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The questions our readers submit to City Paper’s annual Answers Issue give us some insight into what they’re thinking about, be it development, restaurants, or odd pieces of street art. This year, one question invoked pro-D.C. action from a California senator. Transportation was also top of the mind. Metro’s continuous delays and the federal government’s increased intervention in the District are clearly rubbing off.
So, once again, we acted as researchers and historians to figure out why D.C. television viewers receive three PBS channels, how traffic signals are timed, and what lurks in underground tunnels. Public information officers were called, questions were relayed, and answers were recorded, like an elaborate game of Telephone. Most of this year’s mysteries were solved with relative ease, but plenty more still exist. Until next year, keep wondering about strange building facades, awkwardly drawn streets, and questionable contracts. —Caroline Jones
Are all the new dockless bikes hurting Capital Bikeshare membership growth or ridership?
Counterintuitively, no. Or at least not so far. When five new dockless bike share providers entered the scene in September, it was easy to view them as rivals to Capital Bikeshare, the stalwart docked system with 269 stations throughout the region. Dockless bikes offered cheaper rides and the freedom to leave them wherever you want. But while they offer a different flavor of bikesharing, they’re not proving to be competitors.
According to the District Department of Transportation, not only is Capital Bikeshare ridership up from where it was at this time last year, but their initial analysis suggests that dockless bike share is complementing the existing system rather than drawing users from it. The total number of bike share trips (Capital Bikeshare and dockless bike share) has increased.
But this could still change. During the pilot, each dockless provider can only have 400 bikes, making them relatively inaccessible compared to the thousands of Capital Bikeshare bikes. If the cap is lifted and dockless bikes flood the streets with equal or superior numbers, even the most diehard Capital Bikeshare addict might make the switch. —Brian McEntee
What are the bars and restaurants in D.C. that people who work in the industry frequent when they have time off?
About half a dozen of the restaurant and bar industry pros we asked this question declared Service Bar their favorite place to knock one back after a shift. Classic cocktails like old fashioneds, classic daiquiris, and mint juleps go for $7, and the fried chicken is served in waffle cones. “They know how to have fun just as well as they know how to make great cocktails,” says Maxwell Park’s Brent Kroll. Espita’s Megan Barnes names Lost & Found as her favorite place when she’s craving a beer. She also likes to drink wine at The Red Hen and cocktails at Room 11. Chef Matt Adler of Michael Schlow Restaurants likes hitting Mandu on K Street NW late at night. “I love the fried chicken sandwich and Cass beer,” he says. Other industry professionals we talked to called out Showtime, Tunnicliff’s Tavern, All Souls, and The Gibson.
Why are the stop lights going north on Georgia Avenue so poorly timed? It’s an evacuation route, yet the lights are timed so that you practically catch each one. Why?
The process of determining traffic signal timing, especially on busy routes, is elaborate. According to the District Department of Transportation, Georgia Avenue signals are set to five different plans: a.m., midday, p.m., weekend, and late night. The plans are designed to support heavier traffic volumes during rush hours (southbound in the mornings, northbound in the evenings) and feature what DDOT calls “a more balanced approach” outside of rush hour.
To break down the transportation speak, this means that northbound traffic will get stopped at lights more frequently during the morning rush because fewer vehicles are traveling northbound in the morning. In the afternoon, signals are coordinated in the northern direction so that drivers will encounter fewer stops, but because more cars are traveling north, it might feel as if you stop at signals just as frequently. Midday and evening patterns are designed to make movement easier for pedestrians and reduce wait time on side streets. All of these decisions are made using DDOT’s wealth of traffic data.
Don’t worry about finding an alternate evacuation route. If the big one hits and everyone needs to get out of D.C. quickly, DDOT can also implement different signal timing plans to better direct traffic out of the city. —Caroline Jones
Between K and L streets NW on 14th Street NW, there’s a building with a Brown Bag in it. But look way up high and there’s a weird Roman column area on top of this building. What’s up with that? Is it for rituals, or something else? Is it a helipad? I gotta know!
