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S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in D.C. Hardcover – July 1, 2014
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When D.C. mayor Marion Barry was arrested for smoking crack, journalist 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
“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.” ―Booklist
“An engrossing portrait . . . . Castaneda writes movingly of the unlikely wellsprings of solidarity and hope in communities that society has written off.” ―Publishers Weekly
“Castaneda offers himself not just as chronicler but as a participant in the larger urban blight and recovery story of DC itself . . . Elegant . . . Scathingly honest . . . A powerful, propulsive, narcotically fueled cri de couer for an entire city.” ―Jerry Stahl, author of Permanent Midnight, in BookForum
“Dramatic . . . Explosive and informed by good reporting.” ―Kirkus Reviews
“It's hard to find a better perspective . . . . This work is a page-turner. Recommended for readers especially interested in the war on drugs or DC and for fans of David Carr's The Night of the Gun or HBO's The Wire.” ―Library Journal
“Castaneda was an addict whose double life would have to come crumbling down. That it did, and S Street Rising chronicles his ordeal and recovery--he's been clean for more than two decades now--while also portraying the nation's capital under the onslaught of an epidemic, drug-fueled crime wave.” ―Penthouse Magazine
“A tense, unflinching chronicle . . . S Street Rising is a gritty and utterly convincing street-level portrait of a dark chapter in the city's history, reflected in the dark mirror of Castaneda's own addiction.” ―Washington Post
“A gritty and utterly convincing street-level portrait of the 1990s.” ―Washington Post, "50 Notable Works of Nonfiction"
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Top Customer Reviews
I lived in the D.C. area when it was the murder capital of the country but I was in a suburb, working and raising a small child, and never came near or knew anyone touched by the crack epidemic. I read about the murder and mayhem in the newspaper from a safe distance.
What a bubble I was in. This book grabs you from the very first page and brings you right into a world I never knew existed -- what a ride. The author tells of his middle class roots, his striving to make it into the world of big league journalism, his descent into addiction and the crazy double life he led, reporting on crime and murders on the night shift for the Washington Post, then turning around and making drug buys in very same open air crack markets he'd covered hours earlier as a reporter.
That alone would be a gripping, harrowing, edge-of-your-set story (and a heck of a movie), but he weaves in the behind-the-scenes roles played by D.C.'s heroic chief of homicide investigations (who was the target of a dramatically described shoot-out at D.C. police headquarters) and a visionary preacher who set up a church on S Street and learned to co-exist with a local drug lord.
Along the way, the author shows what it was like to be a reporter in the competitive and high-pressure newsroom at the Post, draws portraits of a fascinating cast of characters, and gives voice to the people whose lives were impacted first by the drug gangs and violence that infested their neighborhoods, then by gentrification.
The book does all this with vivid, detailed reporting and clever, powerful writing. This story stays with you for a long time. Great job, Mr. Castaneda!
Castaneda gives us the inside story -- in more ways than one. As a crime reporter for the Washington Post, Castaneda had the insider's perspective on the unprecedented ruthlessness of the crack trade and its intersection with what may have been the most inept and corrupt government of any major American city. Castaneda is rightly unsparing in his depictions of Barry and his henchmen (notably former police chief Larry Soulsby) and, with one partial exception, of the dealers who addicted their neighbors and then reaped obscene profits from their misery. But Castaneda also introduces us to Lou Hennessy, a gifted DC homicide cop whose dedicated and creative approach to his job was one of the reasons the epidemic finally broke. And he tells us the story of Pastor Jim, who bought a boarded-up building being used as a stash house and (after giving the neighborhood dealers a chance to move their inventory) renovated it into a church at the crack trade's epicenter, S Street NW, that gives the book its name.
Castaneda's insider perspective goes beyond his day job, though. Even as he was covering the crack epidemic for the city's paper of record, he himself was a crack addict, reporting from the very crime scenes where, just hours before, he had made buys. Castaneda is old-school, refreshingly so for those of us who are tired of reporters who think that they are the story. He does not indulge in what the Booklist reviewer perfectly dubbed the "one-downsmanship" that mars so many addiction memoirs. That's mostly because S Street Rising is so much more than just another addiction memoir. Castaneda uses his personal addiction experience judiciously, to help the reader understand the little picture -- the incredibly destructive power of crack cocaine over the individual user -- even as he is masterfully painting the big picture of an entire city under siege.
Disclosure: Ruben Castaneda and I both live in DC's Capitol Hill neighborhood, and I have known him for about seven or eight years. But even controlling for that bias, S Street Rising is a significant achievement. Those who will not remember the past are doomed to repeat it. Thank you for the reminder, Ruben, and thanks be to God for deliverance -- yours and the city's -- from those days.