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In a hype-free parallel universe, the District of Columbia is debating a major public project. Imagine what the pitch sounds like:
“Our hope is that the new convention center will generate revenue for the city and bring lots of hotels to the surrounding neighborhood, but it could very well do some other things—like waste taxpayer money, flood Shaw with a convoy of tractor-trailers, and stop the growth of downtown housing in its tracks.”
Or envision, if you will, what Abe Pollin says in lobbying for city aid to build his beloved MCI Center: “I can’t promise any meaningful long-term jobs or much spin-off development. It’s just that our guys are tired of dealing with Landover, the Beltway, and all that. We want a new arena.”
Back here in the real D.C., of course, no sane advocate would dis a pet project in public. Sugarcoating a cause—complete with the projections on tax revenues, jobs, and sundry intangible civic benefits we see in newspapers all the time—is nothing unique to the District. It happens anywhere public money and land are dear.
What is unique to the District, though, is our inclination to believe it all.
1998 furnished a compelling case in point: In April, the D.C. Council approved something called the Children’s Island development, which would have placed a theme park—complete with an interactive exhibit of dinosaur entrails—on a pair of fallow islands on the Anacostia River. The sponsors had no experience with theme parks; the lease would have given the sponsors the right to “flip” the property to anyone they wanted; and there was little evidence of a market for the park to begin with. The control board eventually nixed the proposal, but the projections of 2,400 jobs and $9 million in annual sales taxes were good enough for us.
Just as they were for the new convention center, for the MCI Center, for the CCA prison contract, for Techworld, for the first convention center, and so on.
Our shared heritage prompts us to substitute the hype of others for our own expectations. For nearly two decades, we’ve watched the same guy promise a new future for the city. As a result, we all know what the savior doesn’t look like. Beyond that, we’re blind.
So if someone new steps up and tells the old-timers of Shaw that the savior is a six-block building ringed by idling trucks and a dribble of name-tag-wearing visitors, then who’s to say he’s wrong?
If someone new steps up and tells us that a shiny new baseball stadium will complete the city’s economic renaissance, then send in the surveyors.
If someone new steps up and tells the families of long-suffering Lorton inmates that the savior is a multi-million-dollar Nashville-based prison company, then do the deal.
And if someone new steps up and tells the voters of the District that he has nothing to do with our past and offers proven solutions for the future, then elect him to office. CP
There’s nothing new about U Street’s racial chasm.
By Elissa Silverman
On Friday and Saturday nights, the sidewalk outside Republic Gardens looks like the diploma receiving line at Howard University’s law school commencement. Patrons are suited up in their Sunday best, eager to party, and almost 100 percent of them are black.
But this is Thursday night, and if you look at the sign outside 1355 U Street NW, you’ll see that Republic Gardens really isn’t Republic Gardens at all. The sign reads, “Alibi’s” for a special promotion—complete with complimentary buffet and budget drinks—targeted at a minority demographic in the District.
“Welcome to Alibi’s,” chirps Jeremy Pollock, who is patrolling this abnormally deserted part of the U Street sidewalk. Pollock, dressed casually in jeans and an oxford-cloth shirt, uses free passes to lasso in those who might otherwise walk right past the popular U Street club—in other words, just the sort of folks who’d end up at the Madhatter or right across the street at Polly’s Cafe. Tonight’s “white night” at Republic Gardens—er, Alibi’s.
“That’s just a joke with the staff,” says Pollock, a white former bartender at Republic Gardens who now promotes Alibi’s. It’s a joke, in fact, worthy of comedian Chris Rock: funny, yet unsettling in its grip on racial reality.
U Street’s rebirth promised a seed bed of racial conciliation in the District. The street straddles the boundary between the predominantly black Shaw and Howard University communities on its eastern edge and the increasingly white Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan neighborhoods on the west. On this fault line, the thinking went, D.C. hipsters, yuppies and buppies, old-timers, and bureaucrats of all races would all come together to boogie down or gulp a beer.
Peek inside U Street’s various restaurants and clubs, though, and you’ll observe the grown-up extension of the dining hall dilemma: a voluntary social segregation among the races that has so befuddled a generation of integrationists. When students and professionals with similar education, interests, and careers head out for a night on U Street, they diverge largely according to skin tone. Despite all its hype, U Street sadly mimics D.C.’s geographic color line: Establishments east of 14th Street cater to a predominantly black clientele; west of 14th, an almost exclusively nonblack one.
The only black voices you hear at Stetson’s Bar and Grill at 1610 U Street one weekday evening are coming from the jukebox: Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, and Aretha Franklin all croon through the downstairs speakers. The bar still gets some black patrons from the “old U” days, explains bartender Nick Jackson, but that’s usually during the daytime.
Stetson’s—with its large mahogany bar and slight Southwestern theme—is one of U Street’s white hangouts. “It’s primarily a DNC/White House crowd. There are a couple of Republicans who come in here,” says Rick, playing pool upstairs at Stetson’s the following Saturday.
When I explain my U Street thesis to others, they quickly harp on self-selection, especially when it comes to music. But as I flip through the musical spectrum available on Stetson’s CD jukebox, it doesn’t seem too selective to me. “It comes down to a comfort factor,” offers Jackson. “If you go drinking, you want to be comfortable.”
Jackson’s obviously not just referring to interior decorating decisions. A separate-but-equal doctrine is well established on the strip. Take, for example, Chi-Cha Lounge and Republic Gardens. Chi-Cha: comfortable velvet couches. Republic Gardens: ditto. Republic Gardens: lots of candles and mood lighting. Chi-Cha: ditto. Chi-Cha: fashionable, well-dressed, good-looking people. Republic Gardens: ditto. Republic Gardens: black. Chi-Cha: white.
It’s as if U Street establishments have a magnetic pull anchored to skin color. West of 14th Street, there’s Stetson’s, Chi-Cha Lounge, Utopia, and Coppi’s. Sure, each establishment has its own subspecies: Stetson’s seems like a grungier franchise of the Capitol Lounge or some other Hill bar, Chi-Cha goes for more of a Euro crowd, and Utopia lures big spenders. Whatever the social set, though, they all have a common denominator: whiteness.
East of 14th Street, you’ll find Republic Gardens, Bar Nun, and Club Tango. There, it’s the exact opposite—most of the clientele is black. Republic’s got the bougies, Bar Nun the hip-hop crowd, and Club Tango the dirty dancers. Sure, certain establishments attract more of a cross-section—like Julio’s and State of the Union—and Polly’s Cafe seems almost a half block too far east, but for the most part, people stick to their own on U Street.
When I ask Chi-Cha manager Steve Maguire if there’s any overlap between his clientele and Republic’s, he shoots back, “Do you think we attract the same crowd as Republic Gardens?”
We obviously haven’t overcome.
“It’s going to be intercultural,” announced Monroe Bethea, an advisory neighborhood commissioner, to the Washington Times on Aug. 20, 1994, about the regeneration of U Street. “No more Chocolate City.” The beginning of the “new U” project dates back to 1986, when the District government opened the Frank D. Reeves Center of Municipal Affairs at the corner of 14th and U. Metro came in with a Green and Yellow Line station five years later one block away, signaling to area developers that the city was committed to making U Street a technicolor commercial corridor.
In the first half of the century, U Street was the black man’s Connecticut Avenue—a cosmopolitan mix of businesses, restaurants, and nightspots. Only steps away from Howard University, the street cultivated professional offices and stores, in addition to four movie theaters and world-famous nightclubs, such as the Casbah and Republic Gardens, that featured the likes of Duke Ellington and Pearl Bailey.
Ike Kendrick, a longtime D.C. resident, commented many years later in the Washington Post Magazine, “U Street was the street. It was the boulevard….Everybody who was anybody tried to make an appearance on U Street, especially on Sunday…”
Integration and middle-class flight gradually chipped away at the commercial strip. But the knock-out punch came in 1968, when the street succumbed to rioting. Efforts to revive the area in the ’90s have met gradual success: Real estate on U Street is hot, and the seven-block strip from 11th to 18th Streets is dense with restaurants and nightclubs, in addition to old standbys like Ben’s Chili Bowl and the restored Lincoln Theater. But cultural cross-pollination has yet to occur.
