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Around 6:40 each weekday morning, at his home on 14th Street NW, Tommy Robinson loads a paint-splotched aluminum ladder lengthwise onto his vintage Ross bicycle. He hangs an old, scuffed white bucket on one of the handlebars, and then he rolls his haul down the sidewalk and through the back alleys of Logan Circle.
His destination is a roughly 12-by-10-foot patch of dirt off 13th Street NW that his family has owned since 1983. There he parks his bicycle, stands his ladder, and sets down the bucket that holds just about everything he might need for the day: some snacks, a small Styrofoam cooler filled with water, and court documents, marked by the District of Columbia Superior Court’s Civil Division, stuffed in a Target shopping bag.
Then, with all his belongings tucked inside, he sits on the open end of the bucket.
With the exception of brief bathroom and lunch breaks, Tommy rarely leaves the bucket until after 4 p.m., when he considers the workday over. He has no radio or television on his lot, and he never brings anything to read. For the most part, he just sits there. On cold days, he’ll sway on his bucket or occasionally walk down the alley to generate some heat. When rain or snow threatens, he wears a heavy-duty plastic bag with holes for his arms and head punched through. On his head, he wears a thick hunter’s cap and tops it with a green hard hat.
Tommy says he sits on his lot all day in order to protect his land from trespassers. In one hand he holds an old Vivitar camera loaded with film, to document any perceived invasion, and in the other he keeps a Manila folder to block the sun when he takes photographs.
His 124 square feet of property are enveloped by a construction zone where hard-hatted workers are erecting a 10-story, 292-unit luxury apartment complex that will someday be known as the Jefferson at Logan Circle. The developers of that building never managed to obtain Tommy’s land.
Last year, when most of the work was going on below ground, Tommy liked to climb his ladder and peer down over the barbed-wire fence to watch the workers as they laid out the subterranean parking decks. Nowadays he spends most of his time gazing at the activity overhead, watching dual cranes swing high above the neighborhood, seeing how the workers plant steel rebar and lay cement inside the skeleton of the building.
“I just watch what they do,” he says. “Try to learn a little something.”
It’s all he can do to pass the time. Tommy personally guards his land because there’s no other way to prevent someone from stepping on it. By law, a pocket-size lot such as his, without any street frontage, can hold no new walls or permanent structure of any kind. So he protects it himself. In a part of town where longtime residents have been flushed out by yuppies during the housing boom, Tommy stands as the last holdout against gentrification on his strip—only he has no house there. In fact, his piece of property can barely hold a pickup truck within its borders.
Over the past 12 months of construction, Tommy’s uncompromising vigilance has led to numerous police calls, a hospital run, a civil lawsuit, and general bafflement and occasional hostility from the surrounding workers. But his status as the block’s pariah should come as little surprise: Tommy’s presence has forced the developers to literally build their high-rise around him.
Most workers view Tommy’s presence as either an unnecessary danger or a stubborn show of folly. Some even consider it a calculated plan to cash in. But, as Tommy is fond of saying, “I got my rights.”
Back in the ’80s, Tommy’s tiny lot sat behind a short row of small businesses owned and operated by Shaw locals—a dry cleaners, a tire shop, a liquor store. Leethaniel “School” Vaughn, now 70, used to run the variety store that took up the lot directly in front of the Robinsons’. On afternoons when the weather held, Vaughn and his pals liked to barbecue out back or set up a table and play cards. But whatever they did, they knew better than to step over the invisible line and onto Tommy’s property.
“He’d come over and say, ‘Stay off my property—that’s private property,’” recalls Vaughn. “He didn’t even want you to walk across the thing.”
Tommy worked blocks away, at his family’s novelty shop on 14th Street, but to Vaughn’s laid-back parlor it seemed he was always lurking around the corner. On any given afternoon, Vaughn and his friends were liable to see Tommy come coasting down the alley on his bicycle to straighten up his land, pick litter out of the grass, and kick off any winos who’d decided to imbibe a pint on his property.