Sorry. Like many things in Washington, it only appears to be something important. It’s a Tuscan-style bell tower that is neither Tuscan nor a home for bells. “It’s not used for anything,” an office manager told us. Turns out, it’s merely an ornamentation topping off Franklin Court at 1099 14th Street NW, which was built in a mostly postmodern style and opened in 1992. Architecture critic Benjamin Forgey wrote in the Washington Post in 1993 that the tower was part of a movement to break the rigid, square box tops that marked most downtown buildings. Forgey called the tower by architect Arthur May “certainly the quirkiest of the many new towers downtown.” In a recent interview, Forgey allowed that the tower “is one of my least liked.” The building itself, with a striking, segmented, long-marbled lobby, is home to the Washington Design Center and offices for the multinational Caci International Inc., among other businesses. —Tom Sherwood
How do bartenders at bars with many unmarked taps (like Churchkey, the Sovereign, or Anxo) remember which tap is for which beer? There can be 25 taps and the bartender knows exactly which one to pour from.
The bartenders at these havens for beer lovers might have incredible memories, but at ChurchKey, they also get some help from the bar’s point of sale (POS) system. As Neighborhood Restaurant Group Beer Director Greg Engert explains, “We number each and every line, surreptitiously, on the draft tower. With dim lighting, the numbers are hard to see. We then include the tap line number and glassware information in simple code in the bar POS system.” Since the order of operations requires employees to enter beers before they’re served to generate a ticket with the draft line number, the system comes with an added bonus: Nary a beer is left off someone’s tab. —Laura Hayes
Are there any pick-up lacrosse groups for adults in the DMV? I’m fascinated by the sport and would like to learn, but only know of youth programs.
If you’re really committed to lacrosse, check out the DC Lacrosse Club, which formed in 2001 and “give[s] local collegiate and post-collegiate players the opportunity to continue playing lacrosse in the Washington, D.C. metro area.” It features separate leagues for men and women. If you’re more of a novice, check out the co-ed Red Line Athletic Club, which runs field and box lacrosse games in Montgomery County for newcomers over the age of 18. —Kayla Randall
Why does the D.C. area have three PBS TV stations? It looks like Boston has two and NYC has one. (I know universities may play a part in this, but NYC and Boston have a large number of universities just like D.C. does.)
It’s true: D.C. television viewers can watch The Great British Baking Show, Masterpiece, and other public broadcasting favorites on channels 22, 26, or 32. I’ll let the good people at PBS explain why. According to PBS senior director of corporate communications Aparna Kumar, “In the 1950s, the FCC assigned a certain number of noncommercial (public television) licenses to each television market. The Washington, D.C. metro area is one market, and there are at least two noncommercial licensees assigned to this market—WETA, headquartered in Arlington, and WHUT, which is licensed to Howard University. Maryland Public TV, based in Baltimore, is a statewide licensee that also has signals that reach this market, so it is a third channel received by D.C. viewers. Each station is independent and locally owned and operated.” —Kayla Randall
Why did D.C. arborists choose to plant ginkgo trees? (For the record, I absolutely love ginkgoes, and they are a great city tree, but with so much attention and money spent on spraying them, who made the original decision to plant them and why?)
As someone who once lived on a street lined with ginkgo trees, I understand the nose-wrinkling curiosity behind this question well. These beautiful, prehistoric trees drop small pods that rot and emit a wretched smell. Or at least, some of them do.
There are male and female ginkgo trees, and only the females produce these smelly seeds. According to Earl Eutsler, Associate Director for the District Department of Transportation’s Urban Forestry Division, a ginkgo is durable enough to withstand the unique trials cities throw at trees. “It is tolerant of the kinds of conditions that one finds in a city. So things like pollution, disturbance, drought.” These desirable qualities in an ever-changing city made ginkgoes a popular choice among arborists in cities like D.C., New York City, and London. Their heartiness also means that many ginkgoes were planted decades ago, before arborists could tell male trees from their stinky female counterparts.
Arborists have since figured out how to differentiate between male and female ginkgoes. Now, any ginkgo DDOT plants in D.C. is cloned from a “known male.” —Will Warren
Has there ever been an attempt to build a museum to preserve/chronicle the “harDCore” punk scene?
