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The strip where District drivers end up in construction hell

It’s like one of those drawn-out breakups. You’re headed out of town on New York Avenue. And the avenue, with its badly timed lights and traffic clusters, won’t let you go. It throws up cheap motels and tire shacks just to keep you distracted. It throws up more red lights than Amsterdam. And then…you reach the point of liberation: the food court that is the Bladensburg Road intersection.

It feels so good. You can see actual space ahead, a clearing of clean three-lane road. This last light turns green, letting you go. And go you do. Until you hit the orange signs maybe 100 yards ahead. And then a chorus of break lights. And then you just stop.

You encounter a merge sign warning that the left lane will close soon. You’re down to two lanes. You move at a crawl over uneven pavement, through gravel and orange reflectors signaling you to follow the other orange signs some feet away. If you ever get there.

As you snake two by two over the railway bridge, you only feel more and more claustrophobic. It feels as if the street grips you. The bridge shrouds you with chain-link fence on one side and black tarp on the other. All you hear is the sound of everyone’s car stereos blasting at once.

In another five minutes, you might be done with this car trap. But you probably won’t. You’re on New York Avenue’s construction elbow, the most popular stopping point on the Eastern Seaboard.

The gauntlet of concrete and bad planning has become so much a part of the District that it should be marked on ADC maps. I don’t care if you live in Georgetown or Lincoln Heights, whether you’re an office maintenance worker or a senator, you know this stretch of road. It has swallowed you. And it will continue doing so as long as there is a D.C. Department of Public Works.

Year after year, skate punks will test their skill at Freedom Plaza, the White House will light its Christmas tree, the Redskins will lose to the Cowboys, NIMBYs will fight liquor establishments, and this troubled bend on New York Avenue will stall motorists.

District officials recently announced that the hard hats would soon be finishing up on old New York Avenue. Don’t believe it. New York Avenue will win. It always does. The asphalt moguls have secured squatting rights.

For better or worse, Robert Moses bulldozed whole neighborhoods in New York City in a matter of decades. The District has been working on New York Avenue for 70 years.

How hard is it to widen a few traffic lanes? How hard is it to pave the length of a few football fields? How hard is it to make a bridge not a death trap? Is it too much to ask?

In June 1987, street repairs began along New York Avenue. They are some of the same repairs you see to this day. The same ones that began in 1930. The same ones that began again in the late ’60s. This round, it’s taken 15 years. One official in Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ office jokingly refers to the project as “construction for life.”

Bill Rice, spokesperson for the District Division of Transportation, refuses to disclose the real plans: to keep construction chugging for at least 15 more mayoral administrations. “It’s a big project, and we are planning to end it,” Rice says. “I don’t know the latest date, but it will be this spring.”

Ah, yes, the old springtime pledge.

We and our 120,000 cars per day must accept that New York Avenue is our city’s storage garage for compressors, steamrollers, and barricades. Live with it. Enjoy the informal meeting ritual that is 5 p.m. on Friday, sitting in your car along New York Avenue.

If you don’t like it, the Days Inn charges only $64 a night.

Perhaps the problem can be laid at the feet of the smart chap who in 1920 came up with the idea to suggest extending New York Avenue to the Maryland line, thus making it the official “gateway” to the city.

In September 1930, a $40,000 line item in an appropriations bill kicked off the gateway project, but it didn’t contain funding for orange cones, flagmen, and graders.

In 1953, more than 20 years after that appropriations bill, Congress, the District, and citizens were still arguing over the mess that New York Avenue had become. They settled on building an overpass connecting D.C. to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

Then, in 1957, came another highfalutin concept for the avenue: “Someday in the misty future, if the planners’ dreams come true, New York ave. ne., beyond Florida ave. will be a double-decked superhighway of massive proportions carrying equally massive amounts of traffic going to and from the proposed Inner Loop freeway,” wrote the Washington Post.

The headline for the Post’s story read: “New York Ave. To Be Improved.” Our civic forefathers should have known better.

New York Avenue should never have been any city planner’s idea of prime red carpet. If anything, its history shows that it’s ill-equipped to be the city’s great ingress-egress point. It is not blessed with gorgeous vistas, like 13th Street NW, or marbled sight lines, like 16th Street NW. It’s a strip that doesn’t display the organic swoop and swoon that is I-395. It has no bronze lions. No Jefferson Memorial. No shady Constitution Avenue as its payoff. It has a Checkers.

The city’s grand avenue was never happy with city plans to make it nice. It sprouted potholes and divots in protest. It arranged detours to nowhere—unless you count the entrance to the Washington Times, which hasn’t been a destination spot for readers, let alone drivers. And it managed to form a choke point that nails you just as you think you’ve put D.C.’s ugliest cityscape behind you.

The biggest obstacle to making New York Avenue a manageable piece of roadway sprang from the very folks who insisted on turning the strip into an eyesore in the first place—the merchants. In the ’60s, the liquor-store owners and the motel bosses all attempted to block any improvements on the avenue. They even protested the installation of a 6-foot-wide, 1-inch-thick median strip. One motel owner argued that the median would be a “deterrent, psychologically” to anyone’s renting a room at his joint.

Then there was the fight over the $100,000 worth of thornless honey locusts, Japanese pagoda trees, and glossy privet. In March 1966, the District’s Highway Department announced that it would soon be planting these flora along New York Avenue in an attempt to beautify the strip. The merchants were pissed beyond belief. Wouldn’t these green things block their signage? Wouldn’t this prevent citizens from seeing their liquor stores?

“They promised to screen out undesirable parts of the street,” liquor-store owner Frances Wall told the Post in March 1966. “It seems they think my store is undesirable.”

Wall and the other merchants were battling serious and varied opponents—the Highway Department, their archenemies in the New York Avenue Beautification Committee, the Optimists Club, and none other than Lady Bird Johnson. Yet, the merchants would win.

Do you see any pagoda trees? Do you notice any honey locusts while you sit mired in traffic? No. You notice the bright Days Inn sign. You notice the Times digital clock, running two minutes slow. You remember that D.C. has this place called the National Arboretum. The construction is the merchants’ revenge.

In 1967, the prescient Gilbert Couts of Landover wrote the Post a quasi-travel-essay on New York Avenue. “Left! Right! Left! Right! A Marine sergeant drilling his platoon? No—just a harried motorist going to or coming from work on New York Avenue: navigating detours, dodging barricades, merging first one direction and then another, with two or three other lanes of traffic, and all the while being subjected to such teeth-rattling bumping as undoubtedly takes months of life off of one’s car,” Couts blasted.

“P.S. There is no hurry about publishing this letter,” Couts concluded. “I’m sure it will be equally timely this time next year.” CP