There are thousands of lots like Tommy’s around the city, some as teensy as a square foot; they’re created when the owner of a zoned subdivision lot sells off a small patch of his land. The city dumps hundreds of these subsequent lots each year on prospecting parties at tax auction. The new owners of these patches are often disappointed to learn, after they’ve applied for a building permit, that they can’t put anything on such a lot.
Tommy’s piece of land was so small that some neighbors didn’t even know it was a stand-alone parcel until the Robinsons purchased it in 1983. They paid $63.82 for the vacant spit of grass, which looked as if it could serve no purpose other than as a parking space. More often than not, the only thing to be found on the Robinsons’ land was Tommy himself, according to Vaughn. Even back then, when there was virtually no activity behind those buildings, Tommy could sit there on his bucket all day long.
It seemed there was no greater insult to his sense of landowner rights than for someone to leave a parked car on his family’s lot. So, according to Vaughn, in the mid ’90s, the Robinsons installed a set of four hulking steel I-beams straight into their earth to ward off would-be parkers.
Those same four beams still stand today on the Robinsons’ land, lined up along the roughly 150-inch length of the plot. They reach about waist-level and look as if they wouldn’t come out of the ground by any means less powerful than a bulldozer or a backhoe. The beams are spaced equally apart, and each bears one of two warnings painted down its face: “NO TRESPASSING” or “NO PARKING.”
But illegal parking is no longer much of an issue for Tommy. The small shops that once dotted the block were demolished over a year ago, after all of the Robinsons’ neighbors sold their parcels, big and small, to the developers who are now building the apartments. The small businessmen such as Vaughn, who worked that strip for more than two decades, packed up and moved elsewhere, making room for the new professionals sweeping through the area.
According to James Duncan of JPI, the Texas-based developers, his firm spent around $16 million to acquire the land they’re building on at 13th and M Streets. It seems everyone took advantage of the long-awaited payday except the Robinsons.
Neither the Robinsons nor JPI will reveal the details of their negotiations, but apparently the two parties never came to a suitable arrangement for the patch of Robinson land. The property was assessed for the year 2005 at a value of $3,590, but workers at the JPI site say the developers made the Robinsons offers in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, just to avoid having to design their 292 apartments around the family’s vacant lot.
“My only understanding is that there was some opportunity for their piece of property to be purchased,” says James D. Sadowski, a lawyer representing the builders. “[The Robinsons] demanded an amount that was far in excess of what any individual would have paid for it.”
In an interview, William “Bo” Robinson, brother of Tommy and one of the personal representatives of the estate of their father, Jack Robinson, says there were problems with the developers’ proposed contract. “The way it read, we couldn’t sell,” he says. Tommy allowed himself to be interviewed for this story, but he wouldn’t answer most questions pertaining to the development or his sit-in.
Whatever the family’s reasons for holding out, nothing stopped the developers of the Jefferson from moving forward with their site plans. According to the Web site of Torti Gallas and Partners, the Silver Spring architectural firm credited with the Jefferson’s design, “The plan for the Jefferson at Logan Circle is C-shaped, containing an elaborately detailed private courtyard in its center, with a fountain and lush plantings.” The Robinson property is tucked inside that “C,” between the building itself and the courtyard.
Adam J. Sterner is the landscape architect who designed the courtyard. Sterner downplays what he describes as the Robinsons’ “outparcel” abutting the apartments’ greenery. “I’m not going to discuss this a lot,” says Sterner. “[The Robinson parcel] had obvious implications. JPI’s a good client, and we did a great job. Urban development always has intricacies and outparcels that don’t belong to the site, so you work around them. It was just another piece of the puzzle.” Sterner adds that he thinks the Robinson lot was more problematic for the architect of the building. The folks at Torti Gallas and Partners declined to comment for this story.
In addition to their own parcel, the Robinsons may deserve credit for preserving another bit of original Logan real estate. Leading to their land is an otherwise useless 45-foot public alley, which, had the Robinsons relinquished their own property, the city might someday have been able to transfer to the developers in exchange for property taxes. But, because the city must allow a landowner access to his land, the alley is likely to remain intact for the benefit of the Robinsons, who make good use of it. Tommy travels down it nearly every day.