Warren Williams Jr. is among the biggest fans of “white night” at Republic Gardens. Williams runs Club U, which is located one block from Republic Gardens, on the first floor of the Reeves Center. On Thursday nights, he, too, offers a happy hour buffet, stocked with fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and collard greens. Lately, customers seem to fall into his lap.
“We get a lot of [Republic Gardens’] regular customers on Thursday nights,” says Williams. “They feel intimidated coming down to Republic Gardens on a Thursday.”
Though Williams insists his establishment’s big tent has room for all, even his patrons quibble over what that really means. “People come here from Northeast, Southeast, Northwest, Southwest, Maryland, and Virginia,” says one Club U regular who calls himself “Eighty-Eight.” “Drug dealers, non-drug dealers, they all come.”
Any white people? I ask.
“Nope,” Eighty-Eight says without reservation.
While Williams welcomes the boost in business, he minces no words when probed about its origins. “You should never open doors and start discriminating….Calling Republic Gardens ‘Alibi’s’…I think that’s racist,” he says. “I don’t agree with that at all. You wrap your package; you make a decision.”
And the Alibi’s experiment proves that it’s hard to change packaging. Pollock says he and his two partners drop off 800 or so fliers every week to Capitol Hill offices, law firms, and other downtown businesses—not only to hype the drink specials and lavish buffet, but also to reel in a more eclectic (read: nonblack) crowd to the nightclub.
Pollock’s efforts aren’t for naught: There’s a definite race mixture in the club one Thursday, though it’s hardly the stampede you’d expect given the outstanding munchies and unbeatable $1.25 drink special. But as the buffet gets packed away and the free passes dry up, the clientele becomes more homogeneous.
A couple of Thursdays later, Pollock is nowhere to be found and my pass for Alibi’s almost gets turned down. As I head up the stairs, I quickly realize that Alibi’s is on hiatus. “Hello, white people,” comedian Coco Brown announces as my foot hits the top step of Republic’s upstairs, in a spot usually reserved for dancing. The salutation is part of Brown’s set that includes jokes on white versus black people skiing.
It’s clear that white folks need an alibi to duck into Republic Gardens. “I used to go to Republic Gardens a lot,” says Tom Rugg, a white Capitol Hill resident who now prefers Polly’s Cafe across the street. “It was predominantly black, but it was a comfortable place to hang out.”
“I haven’t been there now for a year and a half,” Rugg says. “It’s just not comfortable.”
Pollock denies that Republic Gardens ever intentionally did a bleach job on Thursdays. “They said come up with a name,” he explains. “We were sitting for four hours going through the thesaurus, when my roommate walks in. He says, ‘If I ever opened a club, I’d call it Alibi’s.’ So that’s what we named it.”
An energetic crowd bumps and grinds inside the doors of Bar Nun, located across the street from Republic Gardens at 1326 U St. NW. I am with my friend Mike, who sticks out even more than I as a white thumb in this crowd: He’s got blond hair and hazel eyes, and hails from Des Moines, Iowa. In a crowd of two hundred or so, we are the only whites in Bar Nun on this busy Saturday night.
Our exclusive white rights end when we notice a group of three blond-haired white women walk through the downstairs bar.
Moments later, one of them approaches. “My friends dared me to talk to the other white people in here,” explains Sue Volans, who later identifies herself as a Bar Nun regular.
I ask her why she comes to Bar Nun. She says she feels more comfortable here than in white clubs, where people are less approachable and relaxed. “You definitely have to have brass balls to come in here. There’s definitely a race issue,” Volans admits. “You cannot be white and walk into a predominantly black club and not be cognizant of race.”
“We’re having a good time here, even though we don’t fit in,” Volans continues. “I’m white as shit. I’m as white as they come.”
“She’s got a little bit of soul in her,” chimes her friend, Brandy.
“I was a little nervous when I walked in,” Brandy notes. “I’ve never been in a club like this before.”
“I was scared to death, to be honest,” says Volans’ other friend, Andrea. “When I walked in here, I was shaking,” she tells me.
I scan the room: Some Bar Nun patrons are definitely on the prowl, but only for amore. People are laughing, dancing, and trying to squeeze a few hours of fun into workaday Washington life. If there’s any discomfort to be had, it’s the lack of personal space in the club’s jammed hallways.
Andrea eventually agrees: “I feel at home now.” CP
D.C.’s Crowning Technological Achievement When nobody else can, Supercan!
In the recent fight over the city’s recycling program, environmental activists fretted over a few newspapers and empty bottles blowing around on the streets. Perhaps they wouldn’t be so uptight if they’d been around as recently as the late ’70s, when D.C. looked like Staten Island’s Fresh Kills landfill. People back then put their garbage out in their alleys in burlap sacks and paper bags, or in cans with no lids. Besides being smelly and possibly toxic, the District’s garbage was spread out like a buffet for bacteria, roaches, and rats. The city, it seemed, was on the verge of choking on its own waste—until Marion Barry, in his first term as mayor, rolled Supercan into town.
Barry was hellbent on putting one of those green, 96-gallon wheeled containers behind nearly every house in D.C. He heralded the cans not only as a panacea for the trash crisis but also as a tool of crafty city management.
Since Supercan could hold a typical week’s worth of household garbage, the plan went, it would singlehandedly cut twice-weekly trash collection to once a week in certain parts of the city—specifically, Wards 6, 7, and 8. In all, this low-tech bin would eliminate 30-odd trash-hauling jobs and save about $700,000 a year, when you figured in gas and maintenance for trucks and fewer back injuries for the trash collectors who would still be working. In later years, those numbers alone would have scared off the patronage-obsessed Barry, but these were different times. “I just support it totally,” plugged the mayor.
The Supercan’s supposed beneficiaries, however, were having none of it. Nor were unionized trash haulers. When Supercan, dumpy profile and all, made its first appearance on the dais at a D.C. Council meeting in 1979, it was viewed as a hostile agent, an advance man for an oppressive, martial regime.
“These probably will [become known as] the trash cans that took over the streets of Washington, D.C.,” Councilmember John Ray warned darkly at the time.
Councilmember Hilda Mason feared that kids would climb inside them and die.
“It is an affront to my constituents,” scowled Councilmember Wilhelmina Rolark. “I want to be very clear,” she said. “The only thing I like about this can is the color. I like green.”
“Trash,” Barry conceded, “is an emotional thing.”
The mayor backed off—at first. He tried to make nice with the trash haulers by going on safari with them through the alleys of D.C. one May morning in 1980—a move that was greeted with about as much enthusiasm as Michael Dukakis riding in that tank a few years later. He continued twice-weekly pickups through 1981 and decided to introduce Supercan as an elective benefit: If people wanted one, it was theirs to fill. Then they’d see why the folks in Atlanta, St. Petersburg, Fla., Hampton, Va., and Shorewood, Wis., liked it so well.
What’s not to like? Supercan, after all, has a tough polyethylene skin that could probably survive a nuclear war—or a gnawing rat. Its domed lid keeps out insects and water, and rotates a full 270 degrees for easy opening. With its sloped underbody and rugged wheels, Supercan can navigate D.C.’s crater-pocked alleys and surf the kind of snowdrifts the city had in the blizzard of ’96. And if you’re a trash hauler suffering from lumbago, Supercan is a godsend; it all but hops up and regurgitates into the garbage truck by itself.
Supercan is a friend to the common consumer, too. No more buffet for vermin when it’s full, and when it’s empty, it stands firm—goodbye, flimsy receptacles, whirling around on windy days like so many roulette balls. You just hold your nose, flip up the lid, and in goes the garbage—out of sight, out of mind. Without ever soiling your suit.
The whole city took Barry up on his “elective” offering, and Supercan was, as we know now, a hit. In late 1981, the city ordered up 60,000 of them and distributed them to residents in Wards 3, 4, 7, and 8, and parts of Wards 5 and 6. A year later, it had cut trash collection costs by 25 percent, which would amount to a $9 million savings over five years.
“We knew this program would be a smashing success,” Barry boasted in late 1982, basking in the glow of a 93 percent approval rating—not for him, but for Supercan.
Today, Washingtonians guard their Supercans jealously, as if they were pets. A few years ago, one Ward 1 resident painted a veiled warning in hot-pink letters on the top of a Supercan: “THIS CAN BELONGS TO THIS PERSON,” with an arrow drawn to a photograph of a smiling ’60s teen queen. The photograph is gone, but Supercan remains. People in D.C. have been known to chain their Supercans to their fences, escort them to the curb when the trash truck comes, and wheel them right back in. For good reason, too: Supercans marked with D.C.’s insignia often turn up in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs—the work of interstate poachers.
