Ruben Castaneda, who spent 22 years as a Washington Post reporter, uses professional and personal experience in writing a portrait of DC’s Shaw neighborhood during the early 1990s. When he arrived at the Post from Los Angeles in 1989, Castaneda was already an active crack addict who found ample sources for his substance of choice on S Street, as well as plenty of “strawberry” (sex for drugs) prostitutes. However, the subtitle foreshadows a happier ending: After Post-funded stints in rehab and developing a strong twelve-step support system, he winds up healthier and wiser.
In S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in DC, Castaneda tries to tie his own redemption to two other such tales, one of a courageous and determined police officer named Lou Hennessy, the other of the neighborhood itself seen through the lens of New Community Church. Hennessy is making a difference as Homicide Captain when he winds up thwarted and humiliated by a colleague, Larry Soulsby; his triumph is in weathering that ouster and making his way through law school and local politics until his 2005 appointment as a Charles County judge.
The story of New Community Church and its dogged pastor Jim Dickerson has the potential to be most interesting, especially as Dickerson decides not to fight the local drug trade but to cooperate with its kingpin, Baldie. Baldie is a weird, folksy character who spends his days in a lawn chair, hosts annual barbecues for his customers, and sends his two young daughters to the church children’s program. An entire book about these two men and the dynamic between their purposes would be fascinating, especially given the fact that Dickerson and his church continue an active ministry in Shaw today.
Castaneda, however, wants to weave a much bigger story, and winds up including lots of material about notorious DC mayor Marion Barry and how his addictions affected District politics for decades, material that doesn’t help the progress of the stories already told. The “decades” involved are a problem, too: While the 1990s are carefully covered, there is a huge gloss over the near decade and a half since then, as if S Street rose and then sat on a plateau. Overall, this book works best a memoir with reportage rather than a tightly focused piece of literary journalism.