Tommy was camped at the construction site last year when it was just a hole in the ground the size of a small city block. He’s been showing up nearly every day since, as it’s gradually evolved into the three-story steel-and-concrete skeleton that stands as of press time. His resilience has earned him a nickname among some of the immigrant construction workers who surround him on working days: Casco Verde, or “Green Hard Hat.”
Tommy’s a shy man in his 60s who hides behind a bushy gray mustache and thick glasses. He rarely talks with anyone at the work site, and his quiet diligence hasn’t exactly endeared him to the laborers. It wasn’t long after the builders broke ground that the tiffs started to unfold:
•According to a lawsuit filed by the Robinsons in D.C. court, Bo and Tommy allege that the construction crew removed a cemented metal pole from their lot last May. About a week later, the Robinsons retained a licensed surveyor, who staked the boundaries of the land to prevent any future trespasses. They paid $1,940.50 for the service. The upended metal pole and its concrete base still lie on Tommy’s plot.
•Last summer, the construction crew draped the chain-link fences separating them from Tommy with a green mesh covering, presumably to better shield themselves from Tommy’s probing camera. Construction workers would later complain that Tommy’s flash photography after dark caused them to see spots.
•In the fall, the builders brought in their two cranes. Around the same time, the D.C. police started to field calls from the Robinson family, who claimed that the construction crew was violating their property rights by swinging a boom over their land. “They’ve called several times about violations of their air space,” says Lt. Mike Smith, who heads up patrols in the neighborhood.
•Later, in October, an ambulance was called to the site. The crane operator was working with a load of steel rebar near Tommy’s lot one afternoon when, according to workers who witnessed the incident, Tommy walked off his plot, into the public alley, and deliberately stood beneath the load. The Robinsons claim he was pushed beneath it. Whatever happened, someone from the nearby Washington Plaza Hotel called the police, and Tommy was hauled off to D.C. General in an ambulance, according to court documents. The Robinsons believe the construction workers persuaded the police to take Tommy in for psychiatric evaluation rather than medical attention.
•This winter, the construction crew literally put a roof over Tommy’s head, to protect him from materials that could fall as the floors started to stack above him. The plywood boards have served as Tommy’s only shelter from the elements since construction began.
The occasional incident notwithstanding, Tommy’s sit-in is no public spectacle. For one thing, a visitor has a hard time finding Tommy’s lot without at least rudimentary directions. The Robinson lot is tucked deep inside the construction site, past the cement mixer and the pickup trucks, where the pavement ends and the small patch of Tommy’s dirt begins.
The first time I walked down that alley, Tommy must have been tending to other business. Bo was guarding the lot in Tommy’s absence. When I approached him, he raised a flat hand to my face, in the international sign for “halt,” and advised me to step no farther. I shouted over the groan of the generators that I wanted to know more about whatever it was he was doing. He invited me to leave a phone number, and then he gave me fair warning that he was going to take my photograph to document our encounter. He raised an old point-and-shoot camera to his eye and snapped a photo.
The parcel within the Jefferson site isn’t the first bit of Robinson property that the family has fervidly defended. A 1968 photo from the Washington Post shows the Robinson boys guarding their father’s 14th Street shop, Monarch Novelties, on a summer day when business owners feared a reprise of the riots that had devastated the neighborhood earlier in the year. Standing inside their storefront, with children’s stuffed animals hanging innocently over their heads, Tommy dangles a pistol over his knee and Bo stands with a shotgun half-drawn.