Of course, if some corrupt soul hijacks your Supercan, the city will replace it for $62.50. And Tony Duckett, bureau chief of D.C.’s Solid Waste Collection Division, notes that the city has budgeted $3 million for fiscal year 2000 to replace about 60,000 cans. This bit of news brought a smile to the face of William Henning, senior vice president of Toter Inc., in Statesville, N.C., which makes Supercan.
Barry, Henning notes, was ahead of his time; Washington was the first big city to introduce the Supercan. (Atlanta was not considered a big city in 1981.) Today, he says, there are about 11 million Supercans at large in metropolises across the U.S., including Chicago. And the number of child deaths attributable to Supercan, at least in the District, is exactly zero. “[Barry] helped clean up the country,” Henning says. An unlikely legacy. Some would say pure rubbish. —Bradford McKee
By Brett Anderson
When Washingtonians gear up for a meal on the town, they generally don’t summon fantasies of roasted duck livers in rhubarb purÈe. Far from the meat-and-potatoes staples of Duke Zeibert’s or Sam and Harry’s, the dish was a creation of Jean-Louis Palladin, the patron saint of D.C. haute cuisine.
The French-born chef arrived in D.C. in 1979, the youngest person to ever have been awarded two Michelin stars, one of the highest honors in the culinary world. His restaurant, Jean-Louis at the Watergate, retained its consistency against the best name-droppers in the world. When the restaurant closed in 1996, Palladin fled to Vegas, hoping that the expense-account capital of the free world would yield him a profit. (In spring, the chef will open Palladin at the Time, his first restaurant in New York, with a new Jean-Louis slated to follow, on 52nd Street.)
The D.C. rabble couldn’t have cared less, and that was just the point. Palladin’s departure had local cultural critics convinced that the District had gotten what it deserved. Like a Rust Belt town that could no longer support a department store, D.C., the thinking went, was too much of a hick town to appreciate roasted duck livers in anything, let alone rhubarb. After all, how much do gym-bag-toting, Reebok-wearing office drones care about foie gras?
Repudiation of those tired stereotypes came last spring, when chef Michel Richard arrived at Citronelle in Georgetown. “Thank goodness,” gushed the Washington Post. “Something big and new and exciting has finally opened.” Trained as a pastry chef in France, Richard was widely hailed as an impeccable technician with an artist’s sensibility—many of his dishes began as sketches.
With restaurants like Citronelle in Santa Barbara and Citrus in L.A., Richard had spent the mid- and late ’80s doing for Californians what his friend Palladin had done for customers here—namely, hipping them to the possibilities of French cuisine. But Richard’s audience was bigger, thus so was his splash. In her farewell column in the Los Angeles Times, Ruth Reichl, now restaurant critic for the New York Times, called Richard “one of the most joyful, inventive chefs who’s ever lived.”
Depending on your tax bracket and/or taste for escargots, haute cuisine represents either food elevated to high art or food reduced to pretentious self-parody. Its practitioners are mostly ego-driven, perfectionist men; a lot of them are French, and many of the best are celebrities.
Against that backdrop, Richard is something of a populist. Whereas lesser chefs view lobster and caviar as delicacies unto themselves, Richard pairs them with scrambled eggs served in their shells. Citronelle patrons swoon over a Richard dessert that resembles a souped-up Kit Kat bar. The delicacy—along with other crisp offerings, such as shrimp wrapped in shredded phyllo—has earned Richard the nickname “Captain Crunch.”
“Michel has his own ideas, but he’s not crazy,” says Citronelle sommelier Mark Slater, who also worked at Jean-Louis. “He realizes that people have to buy the stuff and eat it.”
Palladin wasn’t so concerned with such details. His creations showcased a skill honed through a lifetime devoted to traditional craft. The rhubarb and the livers came together harmoniously because Palladin understood cookery both as a science and as a tool to tweak history. He treated his customers to lessons, not just meals.
One trait that Richard shares with Palladin, however, is ambition. “I wrote about [Richard] once as the Lord & Taylor of French cuisine,” says Jonathan Gold, restaurant critic for Los Angeles magazine and LA Weekly. “Which is to say that every fall he’d go to France. He was friends with everybody, and he’d see what all the hot people were doing, and then he’d come back [to L.A.] and knock it off at a lower price. Did he have the technique to pull it off? Yes, definitely.”
Pulling it off is what Richard is doing in D.C. He opened Citronelle five years ago in the Latham Hotel. It was good when he was around, but a hit-or-miss proposition overall, considering that he maintained his primary residence in L.A. Last spring, he left L.A. to tend to matters here, adding his name to the Citronelle moniker and reopening a restaurant that showed what a difference a $2 million renovation can make.
In the world of French cooking, shelling out seven figures for decor won’t break any records; Daniel Boulud just sank $10 million into his new restaurant in New York. Richard’s place offers fleeting moments and highly perishable pleasures at a very high price. That’s its allure. The wine collection, restaurant staffers insist, rivals any in the world in both quality and size, and there it is, behind glass, a part of the visual menu as well as the consumable one. Every 59 seconds, the restaurant’s “mood wall” changes color, its shifting hues mimicking the ocean’s reaction to the fading sun. You know the foie gras appetizer sauced with black bean mole is a must; after all, the dish costs $20, and if it lives up to its stated value, it will vanish almost as soon as it arrives.
Low-ceilinged, lit like a Tiffany’s jewelry case, and filled with the kind of precision-crafted chairs that put chiropractors out of business, Michel Richard’s Citronelle is the sort of place where you don’t mind spending money that you don’t really have. Served in view of the wide open kitchen, dinner is interactive—and markedly more fun than at either of the Michelin-starred restaurants I’ve been to. Richard’s food is eye-opening. Rabbit is a dissertation on the plate—one small rack, a fan of loin slices, some sausage, a pastry of meat with salsify.
Richard plays with seafood’s textures—one dish pits air-light sea bass against firm squid—and despite presentations that are meant to make you chirp, his food is rarely overdone. The only real disappointment is a filet mignon sauced with a silly goo that tastes as if it were meant for ice cream—cuteness run amok. Was the outing worth the $600-plus for four people? Yes.
But the fact remains that Richard’s handiwork exists in a world that relatively few locals have the resources to visit. Sommelier Slater admits that, like Jean-Louis’, most of Citronelle’s business comes from tourists. Many people have wondered why such a renowned talent is bothering with a town where the big spenders consider steak the end-all; the New York Times Food section ran a front-page Richard profile that asked as much, and it’s a fair question. Gotham is the restaurant Mecca, and New York fetishism runs rampant in D.C., a town that can’t keep its rock bands from fleeing north, not to mention its political wunderstuds like Richard Holbrooke.
And Citronelle is only half as good when Richard’s not around. He was off on the night of my less-than-dazzling first visit, which I remember for an osso buco that contained none of the signature Richard gimmicks—the upended penne, the short ribs in place of veal shank, the hollowed-out, marrow-filled potato posing as bone—that had prompted me to order it.
So why care at all? Because the champagne from my last visit is still tingling on my tongue—and, to speak the local parlance, because Richard’s a player. After decades of goofing with haute cuisine’s rule book, he has earned his right to high admission prices. Talent is magnetic, and Richard’s former underlings now head the kitchens of estimable restaurants from L.A. to Chicago to Alexandria, where former Richard understudy Brian Hooyenga is building a following for his creative, affordable cooking at Evening Star. Let nearby fish shiver at the thought of donating their flesh to Captain Crunch’s culinary fantasies. His imagination perfumes the air, which at press time was still free. And in time, as his disciples fan out, even normal people will be able to catch more than a contact high from his presence. Like the monuments, he’s nice to have around. CP
Thanks to the almighty Constitution, people in Oklahoma have more control over D.C. than you do.
No single document made your fifth-grade teacher go all mushy more than the U.S. Constitution. Ms. Carla Wright made each of us memorize and recite the preamble, which wasn’t so challenging given that it was tacked above her chalkboard and reprinted on the back of the textbook. It was everywhere—and thus rendered almost as meaningless as the Pledge of Allegiance. And I can repeat it to this day, if only someone would ask me.
