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For every action at Branch Avenue and Erie Street SE, there is frequently an equal and opposite reaction into Lloyd Davis’ retaining wall.
The proof is in the driveway. Davis, a former D.C. Parks and Recreation employee of “you guess” age, has a hunk of wall partially blocking his car’s egress onto Branch Avenue. Scattered around the boulder like orbiting moons are smaller lumps of rock. Davis bends down to pick up a piece of the wall, then tosses it onto the lawn that flows down from his two-story Hillcrest house. “I’m trying to save every bit of it,” he says. “Save money.”
In the past 10 years, the retiree’s wall has been hit by an average of two cars per year. From its northern tip on Branch ’round its horn on the corner to its southern face on Erie, the thigh-high stone barrier is cracked and crumbling and so patched with mortar that parts of it look like vertical sidewalk. It used to fit in with Hillcrest’s wealth of stately stone walls. Now it looks like a Civil War relic, something blasted and overrun by a raging enemy.
“All these are hits along here,” says Davis, pointing down the wall. “They’ve been hit twice over, sometimes.” The last time he fixed the wall, a car knocked it apart a week later. “Two neighbors said, ‘I thought you just put that wall up.’ I said I did, and they laughed. It gets to be quite a conversation piece.”
Friends and acquaintances who greet Davis are no longer contented with a passing hello. Now they want to know about the wall. “They say, ‘How is your wall?’” Davis says. “Sometime I don’t remember the names, but I know they must be living in the area: They know me. ‘How is your wall? How is your wall?’” Nobody else’s wall in Hillcrest enjoys such popular attention. As if to reinforce the fact, the damage on the Branch Avenue side ends exactly at Davis’ property line.
Davis, who’s lived on the corner since 1968, doesn’t know exactly why cars love to ram it, but he thinks speed explains a lot. The limit in front of his house is 25 mph, but traffic through the intersection, according to a 2003 study commissioned by the D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT), averages 38 mph. Davis describes how cars rush up Branch toward downtown, or fly down the avenue on its plummeting slope toward Maryland and encounter local traffic pulling out from Erie Street. At that point, wayward cars often whack into each other and spin away like billiard balls.
“They hit each other, and then the car, at such a speed, is ricocheted into the wall,” says Davis. “Or wherever.”
“Wherever” includes the property of Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray, who lives directly across from Davis. “I had one situation probably 10 or 12 years ago where a car went through my front yard, across my driveway, through my fence, and finished up halfway into my back yard,” says Gray. The driver explained that he had been cut off.
DDOT logged 39 accidents at the intersection between 1997 and 2002, and whenever a skidding auto jumps the curve, locals gather to commiserate about their plague of reckless drivers. One woman, now deceased, would even rush out after each crash to cover the wounded with a sample from her perpetual stock of blankets. Robin Marlin hadn’t lived on Erie Street for one week before a car hit Davis’ wall at full speed. Marlin joined the swelling crowd around the wreck. “The people were taken away in an ambulance,” she says.
Davis is rarely in attendance at these impromptu meetings of the Hole in the Wall Gang. “Sometimes I wonder why he doesn’t come out. I guess he’s disgusted,” says Marlin, now an advisory neighborhood commissioner. “I knock on the door sometimes and say, ‘Mr. Davis!’ And then he’ll finally come out.”
Davis says he can see all he needs to from his hilltop abode. “Most time, they can’t go anyplace, because the car is so damaged,” he says. A Cadillac Escalade once rammed the wall so hard its engine was shoved into the cab. “I look at them, and I just hope that nobody died.”
But there’s one perennial victim that never gets whisked away by emergency vehicles or tow trucks. After the hubbub dissipates, Davis comes down to the street to collect the pieces of his wall, which he places out of traffic’s way. Later, he might examine the accident report to find the name of the person who demolished his wall. Sometimes insurance covers it, and sometimes the perpetrator denies everything. “They say, ‘Well, I didn’t do it!’” Davis says. “I just leave it alone, because I don’t want to argue with anybody about those accidents.”
Instead, Davis used to go to a quarry in Maryland and buy loads of surge rock and then swing by the hardware store for mortar. Since he started rebuilding the wall himself last summer, on the recommendation of his insurance agent and after pumping about $5,000 into professional contractors, he’s become quite an accomplished stone mason. He learned, over the course of three repair jobs, that when the wall takes a significant blow, it fractures many feet down from the site of impact. “It cracks the stones,” he says. “Sometimes you can use them, but you have to glue them back together.”
Fiddling with rocks is not the way Davis would prefer to spend his retirement. He says he’s been bugging the city for years to do something about the kamikaze cars. “We are so—I want to say ‘lucky’—that someone hasn’t been pinned against this wall,” he says. A police officer suggested he build a second wall in front of his wall, but Davis declined, thinking he’d be liable for injured drivers. He says a stoplight or speed bumps would do fine.
DDOT has another plan: A wide, painted median strip and high-visibility crosswalks are scheduled to appear on Branch Avenue this week. “Narrowing the travel lane will give people a better sense of the width of the roadway, which will lower the speed,” says Douglas Noble, the city’s chief traffic engineer. Neighbors also report seeing a police speed trap on the avenue.
For the wall’s sake, the measures had better work: Davis has decided he’s no longer going to play doctor. There’s been no lag in accidents to suggest the road ahead is anything but a semiliterally Sisyphean ordeal. The last time the wall was hit, this past spring, there weren’t even two vehicles involved: A group of kids stole four tires off a neighbor’s car, peeled away in their own ride, and somehow became stuck on the wall—dislodging the boulder that now rests in Davis’ driveway.
So Davis is letting the wall rest in pieces. It’s ugly but still functional: Cars have yet to tread on his doormat.
“It’s a good wall,” he says. “The wall serves its purpose.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.