage. “I don’t have to worry about neighbors who don’t like my life-style,” he says. “I feel total freedom here.” But most blunt about the changes is Mildred Lee, a 45-year-old domestic, who sweeps Gay Street’s sidewalks as her contribution to the renewal. Ask her why she does it and she answers, “If Mr. Tom hadn’t moved in with a lot of other nice people, I guess I’d be dead.”