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Klingle Valley: Is it a road or a park? Up next, with Tim Russert and Tom Diaz

Even a park ranger could be forgiven for thinking that the sign Tom Diaz planted in his front garden in Woodley Park was made to order for the National Park Service. With its brown background and yellow lettering, the sturdy wooden notice bears a remarkable resemblance to Park Service signage found throughout Rock Creek Parkway—that is, until you step closer to read the message: “Open Klingle Rd.! No to Racist Plutocrats.”

Diaz says he spent 15 hours sawing the wood and hand-painting the sign to call attention to some of his well-to-do neighbors who, he says, have been using their influence to promote their own narrow self-interests.

In this instance, the so-called plutocrats are a few hundred residents of the Woodley Park and Cleveland Park neighborhoods who make up the ad hoc Klingle Valley Park Association. The neighborhood association opposes the repair and reopening of Klingle Road NW between Porter Street and Cortland Place NW, an artery that crosses Rock Creek Park and has been closed to traffic since erosion washed out a section of it about a decade ago. The group, founded in 1995, would like to see the unused roadway turned into a permanent hiking and biking sanctuary.

The effort to keep Klingle Road closed has been spearheaded by Meet the Press host Tim Russert, who helped found the association and has staged cleanups in the unofficial park. The pro-park campaign got a big boost from Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory, who in 1995 weighed in with a piece applauding the struggles of her “high-powered” neighbors to persuade the city’s chief engineer, Gary Burch, to at least consider keeping the road closed permanently.

For the next five years, the District’s financial woes rendered any plans to reopen the road moot—the transportation budget for such an undertaking simply wasn’t there. But now that the city has a rosier financial picture, the old combatants are once again taking up their positions.

Russert could not be reached for comment, but his spouse, Vanity Fair scribe Maureen Orth, says that the battle to keep the road closed acts as a loom that knits her neighborhood together. “Everybody walks their dogs there,” she says of the valley where she and her husband have picked up trash. “We’ve all pitched in to keep it clean.”

More recently, McGrory has tried to use what influence she has with Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who is ultimately responsible for the fate of the road. “I spoke with him at the [2000] Republican National Convention, and he told me they were keeping it closed,” says McGrory, whose condo overlooks the valley.

That kind of behind-the-scenes lobbying, says Diaz, is exactly what’s been driving him nuts. “This is nothing but the plutocrats trying to keep a windfall that they got to preserve the value of their property. So let’s call it what it is. But the hypocrisy of pretending that this is an environmental issue, in a word, really pissed me off,” he fumes.

Last summer, about 40 residents, chiefly from the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, formed their own ad hoc group, called Repair Klingle Road, in direct opposition to the Klingle Valley Park Association. The Mount Pleasant residents think that it’s time for the city to improve their crosstown commuting options. The open-the-road advocates began meeting weekly and built a large Web site (www.repairklingleroad.org) as a counterpoint to the Klingle Valley Park Association’s equally elaborate site (www.klinglevalley.org). Both sides pumped up the volume with green signs, which began sprouting like spring tulips in yards east and west of the parkway.

Isabelle Furlong, who has lived at 32nd and Klingle for 27 years and served as an early leader of the Klingle Valley Park Association, takes umbrage at the elitist label. “I was there when the road was open and when it was closed. You can pave over parks, but the ability to take back roads to make parks comes our way every 100 years,” she says. “We really think we need more parks and less roads. It’s as simple as that.”

For about 10 years, the city had no road money at all, not even the 10 percent it needed to qualify for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 90 percent contribution. “There was money earmarked 10 years ago for that,” explains Bill Rice, a spokesperson for the D.C. Department of Public Works (DPW). “But the money was returned to the federal government.” Now that the city is relatively flush, the issue of repairing and reopening Klingle Road is once again coming to a head.

The issue gained traction in June, when At-Large D.C. Councilmember Carol Schwartz held a public hearing on the future of the road, and on Nov. 30, the process will accelerate when the DPW’s Division of Transportation holds a five-hour public meeting at the Reeves Center of Municipal Affairs to discuss nine possible uses for the road—including making it a hiking and biking path—examined in an environmental assessment worked up by consultants from the Louis Berger Group Inc.

Rock Creek Park has long served as the geographic analog for the District’s division along class and racial lines. Klingle Valley, a watershed that feeds Rock Creek, connects the two sides of the chasm. And behind the environmental arguments against reopening the road, some open-the-road activists believe, there’s a less noble desire to keep closed a major artery connecting poorer Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant to wealthier Woodley Park and Cleveland Park.

On a crisp autumn day, sunlight dapples the old road through canopies of orange and red leaves, floating from the trees unusually late this fall. Yet the valley is far from the idyllic glen it was when the adjacent landowners deeded it to the city specifically for use as a public highway way back in 1885.

The pavement now is buckled and littered with tire treads and cardboard boxes that form makeshift shelters for the homeless people who sleep here at night. Several cleanup efforts by the Klingle Valley Association have brought the seven-eighths-of-a-mile stretch closer to its bucolic past. But less than one month since the last cleanup, on Oct. 21, nature is losing the battle again. Sure, you’ll find a verdant landscape alive with giant trees, chirping birds, graceful deer, and one of the District’s longest waterfalls—that is, if you can look up long enough from sidestepping the crushed beer cans and spent hypodermic needles that litter the old road.

Furlong adds that the road is dangerous, with “hairpin curves,” and in its current state contributes to drainage problems that erode the valley and pollute Rock Creek. She says today’s runoff might be soaked up by mulch and greenery planted beside a bike path.

But Peter McGee, an attorney who makes his home in Mount Pleasant, agrees with Diaz, although the two men have never met. “It’s not an environmental issue at all. If there’s an environmental aspect, it comes down on the other side, because they’re causing more pollution….It’s all for the sake of people not wanting urban traffic going through their urban neighborhood.”

McGee says he was outraged to learn that the road may remain forever closed. Until Schwartz’s June hearing, he says, his fellow Mount Pleasant residents assumed the cash-strapped District government was simply moving at its usual glacial pace to fix another road. They had no idea that alternatives to reopening the road were being worked up in an assessment by the Berger Group.

“It all comes down to a little group of people who live up in the historic Woodley Park area,” McGee continues. “They discovered that it was really nice that there was less traffic going through their neighborhood. So they went behind the public’s back and had the Department of Public Works consider closing the road.”

To hear Diaz tell it, we’re all on the same road to ruin that felled the Roman Empire. “It reminds me of late antiquity, just before the Middle Ages, when everybody started coalescing in their own little centers of power. And we see that in the District, where government is so ineffective that these rich neighborhoods just say, ‘OK, we have to just take care of ourselves and screw everybody else.’ That’s what got to me. That’s the whole story. That’s why I made my sign.” CP