While there has not been an attempt to build a harDCore museum, per se, there have been significant efforts to preserve and chronicle D.C.’s illustrious punk and hardcore history. Specifically, the DC Public Library started the DC Punk Archive in 2015 as a way to “collect, preserve and provide access to primary source materials that document the history and culture” of D.C.’s lively punk scene.
The archive, which is part of the DC Public Library’s Special Collections, includes personal items from past and present figures in the D.C. punk scene. It’s comprised of photographs, zines, books, records, cassettes, CDs, DVDs, videos, live recordings, fliers, posters, setlists, letters, tickets, buttons, and other ephemera. But here’s the downside: You can only view it if you’ve made an appointment. It normally lives in the Washingtoniana Collection at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, but since that library is currently under renovation, you’ll have to head to the Georgetown Library for your dose of hardcore nostalgia. —Matt Cohen
Why do only a few D.C. cabs have rooftop ads? Seems like a high-visibility way to get word out. Some have digital screens, some have normal ads, but most have nothing. Seems like a market niche!
If there haven’t been too many rooftop cab ads out on the streets, expect to see a lot more in the near future. iDigital Media Group, an outdoor digital advertising agency, was recently awarded a contract with the city to ramp up rooftop advertising. These won’t be the traditional static ads, however: The digital screens are 3G enabled and can even be remotely copyedited while the vehicle is out on the road. iDigital Media Group President and CEO Sidney Shelton explains that some of the ad revenue goes back to drivers who opt to install the signs on their cabs. In addition to iDigital, there are two other companies approved by the Department of For Hire Vehicles to install rooftop cab ads, so will more cabbies take advantage now?
What are your best tips for surviving D.C.’s awful humidity?
D.C. is often referred to as a swamp. But I’m here to tell you that I am originally from the actual swamp—the Big Easy, the Crescent City, the Boot: New Orleans, Louisiana. It’s a state so swampy that in certain areas, we need to put up alligator crossing signs—those gators love to cause traffic jams! Compared to the subtropical humid hellmouth of my hometown, where proper air conditioning is quite literally a life and death issue, D.C.’s humidity might as well be a box fan. I am an expert on swamp-like humidity and can actually answer this question. Here are my tips:
Hydrate! It’s important to stay hydrated in general, but especially during the spring and summer months when it’s most humid and your body loses much of its water through sweat. Drink water, people.
Carry antiperspirants with you at all times. This is self-explanatory.
Wear your hair up. If you have longer hair and live in a humid climate, it’s best to pull that hair on up to avoid things like bangs sticking to your forehead, or hair touching your neck, making you feel hot and gross.
Minimize your makeup in the summer. Trust me, it’s not fun to sweat that stuff off and have it run into your eyes.
Carry a portable mini-fan. Those babies were staples for me growing up. Get one that squirts a little water on you while the breeze flows and you’re golden. —Kayla Randall
What are the first three go-go records a D.C. resident should buy, and where can you find them on vinyl?
Ah yes, go-go: the native sound of D.C. that has since been gentrified out. It’s natural that any District transplant who wants to know about the history and culture of the city they now call home will eventually come to go-go. Chuck Brown, may he rest in power, is forever known as the Godfather of Go-Go, but where to start for someone who wants to get into go-go?
I have several opinions on this, but I am in no way a go-go expert. So I reached out to one: Kato Hammond, a D.C. native, go-go musician, and editor and publisher of the online magazine and radio show Take Me Out To The Go-Go. According to Hammond, the essential albums one should acquire as they’re getting into go-go are Rare Essence’s Live at Breeze’s Metro Club; Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers’ Go Go Swing Live; and Trouble Funk’s Straight Up Funk Go Go Style.
Finding these on vinyl, however, might be difficult. A lot of go-go records, like Go Go Swing Live, weren’t ever pressed on vinyl, and hardly any go-go records have been reissued. Live at Breeze’s Metro Club and Straight Up Funk Go Go Style are both fairly cheap and common on Discogs, an online marketplace for vinyl records, but my suggestion would be to just peruse the go-go bins at local record stores. You’re bound to find timeless gems in there. —Matt Cohen
While the Capital Transit Station at Dupont Circle is well known, I understand there are more abandoned platforms and tunnels all over the area. Which are still there, hidden or repurposed?