Alexis de Tocqueville called the document “the most perfect constitution that ever existed.” Historians, journalists, and attorneys invariably gush over the Constitution’s prescience and genius, wielding it as a talisman against even the gravest accusations of wrongdoing. David Davis, a Supreme Court justice and friend of Abraham Lincoln, proclaimed in 1866 that the Constitution “covers with the shield of its protection all classes of men, at all times, and under all circumstances.”
My history teacher had one thing in common with de Tocqueville and Davis: She wasn’t a D.C. resident. If she had been, she might have paused on, say, Article III, Section 4, which states, “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.”
On its face, that sounds like a nice deal. But those vaunted framers orphaned us here in the nation’s capital, where citizens pay federal taxes but have no vote in Congress. Consider the other battle cries you chanted in grade school: “No taxation without representation,” “One person, one vote.” Remember? Well, where’s the tea party?
Not only does the exclusion of D.C. smack of injustice on its face, it also goes against the intentions of the Founding Fathers. In 1787, when the Constitution was written, all D.C. residents were residents of Maryland or Virginia, both of which could send members to Congress. So D.C. voters had more power 200 years ago than they do now. Even the voting public—the ultimate authority, in the Constitution’s eyes—frowns on the disenfranchisement: A recent national poll showed that 79 percent of 1,049 respondents say they believe District residents should have the same voting rights as other U.S. citizens.
In 1870, the 10th Amendment was ratified, promising that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Fifty years later, women got the same treatment. But Article I, Section 8, still stands pretty much unaltered, ensuring that Congress shall have the power “to exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District…as may…become the Seat of the Government of the United States.”
Fed up with the abuse, two groups of D.C. citizens filed lawsuits in 1998 demanding equal treatment. One suit, filed on behalf of 20 D.C. residents, claims that congressional colonization of the District violates their right to equal protection under the law. The other, spearheaded by D.C. Corporation Counsel John Ferren, says the exclusion of D.C. from the nation’s steady expansion of voting rights violates the constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process.
Very nice projects, indeed. The Constitution, though, will disappoint us. For all its elegant prose, this overrated document offers its rosy guarantees only to states. And it says quite clearly that the District is not a state. To lower expectations for the Constitution, future social studies texts distributed in the District should have a Cliffs Notes version of the Constitution, annotated for clarity and honesty.
As if to prove the point: In October, Congress quietly prohibited the D.C. government from using federal funds to pursue the representation case. In other words, Congress—a defendant in the case, remember—barred one of the plaintiffs from suing it. Would that everybody had that option for dealing with lawsuits. —Amanda Ripley
Downtown’s booster groups are sweeping the streets with good will.
By Amanda Ripley
Last summer, one of the red-jacketed ambassadors for the Downtown Business Improvement District (BID) was doing the rounds on his sleek streetsweeper when he saw something awry: A man was loitering by a black van parked on the street. The BID employee continued cleaning the streets but kept an eye on the sketchy character. And “lo and behold, the person smashed the window of the van and grabbed a TV set!” says BID spokesperson Marc Goldman.
Then the thief walked a couple of blocks, sat down next to his new TV, and waited for the bus. Luckily, the bus can take a while in D.C. So the quick-thinking ambassador radioed police, who arrested the man just as his bus was pulling up. As Goldman himself admits, “Had the guy had a better getaway plan, it would have turned out differently.” But still, the incident provided a MacGyveresque memory for the Downtown BID.
Over the past year, the Downtown BID and its western neighbor, the Golden Triangle BID, have compiled loads of such success stories. Both groups, funded by the businesses located in their respective downtown jurisdictions, unleashed dozens of privatized greeters into the wilds of downtown. The BIDs promised that the Red and Gold hosts would beautify the streets and cultivate a more welcoming environment for tourists and residents alike. And they do.
The Golden Triangle fields a total of 38 gold-uniformed ambassadors, roaming the streets in staggered teams from 7 o’clock in the morning to 8:30 at night. They make 9,500 “citizen’s assists” each month, up from 1,000 when they first started in March. The Downtown BID’s 77 Red Safety and Maintenance teams (SAMs) control a slightly grittier territory, stretching from 16th Street to 2nd Street NW between Massachusetts and Constitution Avenues. One SAM tells me he was threatened at knifepoint the other day by a crazy man who mistook him for a cop. Another had a homeless man spit in her face.
“They do a better job than the city workers,” says D.C. native James Fleming. Last fall, Fleming noticed all the Red men and women scurrying around near his office at Pennsylvania and 15th Street NW, tidying up the streets and singing good morning to the commuters. “They do good work,” he says. And, unlike the prisoners who cleaned up his Southeast neighborhood this summer, these guys have actually stuck around.
As long as you’re not a homeless person or some other impediment to the steady march of commerce, the ambassadors are your new best friends. On my downtown excursions, both the Red and the Gold greeters I meet are consistently delirious with concern. They are so friendly as to arouse suspicion. They help me find bathrooms and banks, they pick up my trash, and they worry about whether I’m getting enough to eat. It’s almost too much good will to bear.
And so, in the spirit of the capitalist competition that created them, I naturally want to know which is better—Team Red or Team Gold. Which has a better uniform, which picks up litter faster, which knows more about D.C., which is doing more to meet the goals it has set for itself? Posing as a visiting student with a vague past, I dare ambassadors of all colors to go ahead and kill me with kindness.
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Name: Obviously, the BIDs never held a citywide contest to name their teams. Neither has a moniker worth remembering. The “Downtown BID” has all the resonance of the “Washington Mystics.” And calling its workers “SAMs” does little to fill the void, other than to prompt Sambo allusions. Plus, the ambassadors report that some people think they are all named Sam—which can be hard on morale. The “Golden Triangle,” on the other hand, seems designed for confusion, or perhaps conspiracy theorists. “Are they a gay group?” one woman whispers to me in a downtown office building. “I thought they were undercover cops,” one man says. Better that than the other Golden Triangle, the Southeast Asia drug-trade route yielding the world’s largest supply of heroin. Gold wins, on mystique alone.
Uniform: That man standing in the shadows and talking to his wrist looks much more mysterious than he is. Despite the striking similarity—what with the earpiece and the gold-and-black uniform—he is a Golden Triangle ambassador, not a Secret Service officer. “They have the exact same uniforms,” notes one glum Secret Service officer on bike patrol by the White House. The Gold definitely edges ahead of the Red in the area of cool gear—the North Face-esque Gore-Tex anorak and bright yellow bow tie look infinitely crisper than the SAM’s red jacket, which could be anybody’s winter coat. But then the Gold team goes unforgivably schmaltz: Turns out the bow tie is “a salute to Anthony Williams, who has an office in our BID,” reports Golden Triangle Executive Director Marcia Rosenthall. And for the holiday season, all Golden Triangle ambassadors have been forced to wear gold-and-black Santa hats, a gimmick that Rosenthall calls “hilarious.” (We’ll see whether her foot soldiers agree.) Besides, as SAM ambassador Victor Poteat puts it, “I don’t need to be looking like no Secret Service officer, you know what I’m saying? People already think we’re police officers as it is.” Red wins, in the name of dignity.
Effort: “Let’s say someone stole your purse,” says Golden Triangle worker William Mozell. “I’m supposed to get a description and call the police; I’m not supposed to wrestle him down to the ground.” Then he adds: “I might trip him. I might do that for you.” But Mozell’s zest for street patrolling is typical of both teams. SAM Poteat has never been late to work. Every day, he puts on his red jacket and works his beat near Metro Center, telling the 1,000th tourist where to find the Hard Rock Cafe. In his seven months on the job, Poteat has helped about 45 people a day; he has escorted one blind man across the street and confronted two aggressive panhandlers. You won’t see Poteat defecting to the Golden Triangle any time soon. “If you put a SAM and one of those Gold guys on the same corner, we’d blow them away,” Poteat says. “Because we’re all that.” Even after the double-overtime and sudden-death elimination rounds, it’s a tie for effort.
Attitude: When it rains, Golden Triangle workers carry yellow umbrellas so that they can shelter you across intersections. In all my time wandering through their jurisdiction, Golden Triangle ambassadors never fail to make eye contact and give me a wave, no matter how obscenely bored they must be. The difference is slight, but the Red SAM guys seemed to be more honest with their emotions—in other words, they allow themselves to look as bored as they feel on occasion. One SAM argues that his team may be slightly less cheery because it covers a larger area with more homeless people. “We got it harder….A lot of times, I might have to clean up where they’re sleeping,” he says. And it’s true that the Golden Triangle is a cushier realm, already fully developed and stocked with soup bars and Starbucks. But the free market does not allow for handicaps. Gold wins.