Tommy has lived above that shop, in his father’s house, since he was a teenager in the ’50s. One of 11 children, he’s spent most of his life helping the family run their carnival-supply business—“Dad caught the carnival bug when he was 13,” says Tommy—and for decades they’ve been supplying whatever market there is in the District for giant inflatable crayons and oversized clown eyeglasses. His brother Douglas, an even greater eccentric with a mountaineer’s long gray beard, can usually be seen sitting still through the Monarch’s window, amid the pink and blue stuffed animals. Somehow the Monarch has survived as other old-school businesses have been taxed out during 14th Street’s transformation into an urban-chic commercial strip. But whatever the Robinsons’ trick is to surviving revitalization, it doesn’t involve courting walk-in traffic: Curious window-shoppers need to be buzzed in by Douglas before they can even enter the store.
Over the course of three weeks in February, one of the Robinson brothers was guarding their parcel at the construction site each time I stopped by. It was almost always Tommy. According to workers at the site, it’s been that way ever since they started the project. He sits there silently in the din of electric saws and cement smoothers, just watching the work around him. He has time to notice the little things, such as the team of sparrows now building a nest inside one of the slats of his roof.
Tommy sat on his bucket through the 90-degree-plus dog days of July and August, and he was still sitting there when the temperature plunged into the teens this winter and gusts of wind howled through the structureless site at up to 40 miles per hour.
“The wind is the real hard part,” he says. “The snow isn’t so bad.”
On the coldest days, he wears up to five shirts, four pairs of pants, and three pairs of socks. During a storm in January, he let the snow fall down on his hard hat and shoulders as the construction workers watched and shook their heads.
Tommy knows the end of the day is near when the crane operator dumps the bucket to drop any residual cement in the dumpster and workers start to coil the wires and put them into metal lockboxes. Tommy usually doesn’t leave until the operator has made his long descent to ground level and the workers have cut off the generators. Members of the crew then start walking to their cars, which are parked in a nearby lot. Tommy loads up his bicycle and pushes it back home.
On a wall inside a trailer on the Jefferson construction site hang photographs of Tommy and his relatives standing behind chain-link fences. The photos have that grainy, black-and-white look that always suggests something sinister about the subjects in the frame. Above the photos a piece of paper proclaims: “Robinson Gang.”
The Robinsons could very well be the only network of 50- and 60-something white folks in Shaw whose activities have earned them the label “gang.” And like any group perceived as a conspiracy, they have elicited a level of scrutiny that hovers between overly cautious and borderline hysterical.
On a recent afternoon, Tommy spent his time squatting motionless on his bucket, as usual, while Bo, holding the deed to their lot in his breast pocket, soaked up the February sun in a lawn chair in the public alley. As the two sat close to one another in silence, like two fishing buddies in a boat, a member of the construction team came over to the fence with a video camera.
The amateur filmmaker walked to a spot just a few feet from Tommy. He trained his camera on Tommy for several minutes, his subject not even acknowledging him, and then he walked near Bo and shot similar footage of him. The two camps had started a war of mutual documentation to bolster their respective causes in court.
During a break in his filming, I asked the cameraman whether he’d ever seen a sit-in like the Robinsons’ on a construction site before. “We’ve got a guy in the field who’s been in the industry for 40 years, and he’s never seen anything like this,” he said. “They know they’re in a lose-lose situation. It’s too late to get any money for [the property]. Now they’re just hoping to sue for harassment, or hoping that [Tommy] gets hurt, and then they’ll sue.”
According to the cameraman, who declined to give his name, Tommy’s presence puts an extraordinary strain on the crane operator. The man spends the full workday atop his tower, threading steel loads the size of compact cars between his vulnerable co-workers on the ground. On this particular job, he bears the added tension of knowing he shouldn’t stall his load over the head of Tommy, who sits more or less in the middle of the crane’s compass.
I caught up with the crane operator after one of his shifts in February. At the mere mention of the Robinsons, he reached for a cigarette and started to vent. “I’m here to do my job—that’s it. And I’m gonna do it one way or another, no matter how they try to prevent me. They’ve gotta understand that this building’s gonna be built.” He added, “If you want the truth, they’re fucking idiots.”