In part because fringe spaces are so few and far between in straight-laced D.C., the Dupont Underground nonprofit has been able to capture the attention of residents, visitors, and artists over the past few years by turning former streetcar tunnels into public art space. But many of the other subterranean spaces in the District lie under federal buildings. Beneath and around the Capitol alone, there is the Capitol subway system (which senators and members of Congress ride, out of public view); the Library of Congress tunnels (which include the Architect of the Capitol’s offices, a Subway, and a Dunkin’ Donuts); and a passageway that links the Cannon House Office Building with the Capitol (and features art by high school students).
Several blocks west, a 700-foot tunnel beneath the National Mall connects the Natural History Museum to the Smithsonian Castle. This was originally built to help melt snow along the mall through steam ducts. A few more blocks west, a series of tunnels form roots under the White House. One leads to a bomb shelter; another goes from the Oval Office to the basement of the Residence; a third, initially built as a shelter from air raids, joins the East Wing to the underbelly of the Treasury Building; and a fourth unites 1600 Pennsylvania with the Old Executive Office Building. If Elon Musk gets his way, a Hyperloop tunnel will link D.C. to cities along the East Coast, too. —Andrew Giambrone
I live in Woodley Park, and there is a vacant plot of land at Cathedral Avenue NW and 28th Street NW that is marked with a fancy plaque as being the property of the Republic of Benin. Always struck me as weird that Benin would leave a presumably valuable piece of property vacant and overgrown. What’s the story there?
This enigmatic plot of land is located about a block west of the National Zoo, at 2737 Cathedral Ave. NW. And that address, per property records, is considered “retired” for city purposes. A representative for the Embassy of Benin couldn’t be reached, but public documents and Woodley Park residents paint the following picture.
The West African nation and former French colony once known as Dahomey opened a chancery on the plot in the 1960s. It operated there for more than three decades—with occasional controversy. In 1985, the Beninese mission asked the District for permission to build a 38-foot radio transmitter in the backyard of the chancery to communicate with its home country. Neighbors overwhelmingly opposed the proposed structure, and despite State Department support for Benin’s request, zoning officials shot it down.
After an appeals court ruled in Benin’s favor, the NIMBY battle over the radio tower cooled in 1988, when the embassy announced that it was looking to relocate to a larger, newer space. It did so after buying its current property, in 2000, at 2124 Kalorama Road NW. Oldtime Woodley Park residents say one morning in 2007, workers arrived at the Cathedral Avenue site and demolished the prior chancery building. DC Water put a lien of $310.81 in “delinquent water/sewer charges” on the property in 2012, and Benin paid off that debt a year later. The District now assesses the vacant land at almost$1.75 million. —Andrew Giambrone
What is the deal with the black-and-white photos of a young African-American man in a kind of steampunk outfit (retro round glasses, stovepipe hat, overcoat, maybe with an ascot or fur collar) that are pasted on street-corner utility boxes around town? They’ve been there for years, and there are no words or anything to indicate the deal. Was this a street art project, or a bygone promotion, or what?
Around 2010, local artist Steven M. Cummings began putting these artworks around the city. Cummings is the man in the portrait and pasted his mug around town as an act of self-promotion. It’s paid off: His photography has been exhibited at the Anacostia Community Museum multiple times. “If you want to be able to survive as an artist, you have to create some sort of image,” Cummings told Smithsonian Magazine in 2012. “They’re buying into you, what you produce. So once you build that image, then you can produce almost anything.” —Kayla Randall
Why do Car2Gos keep smelling like weed? Especially the 4-door Mercedes option.
After asking Car2Go representative Kelsey why their vehicles often smell like marijuana, she put me on a lengthy hold. Upon reconnecting, she said, “I can’t personally answer that question for you,” and passed me on to the member services department, which never responded. I think it’s fair to say that if you’re renting a larger car, it’s either to do something fun, like go to the beach or out to Korean barbecue in Annandale, or to accomplish something that royally sucks, like going to Home Depot or the mall. A little THC could improve both situations for passengers, hence the hot-boxing. —Laura Hayes
What do the letters mean on Metro bus lines?