Trash Record: It’s wrong to litter, but in the name of fairness, I have to know. I have to find out if the ambassadors are capable of scooping litter as efficiently as their literature promises. So I discreetly plant a crumpled-up piece of notebook paper in the line of sight of first a Red, and then a Gold, ambassador. Then I scurry to a bus shelter to observe my trap. Each time, the ambassador slowly makes his way to the litter and dutifully snatches it up. I wouldn’t say they’re speedy, exactly—eager for distraction, both Red and Gold ambassadors are prone to chatting with any willing passer-by—but both do pass the litter test. To break the tie, I have to go to the numbers: On a monthly basis, the Golden Triangle and the SAM workers pick up about the same amount of trash—close to 25 tons. It would appear to be a tie—except that SAM workers cover three times the space of the Golden Triangle ambassadors. So, hands down, Gold takes the trash prize.
Bargain: To sponsor the Golden Triangle BID, property owners pay 10 cents a square foot. That beats out the Downtown BID, which charges 12 cents. And the Golden Triangle has promised not to raise rates for the next four years, while the Downtown BID retains that option. Gold wins for bang per buck.
Local Knowledge: All the street-level ambassadors have a pretty deft understanding of the local monuments and tourist traps, heavily promoting the MCI Center’s Discovery Channel store and other for-profit must-sees. But then I ask a Red what to see that’s off the beaten path. “What do you mean by that? Have you been to the Mall? How about the U.S. Capitol?” He’s genuinely stumped, even though he was born and raised in D.C. I keep asking for just one or two sites that I didn’t see on my sixth-grade field trip. His final answer: Crystal City and the Pleasure Place store in Georgetown. Luckily, the yellow jacket comes through, recommending Hains Point and the National Geographic museum—and then running after me to add Union Station. And to talk about his mother, who is visiting from California. Gold.
Ambassadorial Skills: As D.C. politicos like to say, the District is an international city, bubbling over with the exotic banter of world visitors. When I ask a Red SAM for a bathroom in French, he susses it out and points me to a Starbucks. The Golden Triangle ambassador, on the other hand, just keeps asking, louder and louder, what a “toilette” is. “You looking for the twilight?” he finally shrieks. Red wins for diplomacy.
And The Winner Is… After a brutally close competition, it appears Gold has it. As Salvation Army bell-ringer Valerie Griffin puts it, “They’re a lot of comfort. They’re great; they’re polite; they’re beautiful people.” I’d rather have a beer with the Red team, but if I found myself in emergency need of street-side affirmation, I’d hope I was in the Golden Triangle. CP
The stinko ginkgo rules, baby.
Last summer’s drought was one of the worst on record in the District, wilting nearly every single blade of vegetation in the city—especially the trees, those noble, shady sentries that make Washington an arboreal paradise. Only one species made it through unblemished: the mighty, oft-maligned ginkgo.
“All the trees in this city suffered because of the extreme drought, but the ginkgo withstood it better than any,” says Bill Beck, horticulturist for the District’s Trees and Landscape Division. Beck is an unabashed fan of the city’s 5,000 ginkgos, which belong to one of the oldest surviving tree families, dating back more than 150 million years.
That’s a long time to make the world plug its nose. Anyone who walks D.C. streets in the fall knows the stench of the ginkgo’s yellowish fruit, variously described as resembling that of burnt caramel, stale cabbage, the dried urine of rabid squirrels, or a paper mill. Years ago, the foul droppings incited attacks from District residents—especially in Georgetown, naturally. It is the female ginkgo that produces the offensive berries, but, according to Beck, “the problem is that you can’t tell the sex of a ginkgo until they’re 25 years old.”
Complaints from residents who mistook their ginkgos for porous sewer pipes were still rife when Beck came to the work for the District in 1993, he says. In recent years, though, Beck has administered an annual spraying program/air-freshener system. Every spring, just as the female ginkgos bloom, workers spray the trees with an herbicide called Sproutnip. The procedure, at an annual price tag of $8,000, seems to be doing the trick. “I had one complaint in Northeast two weeks ago, and that’s the only one I’m aware of this entire fall,” says Beck.
That makes the ginkgo one of the lowest-maintenance trees in the city’s arboreal portfolio. “The ginkgo’s got a thicker, waxier leaf. It doesn’t have any insect problems; it can take the pollution; it can take the heat; it can take the car exhaust; it can handle the salt from the snow plows. It can withstand city conditions extremely well.”
Not to mention that some people like to make pastries from the fruit. Call it stinkpie. —Eddie Dean
Who Asked You?
In an opinionated age, the written word is not part of the argument.
By David Carr
When Washingtonians seek a fresh take on the issues of the day, logic would dictate that they open up the Outlook section of the Washington Post. Outlook is an opinion-only enclave in the paper of record in the public policy capital of the world. Its editors have at their disposal the most provocative thinkers on every topic from Social Security to sexual insecurity.
But what should be a mosh pit for contestation is often a waltz of convention. Check out this gem from Sunday, Dec. 13. Some key words have been edited out for effect. Stick in any nouns you want: “the Constitution,” “Brussels sprouts,” “swing music,” or “the 105th Congress,” and you, too, can write a lead piece for Outlook.
Whatever one’s view of the ______, there is little doubt that the ______ is in tatters. Long before the ______ , all pretense of deliberation had vanished. The ______ conduct over the last month did nothing to persuade Americans that ______ had pursued ______. To the contrary, nearly all ______ seemed to have made up their minds before ______ was called.”
It’s just that kind of discourse that makes Greta Van Susteren seem like one of the more important public intellectuals of our time.
If it’s opinion you want, you can just hit a random button and it will spill out of your TV in great, oozing batches. Opinions, it is often said, are like assholes—everybody’s got one—and anybody with a remote can tell you that there are a lot more assholes out there. And if you prefer your CW in printed form, there’s a Rolodex of spouters at the Washington Post, Slate, or the New Republic.
But you won’t. Nobody reads that crap anymore—political magazines, Op-Ed outlets, or the intellectual Webfests. People seem happy to ignore the words of the Novaks, Krauthammers, and Broders, huge, hulking hunks of gray matter who make big dollars to cogitate on the issues of the day.
As interest in the body politic has dimmed, the density of opinion has become overwhelming. There’s a bull market on bull, and much of it arrives at a velocity that renders the average print bloviator vestigial to the informational needs of common folk. Last Sunday, I didn’t whip open the Post and the New York Times to find out what it all meant—not just because we were watching history with an asterisk, but because 20 minutes after the third article of impeachment was adopted, its nuances and implications were plain to every nincompoop in America, including me.
But there’s another, more prosaic reason people don’t pay much mind to printed thoughtfulness: Most of it is no more informative than the average edition of Cochran & Company. The practioners of opinionism—especially here in Washington—are stinking it up.
When’s the last time you read something on the Post Op-Ed that you could remember by lunch, let alone care to talk about once you sat down? There’s nothing but dead bodies on that particular battlefield of ideas. The page has gone from a place where consent was manufactured by far-thinking giants to a place where it is slowly codified, often to stupefying effect. How do you know that a Post Op-Ed reader has fallen asleep? His morning bagel falls out of his mouth.
In just the last week, we had a professor of strategic studies suggesting that Clinton’s vid-game war won’t touch Saddam Hussein, David Broder tagging Trent Lott as a partisan, and E. J. Dionne synthesizing those two bolts out of the blue by keening that even Saddam doesn’t unite us. All true beyond argument—which is why they don’t belong on a page that is supposed to be built on disputation.
Every day, the Post’s designated opinion meisters dodder about within a narrow bandwidth of opinion established by editor Meg Greenfield on some stone tablets an epoch ago. If it weren’t for Michael Kelly’s glorious jihad against Clinton—it’s sort of like listening to Hendrix play guitar and wondering how he’s going to find that one note higher—there would be nothing on this page your mom couldn’t have told you last week or last decade.
Post Outlook, conceived as a Sunday hangout where a range of thinkers could spend time pushing the envelope on convention, has become an elephant burial ground, a place where tired, spent ideas limp into view and keel over. The discourse of academe, something I was thrilled to leave behind when I sneaked out of college, is there waiting for me every Sunday—but it’s more like Cliffs Notes than a grad seminar.
