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The standard neighborhood story involves valiant busybodies trying to drive some messy schmo out of their cozy little corner of town. Not all schmoes, however, are created equal.
On a March Friday, a dozen housing inspectors from the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) and a cameraman from Channel 16 descend on a house on 15th Street NW. The house is shedding paint and is partially hidden behind a pile of bloated black garbage bags. A shopping cart sits chained to the stair rail, while pieces of wood and old flowerpots litter the lawn. “Can anyone tell me whether this is a nuisance property?” asks Ronald Duke.
Duke is busy training the employees to gear up for the District’s new Clean City program, under which DCRA inspectors will become “neighborhood stabilization officers.” Eventually, they’ll handle not just housing violations, but a wide variety of neighborhood problemsfrom abandoned cars to rat infestation. Today’s class is on identifying nuisance properties that should be cleaned up by the resurrected “Nuisance Property Task Force.”
But the property Duke has selected is something of a trick question for the trainees. The yard behind him isn’t just any old unkempt yard. It’s Mr. Rogers’ unkempt yard.
Depending on whom you ask, Bob Rogers is either a beloved or a reviled figure in the gentrifying Dupont East neighborhood. A lifelong resident of 15th Street, Rogers wanders the neighborhood and collects discarded bird cages, workout benches, broken mirrors, bookshelves, and other trinkets that he sells at regular yard sales on the sidewalk in front of his house. The garbage bags on his lawn contain his inventory. Rogers’ house has become a bone of contention between the liberal activists of the old D.C. and the pragmatists of the new onewho don’t think neighborhood character is an excuse for what they call bad housekeeping.
Some Q Street busybodies been complaining to DCRA for two years that Rogers’ house is an unsightly magnet for rats, and that Rogers doesn’t have a vending license to hold all those sales. They’ve gotten him cited for harboring bulk trash. One neighbor has tried to get his house condemned as a nuisance property. (Full disclosure: I wrote a story in the Washington Post last year, noting that I, too, had complained about Rogers’ house on the grounds that a cleaner neighborhood is a safer neighborhood; still, guilt rolled through my heart like a discarded Safeway cart when I heard inspectors were actually paying him a visit.)
Despite the piles of junk in the yard, though, the inspectors decide after a quick survey that Rogers’ house doesn’t make the cut as a nuisance propertymeaning I don’t have to worry about being the Elia Kazan of Q Street, at least not today.
“It’s an eyesore, but not a nuisance property,” concurs Duke. Before he can explain why, however, Duke is interruptednot by Rogers, who is nowhere to be seen, but by activist Debbie Hanrahan, who lives around the corner. Hanrahan has assumed that the inspectors are there to bust her neighbor, who she assures is a fine, upstanding citizen, despite his unwillingness to adhere to the Bob Vila aesthetics of his more recently arrived neighbors.
“One, two, three…
11, 12,” Hanrahan demands. “Do you really need 12 people to inspect one man?”
Lyn Alexander, the public information officer on hand to help collect video footage for a public service announcement about the new program, attempts to explain. “We’re here as part of”
Undeterred, Hanrahan carries on, her voice rising to hysterical tones: “Are you going to go over and inspect the restaurants on 17th Street? They’re the rat problem in this neighborhood….”
“If you would just let us explain”
“We already get ticketed to death! Now if we get inspected to death…” Hanrahan continues. “We are asking for help, not persecution! If he has an untidy front yard, who cares?”
Finally, Alexander manages to tell Hanrahan that her neighbor’s house will be immortalized in a public service announcement not as a nuisance property, but as an example of, well, just a messy house.
Assured that the mountain of junk in her neighbor’s yard will remain undisturbed, Hanrahan leaves, only to be replaced by Stephen Henn, another neighbor who has come to defend Rogers, who he says is “one of the best neighbors on the block. He’s a great guy. He refurbishes stuff and gives it to a battered women’s shelter….He shovels everyone’s walk.” Henn, too, departs after learning that the city will continue to treat Rogers as what Duke calls a “collector,” and not a public health hazard.
Before Duke can restart his lecture, though, Madelyn Lane, yet another neighborhood activist, storms over to announce, “Bob Rogers is one of the best people we know. We know it’s an eyesore, and we don’t care!” she says. “Everybody who lives in the neighborhood doesn’t have to be a yuppie!”
The housing inspectors, who’ve never seen neighbors defend a messy house, shake their heads in amazement. After Lane departs, Duke turns back to the trainees and says, “You can see how difficult our job can be.”
Only after the flak has subsided does Duke get to explain why Rogers’ house doesn’t merit a nuisance-property designation: Nuisance properties aren’t defined by aesthetics. According to DCRA’s definition, a nuisance property generally is vacant, structurally unsound, and a danger to the public because of fire hazard or criminal activity. Messy houses occupied by nice old guys don’t count. As Duke reminds his trainees, even among the yuppies of Dupont Circle,
“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Even in the new D.C.CP