City Paper decoded the Metrobus letter and number system in both the 2014 Answers Issue and our “Huh?” Bub column, a strange precursor to the Answers Issue that ran in 2006, which WMATA spokesman Richard Jordan pointed out when we contacted him with this question. Rather than copy-pasting from our archives, though, we’ll explain it one more time.
The letters mean very little. Back in the days before WMATA, both buses and streetcars served D.C. neighborhoods. Streetcar lines were numbered and buses were lettered, starting with “A” in Southeast D.C. and continuing in a counter-clockwise arc. So while it might seem that the X in the east-west-running X2 stands for crosstown, it’s actually just a coincidence. One notable exception is the S line, which runs north-south along 16th Street but falls outside the alphabetical system.
The letters in the 30N and 30S buses do actually have some meaning. These lines, which run southeast from Friendship Heights, have different terminal points. The 30N finishes its run at Naylor Road Station, while the 30S route concludes at Southern Avenue Station. —Caroline Jones
The “Person of Interest” videos that MPD posts are fun to watch but really grainy. How often do they lead to meaningful info?
Considering how frequently those “Person of Interest” videos pop up in the local media, this is a good question. Unfortunately, it seems as though the answer to it isn’t simple. I reached out to the Metropolitan Police Department for an answer, and MPD public information officerKarimah Bilal explained that because “many different units within MPD process tips, there is no percentage of how many of them lead to arrests.” However, Bilal added that “typically, better video quality often produces more tips. The ‘grainy’ videos are sometimes the very best lead we have in a case, and the idea of putting something out is better than putting out nothing at all.”
Though the MPD doesn’t keep track of how many of those tips lead to an arrest and/or conviction, Bilal does say that “you’d be surprised how many people can identify suspects in poor quality videos.” —Matt Cohen
What is the proper pronunciation of Ingraham Street? Is it three syllables to fit in with D.C. nomenclature?
Much is made of D.C.’s street names—the absence of a J street, the presence of cross-cutting avenues that bedevil visitors—but the syllabic nomenclature to which our dear questioner refers may not be front of mind for locals.
Throughout much of the 1800s, the land north of Florida Avenue NW, known as Washington County, was largely undeveloped. Later in that century Congress approved a plan to extend the streets of Pierre L’Enfant’s D.C. up and into the county. A Washington Post article from 1905 alludes to the syllabic nomenclature our questioner mentions: “Until the alphabet is exhausted names of two syllables, alphabetically arranged, are given, and then names of three syllables are selected.” Put more simply, north of Florida Avenue NW you’ll find streets with two syllables like Belmont Street NW and Yuma Street NW. After Yuma, the streets start over at “A,” but with three syllable names. It’s in this part of D.C.—the three syllable part—that you’ll find Ing-ra-ham Street.
D.C. residents agree with history. A non-scientific survey of people on Ingraham Street NW showed that, while many residents had heard the street pronounced both ways, the majority pronounced it with three syllables. —Will Warren
Why do MPD officers have the Capitol on their badges? Shouldn’t it be the Wilson Building? A D.C. flag? Anything more local and less federal than the Capitol!
I, too, bristle at materials that use monuments and federal buildings as lazy shorthand for D.C. at large, particularly when it’s not coming from out of town. The rest of the U.S. might not know what lies beyond the Mall, but District residents ought to know better. That said, we are the seat of democracy, and police officers here are sworn to protect the more than 20 million people that visit us annually, as well as those who reside here year-round. According to the MPD’s public information office, the U.S. Capitol Building was chosen “not only to indicate the District of Columbia’s unique status as our Nation’s Capital, but also to symbolize the free and democratic society that American citizens enjoy and which police officers strive to protect.” —Stephanie Rudig
When will gentrification end?
The person who submitted this question wrote it in all caps. The question warrants it. People dedicate their entire careers to this topic, though none can predict the future.