In recent weeks, Outlook has brought readers these polemic innovations: medical marijuana = bad, drug treatment = good (never mind that it ripped off an August Metro story by Peter Slevin that made a much better case), and Ronald Reagan = dead.
The New Republic, which once drove debate with regular curve balls and oddballs that changed the parameters of the national conversation, has become a must-not read. Forget plagiarism and fiction—TNR’s larger crime has been failing to make the smallest dent in the current debate before Congress, a story that it would have owned a decade ago. Yes, the magazine has always been full of eat-your-veggies policy riffs, but it used to be interrupted by conceptual scoops about current events that came out of nowhere. Other than Jeffrey Rosen’s prescient pieces about the legal wreckage that will remain long after the particulars of this debate are forgotten—and those appear in New York titles as often as they do in Marty Peretz’s playground—TNR has sat it out. The current regime, shackled by the publisher’s agenda, has finally revealed the mystery of what the initials TRB stand for: Trite Redundant Bullshit.
The Weekly Standard has done a better job of staying with the story of the day, but it’s a rubber room of ideologues who have been driven visibly insane by Clinton’s endless political lives and the tendency of their Republican dreamboats to snatch defeat from the mouth of impending victory every single time. In the main, it’s a marketing brochure for Bill Kristol’s multimedia franchise—pity the schmucks who have to slug it out on short deadline to keep his name in the news. Slate was announced as a place that would host a different paradigm, a blackboard for ideas as sprawling and unpredictable as the Web itself. It has become instead the world headquarters of meta-journalism, an electronic exercise in smarty-pantsism where no one ever makes phone calls and everybody has thoughts about other people’s thoughts. The archness—of the collective brow, the writing, and the arguments—is most manifest in the Breakfast Table, where cerebral celebs deconstruct the morning paper. “The wheel of history is spinning so fast that we’re all getting dizzy. The headline news defies comment,” writes Stephan Thernstrom, a history professor at Harvard University, before going on to do just that. Slate is ultimately like everyone’s brilliant dilettante friend. Instead of calling to tell you that he just got back from an intense experience exploring Cambodia, and here’s what it was like, he calls to say he just read a New Yorker article on Cambodia, and here’s how they’re playing it these days. In the meta-world, it seems that anyone who spends the time to get personally invested in anything—ideology, politics, emotion—is instantly an intellectual suspect.
Part of the reason opinionists don’t have the inside track any more is that there is no “inside.” Guys like Walter Lippman and Scotty Reston were able to own the public consciousness because government was nowhere near as transparent a few decades ago. Their priviness made them essential to citizens who hungered for understanding of what it all meant. Now there’s no curtain to pull back. The sausage is made right before our eyes.
In fact, nearness to the process has become a handicap. How interested are you going to be in predictive, ahead-of-the-curve commentary that always turns out to be wrong? No one, not George Will, not James Glassman, and certainly not Robert Novak, knows what is going to happen next. The most seminal, farsighted commentary on the Clinton presidency turned out to be a movie script—Wag the Dog. Hollywood has the superior pulse on the land of ugly celebrity because surrealism is not a modality that plays well in letters. Historians will never accuse this decade of excessive thoughtfulness, but the past year has set new standards for vapidity and content-free current events.
Opinion writing, good or bad, doesn’t stick out because there is very little of any other kind of writing going on, regardless of how it is billed. Every common ink-stained wretch has morphed into a commentator. Used to be that reporters would attempt subtle suasion by the way in which they knit some facts and left others out. Now, they just put an analysis stamp at the top—or not—and deconstruct events through the prism of personal whimsy and notional analysis. The pretense of objectivity has gone the way of the manual typewriter—magazines, papers, and broadcasts are so jammed with cant that it’s getting pretty tough for papers—like this one—that used to make a living by just printing what they think.
Since TV commentary is the only cachet that seems to matter, formerly thoughtful people have come to view their columns as auditions for Hardball With Chris Matthews. Why bother with a fussy argument when a couple of quips about the Lewinsky affair will have producers all over town hitting their speed dials? Is it any coincidence that the only columnists worth reading anymore—Maureen Dowd (barely), Kelly, and Dorothy Rabinowitz—are the ones who refuse to endure the klieg lights of TV just to advance their visages?
When Andrew Johnson was impeached, it fell to the likes of Mark Twain and E. L. Godkin to give the first draft of history gravity and import. When William Jefferson Clinton got pinched, it was up to Laura Ingraham to put the events in context. The treatise is dead, long live the sound bite. CP
The Safeway card adds a few minuses to your grocery bill.
Forget corporate mottos and advertising copy and commercial jingles. The real sound of consumer great expectations is a lot simpler. And it goes a little like this: Boink!
Stand in line at the Safeway and you hear it constantly. Boink! The guy in front of you just gave the cashier his Safeway Club card and saved a buck on his paper towels. Boink! The woman in the next line’s total savings added up to $15. The muted clinking sound drowns out the store employees, who, in the midst of a card promotion, cheerfully ask if you’ve gotten your card yet. It blasts your senses more than the tables and signs that encourage you to sign up and enjoy the savings.
And it overwhelms that gnawing, information-age sense of dread telling you this: The Safeway Club card is a bright red, 1.5-inch-by-2.5-inch sign of the Orwellian future, plugging your every grocery move into some databank in exchange for a pocketful of retail discounts.
The truth of the boinks is that guilt has its price. In my case, the price was a little under $12. That’s how much I saved with my little red card during a recent swing through the Tenleytown Safeway. It took about 30 seconds for a $32 dollar total to slide down to just $20.87. My eyes lit up as I watched the cash register add up my bill and then, item by item, deduct my membership discount. Boink! That $2.29 Francesca Rinaldi mushroom pasta sauce is 99 cents. Boink! Those $4.29 Mrs. Smith’s pies are now $1.99. Boink! The $1.89 stuffed manzanilla olives are 99 cents.
It wasn’t until I exited the arcade of boinks that the guilt hit me. Part of it was that I realized I never eat cherry pie. And I don’t usually buy olives. And I have a whole goddamn cupboard full of pasta sauce—which I like to make from scratch, anyway.
But mostly the guilt had to do with this: They know. They know my name. They know my number. They know those tortellini everybody thought I made by hand came frozen. They know about the cold I fought with citrus cough drops. They know about the fatty foods I’ve eaten and the booze mixers I’ve bought. And, at some point, so could the rest of corporate America—from the harmless telemarketers to the more frightening insurers and employers.
It doesn’t matter. My phone has been solicited no more than usual, and the junk mail that fills my box still comes from folks like the United Farm Workers—who bounce off lefty magazine subscription mailing lists, not corporate discount cards. And there’s no time to worry about my consumer privacy. I’m too busy counting out my $11.13 savings, getting ready to heat up my frozen pie.
Big Brother must be smiling. His consumer hype has been fulfilled. —Michael Schaffer
By Jake Tapper
In June 1997, D.C. Police Chief Larry Soulsby penned an Op-Ed for the Washington Post titled “Serious About Police Reform,” which heralded the creation of the Police Service Areas (PSAs). Far from just another police department acronym, the PSAs, under Soulsby’s plan, were to serve as the foundation for a new era of community policing.
Community policing was a buzzword concept that had been sweeping through urban police forces since the early ’90s, an approach in which cops work in partnership with members of the community to fight crime. Part of the formula can be assigning cops a particular, clearly defined neighborhood to patrol.
PSAs “will help to fulfill two personal goals of mine,” Soulsby wrote. The first was to give officers “an opportunity to do the best job they can on the task that is the essence of policing: combating crime and disorder and serving citizens at the neighborhood level. The second is to have every resident of the District of Columbia on a first-name basis with at least one member of the [force].”
“I was very excited. Everybody was,” recalls a former PSA sergeant.
Several months later, of course, Soulsby gave up on all his goals on the force when he resigned amid allegations of misconduct. Chief Charles Ramsey, an expert on community policing from Chicago, was hired in April to finish the job.
It didn’t take long for the new chief to determine that Soulsby’s program was “not as sophisticated” as the Chicago model. “It’s still in its infancy—a lot of work needs to be done,” Ramsey says today.
