During the height of the crack epidemic that decimated the streets of D.C., Ruben Castaneda covered the crime beat for the Washington Post. The first in his family to graduate from college, he had landed a job at one of the country’s premier newspapers. But his apparent success masked a devastating secret: he was a crack addict. Even as he covered the drug-fueled violence that was destroying the city, he was prowling S Street, a 24/7 open-air crack market, during his off hours, looking for his next fix.
S Street Rising is more than a memoir; it’s a portrait of a city in crisis. It’s the adrenalin-infused story of the street where Castaneda quickly became a regular, and where a fledgling church led by a charismatic and streetwise pastor was protected by the local drug kingpin, a dangerous man who followed an old-school code of honor.
I read a book, yo! I heard about @RCastanedaWP‘s S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in D.C. from a Twitter post by @Questlove. I think there was a link to a book excerpt and I was hooked right away.
When D.C. mayor Marion Barry was arrested for smoking crack, journalist [Ruben] Castaneda was in that hotel’s lobby, phoning in the details to the Washington Post, where he’d recently landed a job, moving from L.A.’s now defunct Herald-Examiner. What Castaneda also brought to D.C. back then was his own crack addiction, and it is a nonchalantly and honestly detailed part of his memoir. While he’s running down the stories and writing them well, he is also getting wasted. D.C.’s S Street is where the drug-selling action takes place, and Castaneda parallels his story with that of pastor Jim, who promises not to rat on the dealers but invites them to church, and that of honest, tough homicide cop Lou. There are scenes in this book that depict people acting in ways that are as low as one can humanly go, but they are related matter-of-factly, almost impersonally. There are also instances of incredible goodness, but the good guys don’t always win. Castaneda’s page-turner, told with easygoing charm and great skill, is an unstinting unveiling of who got away with what and when and how Castaneda followed the action and found himself. –Eloise Kinney
I actually visited Washington D.C. in the summer of '86 and again in the spring of '88. I was on a high school band trip the first time, so most of my memories are of parades, monuments and tour buses. But the trip in '88 was with a college friend who had an aunt who worked as a nurse in D.C., so I saw a bit more of the city. My friend’s aunt would drop us off in the morning and we would explore D.C. for the day and take the Metro home to her house in Virginia in the evening. On one walk to find a cool place to eat for lunch I recall stumbling on boarded up buildings and saying, Uhhh, I think we made a wrong turn.
I was too young, sheltered, and naive to understand the nature of the crack problems at that time, so it was interesting to read this book and sort of fill in the gaps in my own memory.
A really raw and interesting read from a journalist who lived through it. Great stuff. Thanks, Ruben and thanks Questlove!