Q&A: Ruben Castaneda, Author of S Street Rising

Ruben CastanedaIn his memoir, S Street Rising (see LJ 6/15/14, p. 110), Ruben Castaneda recounts his experiences as a crack cocaine user and then recovering addict while working at the Washington Post as a crime reporter in the late 1980s and 1990s. He chronicles both his own struggles and the city’s: following S Street (where he used to buy drugs), in DC’s Shaw neighborhood, from the height of the crack epidemic to the present.

LJ: You’ve seen DC change so dramatically from the book’s opening, in 1989, to today. Do you feel as though it has all been good?

RC: Overall, there are many, many positive changes. Neighborhoods—including S Street—that were once combat zones ruled virtually around the clock by drug dealers—are, for the most part, peaceful. Certainly in the Shaw neighborhood, where S Street is located, there’s been a renaissance in new buildings and businesses being established, a construction boom—new luxury condos and renovations to existing buildings. The flip side to that is [that] longtime residents feel like they have been squeezed out due to higher property taxes and rising rents. Some people who have been there for generations feel like they have to make a decision: to stay or go.

You make the 1994 shooting at the DC police department’s cold case office into a magnetic set piece. It’s also one of the book’s longest. How was this emblematic of the violence wracking DC at the time?

It showed a level of brazenness that was taken to different heights when this gang member, Bennie Lawson, simply walked into police headquarters and started shooting. This is what had been happening on the streets of many of DC’s toughest neighborhoods, and now it had invaded a place that you would think would be the safest office in the city. I also felt that it showed that Lou, Captain Hennessy, was having an impact. The investigation into the triple homicide that preceded the assault at headquarters was homing in on Lawson, and Lawson acted out in the worst possible way.

The city has changed dramatically from that time. People who have moved into DC in the last five, ten, even 15 years, have probably little or no idea just how violent the city was during that period. The massacre at the homicide office rattled a lot of people. But during my time on the crime beat, there was a spectacular attack probably every three or four months. Six kids shot at a public pool in the middle of the day. Nine people shot at the O Street Market. The quadruple homicide on S Street. And other similar attacks. This one was in a different category because it was such an invasion on the safety of the detectives.

Another witness to this change is a figure you profile in your book, Pastor Jim Dickerson of Shaw’s New Community Church.

I actually joined the church in 2010. I began attending S Street Risingservices a few months after I spoke to the congregation on that Easter Sunday in 2009. Jim said I was welcome anytime. He didn’t make it conditional, that is, he continued to meet with me on a weekly basis so I could interview him to get the story of the church, to learn how S Street had evolved over time. I never felt like he would cut off access if I didn’t attend services.

I knew from having spoken there that the church’s congregation was diverse—very unusual for churches in DC. And I couldn’t shake the welcome I received after talking about my life as a drug addict and my role in contributing to the chaos on S Street. I had been anxious about speaking to the church, but the reception from the congregation could not have been warmer. So I wandered into church one Sunday later that year. I didn’t start attending often right away, but by the end of 2009 I was a regular.

In addition to profiling the effects of the drug trade in DC, you’ve also written a lot about police brutality in Prince George’s County, located just over the border in Maryland. Can you give us an update on your work there?

As far as the police department goes, it does appear that the canine unit no longer routinely brutalizes people with police dogs. There are still abuses that occur with patrol officers. One of the last major stories I reported involved a University of Maryland student who was celebrating after the Maryland basketball team had defeated Duke. He was literally skipping down the street when he ran into a phalanx of riot police, some of whom were on horseback, and started to backtrack. A couple of county police officers pummeled him, an attack that was captured on videotape. There were apparently dozens of officers watching, and probably an equal number of civilians standing on the sidelines, which showed that the officers who hit this young man didn’t care who saw. Police officers roughed up other students that night, and some witnesses who took cell phone photos or video told a private investigator that officers destroyed their phones.

You make it pretty clear, using yourself and others as examples, how easy it is to relapse into drug addiction. What is life like now as a nonusing addict with two decades worth of sobriety?

A friend of mine, who is in recovery from alcohol, put it this way: “You were way, waaay out there. And you came back.” I think I’ve grown a lot as an individual. Drugs and alcohol are no longer a part of my life and haven’t been since March of 1992. I no longer engage in the reckless, self-destructive behavior that I describe in the book. I no longer put myself in the position where someone might put a gun to my head, or a gangster might admire my watch and demand that I hand it over. When I visit my family in California, I am present. I don’t disappear for hours at a time because I am binging on alcohol and crack.

For many of the years after my giving up drugs, I think I got a lot of excitement from covering the police beat in DC and the court beat in Prince George’s County. Particularly in Prince George’s, I felt like my reporting was really making a difference. I had a politician thank me—­Rushern Baker, who years later became county executive. Baker, whom I did not know, whom I had never met, thanked me for making the county safer after the county changed the guidelines regarding the canine unit. My stories had positive effects. This was the kind of reporting that meant the most to me. Some editors maybe didn’t quite understand that about me—making a positive impact was far more gratifying than winning awards.—Molly McArdle, Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst

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