Early on in the construction, Tommy’s lot was a rectangular peninsula jutting out over the gaping excavation below. But as the workers moved aboveground this winter, corralling Tommy with the building’s structure and the plywood roof, his parcel increasingly took on the look of a neglected zoo cage. Now the floors are rising rapidly around him, and he appears to be dug in deeper each week.
His refusal to either leave the premises or fully explain himself has apparently driven some workers to irrational fits of anger. In their lawsuit, the Robinsons allege that six weeks ago a construction worker, probably at the end of a long, slow burn, stormed the Robinson lot and stomped the ground, shouting, “I can do anything I want you [motherfucker]; you can’t stop me.”
With that last line, the trespasser was playing on what the workers see as Tommy’s ultimate vulnerability—the fact that he can’t be there at all times to man his lot. One such laborer, who identifies himself by his initials, H.H., revels in provoking Tommy with imaginary late-night trespasses on his land. On a recent workday afternoon, he came bounding down the alley toward the Robinson plot, some building plans in his hand and a grin above his goatee.
“We come at 6 o’clock tomorrow, Tommy,” he smiled. He was just teasing; by law, the crew can’t start work until 7 a.m. Not yet getting the desired rise out of Tommy, H.H. dangled his foot over the property line and shook it above Robinson land. Tommy fumbled for his camera and H.H. laughed.
“I’m out here every morning at 4 a.m., having a party on your land,” he continued. “What, you don’t see footprints on your land in the morning?”
Tommy, as usual, responded with silence. He and H.H. stared at one another for a moment. Then H.H. shook his head, vaguely unsatisfied. He turned to leave.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Tommy,” he said.
On Feb. 18, Bo and Tommy Robinson represented themselves before a judge in Superior Court. Bo, carrying a tote bag stuffed with his belongings, wore a sleeveless fleece over a gray shirt, while Tommy sported a St. Paddy’s Day–green blazer with dark-brown slacks. Bo did all the talking. In a brief proceeding, he asked the judge for more time to find a lawyer. The builders’ lawyers passed Bo and Tommy a couple of informative pamphlets explaining how to act as their own attorneys.
The Robinsons have taken the builders to court to demand rent for the use of their parcel, to the tune of $10,000 per day, starting when the crane first swung over their land last September. The Robinsons have also asked for damages incurred over the course of the construction. Superior Court is familiar ground for the family; they’ve been involved in at least 10 civil lawsuits since 1977.
“I’ve had some pretty bizarre lawsuits come across my desk, but this one really takes the cake,” says Sadowski, the lawyer for the Jefferson’s builders, a few days after the hearing. When the project’s completed, he adds, the Robinsons will have “the best view of the back of an apartment building out of anyone in the city.”
The temporary restraining order against the construction crew the Robinsons requested was swiftly denied, again confirming what workers on the site love to say when asked what they think about Tommy’s sit-in: This building will go up one way or another. Construction on the Jefferson could end by the middle of next year.
But it’s possible the builders would still be willing to pay good money for the Robinson lot, if for no other reason than to make sure Tommy won’t sit on his bucket there indefinitely. That obvious anxiety is best captured by the employee who still shoots surveillance video of Tommy: “After all this is done, is he gonna be back here, making sure no one passes through his land when they’re going through the courtyard? Or will he be here staring at chicks while they’re sunbathing?” Perhaps to avoid the latter scenario, the builders have planned to erect a brick wall between Tommy’s lot and the courtyard.
Tommy won’t comment on what he has planned for the future. But if he guarded his patch when no one but Leethaniel Vaughn and his buddies at the variety store posed a trespassing threat, why wouldn’t he be back there when his land is surrounded by hundreds of luxury apartments rented by young urban professionals, by people new to the neighborhood who might not respect a good property stake when they see one?
The building’s skeleton now rises above ground and comes nearly flush up against Tommy’s lot. It seems altogether possible that someone could someday rent an apartment directly beside Robinson land, perhaps with windows looking out over those four steel I-beams, the kind of sight that makes for hot debate at community meetings. Will those beams still be there once all the construction workers have packed their things and gone?
Says Tommy: “I got no reason to move them.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.