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District politicos say the memorial to Boss Shepherd has spent enough time in exile.
Twenty-two years is a long time for anyone, much less a Washington aristocrat, to live near a sewage-treatment plant. But sandwiched between the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant and the Metropolitan Police Department impound lot stands the statue of Alexander Robey “Boss” Shepherd, the former governor of the District of Columbia.
On the edge of his concrete base sits a Weber charcoal grill that city workers use when the weather breaks.
It’s hardly a fitting scene for a towering 19th-century icon whom history books treat as a crooked hero, a corrupt warrior who somehow saved D.C. Decades ago, local reverence for Shepherd ran high enough to place his statue in front of the District Building on Pennsylvania Avenue. Then the feds ripped up Pennsylvania Avenue, sending Shepherd into exile.
And in the best tradition of the Soviet Union, the city is now preparing to rehab its fallen scoundrel.
“It’s time we bring him back, in part because he would be the only homegrown District figure to grace Pennsylvania Avenue,” says Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham. “I think it will be a while before anybody constructs a statue of Marion Barry.”
Graham is pressing Mayor Anthony A. Williams to place the statue by the refurbished John A. Wilson District Building. Moving the statue from Blue Plains, says Graham, would cost just a few thousand dollars, mainly in cleaning costs. The councilmember says he decided to take up the Boss’ cause after talking to members of the Association of Oldest Inhabitants, a stodgy, pro-Shepherd group that is also pushing for the reopening of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House.
Tony Bullock, Williams’ communications director, says there’s no room for the Boss at the building. “The District Building is no longer a workable option, but there are hundreds of potential sites where Shepherd could be installed,” says Bullock, proffering the area around One Judiciary Square as an alternative.
The mayor, says Bullock, doesn’t want to put Shepherd ahead of other figures worthy of a prominent spot. “The statue would be the only one in front of the District Building,” says Bullock. “I’m not sure we want to make such a strong statement.” Locational issues aside, Williams has agreed to find Shepherd a new perch.
At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson thinks the Boss should get his old spot back: “History is a difficult thing. I don’t think it’s necessarily appropriate in this case to rewrite history and closet somebody for bad deeds when at the time he was, in fact, considered a hero.”
For many D.C. old-timers, the statue summons a painful earlier era of federal intrusion into local governance, says William Brown, president of the Association of Oldest Inhabitants. Brown says Shepherd—who was the last appointed governor before Congress replaced the city’s tenuous self-governance with a system of commissioners, in 1874—should be honored regardless of any prejudices surrounding his role in federal oversight, primarily because he represents the District’s own old-school Tammany Hall lore.
Bill Rice, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Works, says that if the mayor doesn’t want Shepherd, his colleagues at a nearby facility are happy to keep barbecuing with the old man.
“We’d be sorry to see it go, because something like that brings historical continuity to our operations down there,” Rice said. “But we’re looking forward to working with any groups interested in moving it, if Mayor Williams and the council should decide to do so.”
As he looks out onto the impound lot, Shepherd these days is beginning to show his age. His bronze complexion has turned green, his eyes dark, looking somewhat confused and out of place in the industrial lot owned by the city. A worker at the DPW facility who asked that her name not be used concedes that the statue looks awkward, but says that most employees appreciate the character it brings to the workplace.
Once it landed at Blue Plains, the statue fell into an “out of sight, out of mind” oblivion, says Nelson Rimensnyder, the former director of research for the House of Representatives Subcommittee on the District of Columbia. And with city politicos spending the ’80s and ’90s grappling with one crisis after another, the Boss’ plight didn’t exactly move up on city hall’s agenda.
Shepherd was originally a public-works czar under the first territorial governor of the District, Henry Cooke. Shepherd changed Washington from a muddy Civil War encampment to a modern American city, paving streets and constructing sewers, and became governor after Cooke resigned.
Historians say that prior to Shepherd’s improvements, hogs roamed the streets, which would regularly flood to knee-high levels during heavy storms. At the time, a bill circulated through Congress to move the capital to another city, perhaps St. Louis, and foreign dignitaries looked down on the swampy post.
Shepherd’s public-works overhaul saddled the city with overwhelming debt, with many of the outlays going to close friends. The financial shenanigans triggered a congressional inquiry and the subsequent federal oversight that still exists today. “In the past, he has been hung with a stigma that he had become some kind of a symbolic scapegoat, and could be why the city lost home rule,” says Rimensnyder. “But he was in charge, so to speak, so the blame of the financial failings of the city at the time was passed to him.”
Shepherd left D.C. broke and headed to Mexico, where he mined silver. He returned to a parade in the District after many of his improvements had reached fruition, says Rimensnyder.
“It’s really a marvelous parallel,” Bullock says. “He was sort of exiled and thrown away and came back a hero. In the present, the same thing in many ways has happened, and now people want him back.” CP