Since the PSAs are larger than the “beat” territories officers were once assigned to patrol, there are more officers per PSA than there were per beat—a fact that police spokesman Kervin Johnson cites as triumph of the PSA system. “In the old ‘beat’ concept you had one scout car that patrolled an area or a beat, with one or two officers,” says Johnson, who formerly worked as a PSA officer near Congress Park. Each of the city’s 83 PSAs has at least three scout cars, Johnson says, and is assigned 18 to 20 officers.
But the PSA numbers on paper don’t make it onto the streets. “As far as whether [PSAs] work, the jury’s still out, because they’re understaffed,” says Frank Tracy, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police labor committee. Johnson admits that his PSA, originally slated for 18 to 20 different officers, ended up with a dozen or so—on a good day. “You have officers who may take sick leave…[or] are on some kind of administrative leave,” he explains.
Ramsey cites staffing as the PSA system’s No. 1 problem. “The way in which we have the resources allocated I’m not satisfied with,” he says. “The way the system was set up, it didn’t take into account relief factors—people being sick or on leave.”
And they’re woefully underequipped, according to the former PSA sergeant—who quit the force out of frustration. “Those of us who applied to be PSA sergeants were promised additional compensation, take-home radios, cellular phones, and take-home police cars—and that just never happened,” he says.
Another critical component of community policing is the incorporation of other city services within the model—a real logjam for a city with notoriously rude and inefficient bureaucrats. “If you get the police involved, if they have the resources, they’ll help you,” says activist Brian O’Grady. “But the community is not just the police department, and other agencies aren’t pulling their weight.”
As with all of the PSA system’s shortcomings, Ramsey says he’s on the case. “Our officers need a mechanism in place to access city services,” he says. “We were very successful doing that in Chicago.” He has just discussed this issue with D.C. Chief Management Officer Camille Cates Barnett, and they have agreed that the police department’s new regional command centers will make room for representatives from other agencies.
O’Grady wonders just which tourist was responsible for dividing the city into the 83 chunks. “It was like carving Europe up after World War I. The beats were smaller and more representative of the people….People on one half of the PSA are looking at one kind of problem, and people on the other half are looking at another.” One PSA in his neighborhood was so happy with the old system, O’Grady says, that it rebelled and split into PSA 112 East and PSA 112 West.
Though activist Jim Myers has yet to hoist a rebel flag and declare his own PSA, he has boundary problems as well. His PSA, 109, encompasses neighborhoods from Eastern Market to RFK Stadium, opposite ends of the spectrum not only geographically, but socioeconomically. Myers reports that cops are slow to respond to the open-air drug market issue near RFK because they’re focusing on the “statistically important crimes” near Eastern Market. “Guys might be committing a felony by selling drugs on the corner, but there’s no statistic covering that,” Myers reports.
“Some [PSAs] are too large,” says Ramsey of the misdivided territories. “Some don’t take into account the actual work environment. Some are real busy, while others aren’t busy at all.”
Perhaps they’d be busier if they focused on the one scourge that drives most crime of all categories in the District: drugs. Daily crime statistics for the city are printed out during the overnight shift and read at morning roll call for the benefit of community police officers. The printouts, however, exclude all drug crimes. “You would think that they would be more focused on it,” says a PSA officer who asked not to be identified.
Ramsey is working on a crime-mapping system that will notify officers of “hot spots” in the neighborhoods, which should rectify that problem. Remember, he says, “any time you do something new, you got a shakeout period and you’re going to have problems. It is a work in progress.”
In August, a contingent of D.C. policemen hopped a flight to the Windy City to attend a conference on community policing that Chief Ramsey had been helping to put together before he came to Washington. The well-received conference was called “Beyond the Rhetoric: Facing the Challenges of Community Policing.”
To get beyond the rhetoric in Washington, Ramsey needs not only cops willing to do the grunt work of documenting lawless street behavior, but citizens, as well. “More people [need to] get involved,” says community activist Beth Purcell, noting that few people in her Southeast neighborhood take part in PSA activities or join her on neighborhood patrols.
“There are still a lot of people who don’t understand what we expect of them,” Ramsey says, “some of the police officers and some of the community members.” He’ll be unveiling a joint police-community training program in 1999 to fix that very problem.
“It’s a two-way street,” says a spokesman for the Justice Department’s community policing division. “To be able to be truly effective, the police and the community need to work together.”
And, after all, crime in D.C. is down 14 percent, Ramsey says. “Of the 83 PSAs, all but three showed a decrease in crime, so it’s not like it’s made things worse. We just need to continue to work….I know it has problems, but I don’t see it as anything not fixable.” CP
Everyone knows it’s Wendy, but Channel 4’s most telegenic newscaster still chirps to a small audience.
There are two prototypes that make the cover of Washingtonian: Second-rate models showcasing the latest exercise equipment or eating cheap sushi with chop sticks, and bona fide local celebrities. No one in town was confused as to which of the two was plastered on the July “Best & Worst” cover.
There she was, her blond, coiffed head cocked demurely back, designer shades propped up to reveal her dreamy peepers, flashing that sly, knowing half-smile. The magazine’s readers had christened Wendy Rieger the “Local Celebrity I’d Most Like To Rub With Suntan Oil and Lie on the Beach With.”
The Internet apparently agreed. The News 4 reporter was one of the honorees enshrined on the News Babe Page, a Web site paying tribute to photogenic female newscasters all over the globe. In fact, a quote by Rieger is the site’s official motto: “Big salaries, big market—none of that matters. Being a news babe is the reason we all went to journalism school.”
If she’s that witty and that much of a babe, why is Rieger still toiling as a reporter and a weekend anchor, preaching to the converted at 11 o’clock on Sunday night? True, the News 4 anchor team of Jim Vance and Doreen Gentzler remains a Zen-perfect, yin-yang pairing that only the Grim Reaper can terminate. But that doesn’t explain why Rieger, who has snagged two local Emmys during her 10-year tenure at WRC-TV (Channel 4), hasn’t found a full-time anchor gig of her own.
Despite her following among Web geeks, the Norfolk native is, in fact, a veritable anti-bimbo, a throwback to an era long before golden girls like Jessica Savitch ever burst into the ionosphere. She’s a member of the Hildy Johnson school of journalism, that tough-talking, wise-cracking newsie played by Rosalind Russell in Howard Hawk’s 1940 screwball comedy, His Girl Friday.
Unlike most broadcast TV prima donnas, Rieger fought her way to the middle rungs. She spend several years in radio news at WAMU-FM, NPR, and WTOP-AM. She then moved to CNN and landed at Channel 4 nearly a decade ago. The most recent of Rieger’s Emmys stemmed from a two-week vacation to Vietnam, where she shot captivating footage of a side of that country tourists seldom see.
That sort of enterprise earned the veteran an offer this year from rival station WJLA-TV (Channel 7) for a full-time anchor slot. Rieger passed. “Channel 4 came back and threw a lot more money at me, and I decided to stay,” she says.
“I’ve got a great setup,” says Rieger, “because I’m the only single anchor in this market. I get to control my own show.” That’s the setup she would have had at her new gig as well—for up to a year, possibly—while the station searched for a suitable co-anchor. “I thought, ‘You’re going to have me in and then start experimenting with me? Who are you going to sit next to me?’” says Rieger. “Because that can kill me, if you put a dud next to me.”
There’s only one Cary Grant-caliber newscaster Rieger deems worthy of her company, and he already has his dream job: “The only person I like co-anchoring with is Jim Vance, and Jim and Doreen are one word—they’re our franchise.”
And so Rieger fans will have to be satisfied with the routine they’ve gotten used to from their favorite News Babe: three days of reporting, plus solo anchoring on the weekend shift. Even if this gig makes Rieger happy, as she claims it does, it is a bitter pill for those pop-eyed couch potatoes festering in Wendy’s blue glow. —Eddie Dean
Reinventing the Wheel
By Michael Schaffer
The origins of the District’s dozen traffic circles are steeped in as much mythology as the Georgetown Metro stop.
Myth No. 1 holds that D.C. designer Pierre Charles L’Enfant, with an eye on the young American republic’s precarious place in the world, drew the circles into his 1791 design to help the city fend off foreign armies. Defenders of liberty, the logic goes, could put cannons in the well-placed circles and keep the Redcoats at bay.
