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Writer as Witness

Ruben Castaneda chronicles a dark chapter in DC's History—and his own


copy of S Street Rising with sticky notes on it

In 2015, Washington, DC, clocked 119 homicides-a 54 percent increase over the previous year. Although the spike left city officials wringing their hands, the number was still significantly less than in the early '90s, when the nation's capital was also known as the murder capital.

For five consecutive years starting in 1989, homicides topped 400 in DC, often teetering toward 500. The years-long killing spree coincided with another epidemic sweeping the city: crack cocaine.

As a Washington Post crime reporter, Ruben Castaneda chronicled the violence and drugs that ravaged pockets of the District, even as he succumbed to it. He was a crack addict, scoring on the same stretch of S Street Northwest by day that he covered by night for the paper.

Unlike so many Washingtonians in the early '90s, however, Castaneda not only lived to tell his story, but to write about it.

AU's class of 2020 weren't even a twinkle in their parents' eyes when Castaneda was getting high between bylines. And the DC they will call home for the next four years may as well be on another planet compared to the gritty city that greeted Castaneda when he moved from Los Angeles in 1989.

That's exactly why John Hyman, director of the College Writing Program, and his colleagues in the College of Arts and Sciences chose his book, S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in D.C., as this year's Writer as Witness selection: the book weaves the story of Castaneda's addiction with that of a city in crisis. Now in its 19th year, Writer as Witness requires all incoming freshmen to read a "community text" over the summer, which is incorporated into college writing classes, and allows students the chance to hear from the author after the start of classes in September.

"DC is students' new hometown, but the city is so much more than AU's little corner of northwest," Hyman says. "If they're having lunch at a café on U Street, we want them to understand what that neighborhood was like just a quarter-century ago.

"This shared experience also provides a common language, a shared vocabulary for students," Hyman continues. "We hope that the conversations about this book will linger beyond our classrooms."

In addition to offering a window into a dark chapter in DC's history and the life of an addict (Castaneda got clean in 1991), the book also serves as an example of well-researched, meticulously-reported, thoughtfully-crafted prose-the kind of writing to which students should aspire.

When Castaneda, who retired from the Post in 2011, came to campus in September, he offered tips to the budding journalists and aspiring novelists in the crowd, along with those who just strive to get an "A" on their English papers. "Do the work; tell the truth; be resilient; be brave; cultivate friendships with a wide array of people; and don't ever, ever give up."

Words to write by, words to live by.