Find answers in the condition and style of the buildings of D.C., and also the buildings they replaced. Look for clues in the history of each edifice and plot, which you can read in sale documents and rental agreements from present day back to when boundary lines were first drawn on the once-wild land. Topographical maps may hold answers, too. The presence of urban floodplains and highlands often dictate what can—or at least what should—be built in certain areas in the future.
You’ll also need to talk to people: longtime residents who have seen the city change, those who left against their will, those who left wealthy after selling their properties, and those who have moved in.
Saskia Sassen, a professor of sociology at Columbia University, lays out the financial landscape. “Gentrification might diminish a bit,” she says, “but there is an even more negative force: the buying of properties by national and foreign individuals (who just want a luxury place), speculators who are cleansing their money by buying buildings, and financial firms who can make money off luxury buildings even when those buildings stand empty.”
Sassen describes some of her findings in a 2015 Guardian article, “Who owns our cities—and why this urban takeover should concern us all.” Financial data from diverse sources reveal corporate buying of existing urban properties in the billions of dollars for many cities in 2015, with D.C. among the top cities for global property investments.
“Cities are the spaces where those without power get to make a history and a culture, thereby making their powerlessness complex,” writes Sassen. “If the current large-scale buying continues, we will lose this type of making that has given our cities their cosmopolitanism.”
Dr. Mindy Fullilove, a clinical psychologist and professor at The New School, has researched the experience of gentrification for longtime residents extensively. “In the context of an absolute shortage of housing for many income groups, the real estate industry has been able to raise prices, as people compete for limited options,” she says. “In this game of musical chairs, some have no place to ‘sit’ and become homeless. In the cities at the forefront of gentrification, the massive increases in homelessness are startling and tenacious.”
Intervening in this trend involves substantial investments in affordable housing, she says. Many scholars and policy makers concur.
Lily Song, a lecturer in urban planning and design at Harvard, advises taking a hard look at history. “A piece that has really shaped my own thinking about gentrification is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ ‘The Case for Reparations,’” she says. The Atlantic article draws a line from slavery to America’s racist housing policies.
“I would argue,” says Song, “that we cannot begin to tackle gentrification without a reparations agenda of targeted spatial and social investment and deeper reckoning, reconciliation, and healing that not only takes seriously institutional racism but also the moral/ethical deficiency and complicity among Americans who do not know or choose to overlook our collective history of mass plunder and trauma. It would go beyond simply recognizing the profound injustice of politics, business, or urban development as-usual to actually begin unraveling the system from the core.” —Alexa Mills
Why is the street color—and possibly the street type—in front of Metro bus stops (usually white/gray) sometimes different than the adjoining street?
Your eyes aren’t fooling you! The different colored sections of road aren’t extensions of the sidewalk. Some bus stops, especially those where buses might linger, feature pads made of light gray concrete. According to the District Department of Transportation, the concrete is tougher and holds up to oil and other bus drippings better than traditional asphalt. Long-term exposure to oil can weaken the binding agent that holds asphalt together, making the pavement soft and eventually in need of more repairs. —Caroline Jones
Why won’t Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California) support D.C. statehood, unlike her other Congressional Black Caucus colleagues?
In response to an inquiry by City Paper, a spokesman for Harris says the ex-California attorney general supports S. 1278, the currently pending Senate bill to make the District a state. Harris has favored the bill “for a long while,” according to the spokesman, and, as of Wednesday, her name has been formally added to it as a co-sponsor.
Harris’ absence from the legislation, which Sen. Tom Carper (D-Delaware) proposed, had puzzled many Democrats, especially since she’s a Howard University graduate and has a reputation as a reliable progressive. (An identical House bill led by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Nortonrecently achieved support from more than 75 percent of House Democrats.) The Senate legislation now has more than 20 co-sponsors. One of them is Harris’ fellow Congressional Black Caucus member Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Carper proposed the present version of the bill in May 2017, and Harris met with statehood advocates the following month. It would rename D.C. “Douglass Commonwealth” and give us two voting senators and one voting representative. Given that more than 90 percent of District voters opted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 race, Democrats would almost surely fill these three seats. —Andrew Giambrone