Myth No. 2, conversely, holds that insecure federal honchos dreamed up the circles to help them put down potential uprisings by their own people. G-men, Pinkertons, and other guardians of the status quo, according to this legend, could position themselves at the circles, securing clear sightlines down the avenues to put the rabble in their place.
Neither scenario, of course, bears any connection to reality. What are now circles were merely empty spaces on L’Enfant-era maps, better suited for 19th-century stickball than for civil defense. And the notion of using circles and avenues to keep the masses in line springs from a late-19th-century plan for Paris, conceived well after Washington had taken shape.
It’s a good thing, too. Even in myth, the circles have failed to live up to their expectations. Little more than a decade after the new District became the nation’s capital, in 1800, the king of England’s troops torched the city—undeterred by its as-yet-nonexistent circles. Oops. And you don’t have to be an expert on riot control to know that a handful of mostly downtown traffic circles didn’t manage to stop the people from taking it to the streets in April 1968, when large chunks of the city burned. Oops again.
Rather than hosting cannons and armies, the circles were in fact designed to host neighbors and picnics. Hailing mostly from the Gilded Age, D.C.’s lush roundabouts were built with a Victorian notion of public promenading in mind. Unfortunately, the circles have done no better as grand public spaces for urban neighborhoods than at meeting their mythic callings.
On a 70-degree afternoon in early December, there’s a place for everyone at Dupont Circle. There are 113 people, 12 bikes, one moped, seven games of chess, two strollers, a pair of roller blades, a tenor horn, four cups of Starbuck’s coffee, at least three discarded A&W Root Beer containers, and one very boisterous flock of pigeons.
The scene in Dupont, of course, is printed in the minds of many Washingtonians. And that’s because they’ve probably stumbled across it. The chess players, the bikers, the Bach horn sonata provide a great distraction for all the pedestrians who are on their way somewhere. The circle just happens to be in the middle.
A lot of the other circles look as if they’re in the middle of nowhere. On this sunny afternoon, in fact, Dupont is the only D.C. circle where pigeons don’t outnumber humans. A few blocks east, at Logan Circle, the orphaned shopping carts nearly outnumber them, too. Though plenty of folks are meandering along adjacent streets, just a handful of men are sitting or sleeping on the circle’s benches. “I would not go through here, for sure,” says Marie Herdman, who pushes her daughter’s stroller down 13th Street and then along the sidewalks around Logan. She gestures toward the inside and says, “Say no more.”
And Logan Circle is positively swimming with human life compared with D.C.’s other roundabouts. At Washington Circle, not a single person is relaxing in the sun amidst the uninterrupted swirl of cars along the outside. Ditto for beautiful Grant Circle, in upper Ward 4. Not far away, in Sherman Circle, there’s a desultory game of after-school football going on. The grand total number of players: two.
Those players are the lucky ones. If their neighborhood ringed downtown’s Thomas Circle or Upper Northwest’s Ward Circle, both of which have separate center traffic lanes cut through the middle to ease commuter passage, they’d have to dodge death to get there in the first place. Once they managed that, they’d scarcely have enough open space left for a game of ping pong—let alone football. So those circles—like nearly all such spaces in D.C.—are left empty.
According to longtime D.C. planner Richard Westbrook, what are now traffic circles were dusty lots until a late-19th-Century road-paving frenzy. “L’Enfant’s concept was, you know, you had an area where these diagonals and the vertical and horizontal streets met,” he says. “There was no concept of being there as a meeting place.”
“In the 1870s and ’80s, the Corps of Engineers took them over and made them nice….by putting curbs around whatever space it was,” says local architect and history buff Don Hawkins. Though Washington has its share of squares and endless numbers of small triangle parks, the large spaces often wound up being circles.
The circles’ early years came the closest to the Victorian idea of a local promenade. “They were the local park,” explains Jeff Carson of the Commission of Fine Arts. “Many of them had fences, and they all were set up with park benches and lighting and walks.”
Unfortunately, though, that didn’t last. “It was attrition,” explains Carson. The standard villains are the automobile, which gobbled up as roadway land that had theretofore been part of the circles’ parks; suburbanization, which sucked density out of surrounding neighborhoods; and the rise of a stay-inside culture, which diminished the amount of simple outdoor strolling that once filled smaller public spaces with people.
By mid-century, some circles had high-speed underpasses, while others had been carved up with internal traffic lanes. “You can’t get to the circles,” concludes Carson.
Perhaps it’s just the shape. D.C. communities go nuts for other sorts of public geometry. Take the triangle, for starters. Concerned neighbors spent years renovating the triangle parks like the S and T Street parks off 17th Street, brawling with folks who’d retain the status quo.
Meanwhile, the city’s squares—from downtown’s Lafayette, McPherson, and Farragut Squares to Capitol Hill’s Stanton Park—are all popular outdoor perches. And even the Mall’s Ellipse gets people excited. No doubt rhombuses, hexagons, and trapezoids would all have their constituencies, too. But many of the city’s circles are curiously bereft of local ownership.
There’s no major movement, for example, to make Washington and Scott Circles more accessible, Thomas less grimy, or Ward more whole. Surrendering to the automobile is a lot like clear-cutting a virgin forest: Once the damage is done, restoration is impossible.
There are exceptions, of course. Neighbors around Logan Circle salvaged their park from commuter depredations years ago and continue to watchdog the space these days. Dupont Circle activists recently inaugurated a makeover of a dilapidated comfort station just off the circle. And the Downtown Business Improvement District (BID) has an announced goal of trying to get more folks to use public spaces, something the BID’s Joe Sternlieb hopes catches on in circles—none of which, however, are in his territory. “What our special-places program is about,” says Sternlieb, “is trying to revitalize public spaces, in thinking about the way people use spaces and thinking about that in design.”
Vendors or newsstands or even hot-dog stands, all currently forbidden in D.C.’s circles, could attract what the spaces need the most: people. “Often, if you put a little newsstand or lunch kiosk in a park,” says Sternlieb, “it makes it more secure, makes it cleaner, because someone has an interest in keeping it clean.”
But according to Hawkins, the real problem may not be that the circles haven’t lived up to the city’s expectations but, rather, that the city hasn’t lived up to its circles. Dupont is the only major circle with offices, bookstores, and places to buy all those A&W bottles nearby. “Look how sparse is the population in the old city, except Capitol Hill,” he says. “Dupont Circle happens to be the area that was developed in such a way to accommodate a day and night crowd. Mostly I think it’s just an accident of development.”
The circles’ 19th-century innovators built for a big city—maybe not big enough to stage a full-on revolution necessitating federal guns in the roundabouts, but certainly big enough to stage a civic life complete with picnics and strolls. Convince, oh, another half-million folks to move into the District, and you could have circles hopping with life. “I think that’s all that’s lacking, really, is a larger public,” says Hawkins. CP
Derek McGinty may need to take a few more swings before returning to the majors.
Decision makers at D.C.’s public TV station worshipped Derek McGinty. No matter what the 39-year-old radio and TV personality worked on, WETA-TV found a time slot for it. They even televised McGinty’s D.C. Politics Hour, 60 minutes of McGinty and political junkie Mark Plotkin talking into mikes.
WETA and area viewers no doubt saw in McGinty the same qualities that Bryant Gumbel saw. The former Today show icon spotted a piece that McGinty had done during a part-time stint for CBS’ short-lived TV magazine Coast to Coast. The story focused on a girl who had gotten kicked out of school for wearing black lipstick. “It was a cool little piece,” McGinty says. Gumbel thought so, too.
Gumbel phoned him up—they needed to talk. Only weeks later, McGinty was working on a story for CBS’ Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel. “Man, this is going to be so great,” McGinty thought.
No one in the District thought that McGinty would stick around on local public outlets for much longer. “We’d always viewed him as a talent who was going to work at the national level at some point,” says David McGowan, WETA’s senior VP for news and public affairs.
McGinty scored a fat salary, lodged at Manhattan’s finest hotels, hung with fascinating people, and became friends with Gumbel, one of his heroes. Assignments took him all over, from the Galapagos Islands to California. “It was fun….I was having a good ol’ time,” he says. “Who wouldn’t?”
But CBS honchos out on the West Coast didn’t share McGinty’s joie de vivre. Disappointed with the show’s ratings, they canceled it and disbanded the staff. Just as fast as he’d been hired, McGinty found himself out of a job last September.
Shortly after returning to his home in Silver Spring, McGinty got a call from the news director for Channel 7, Jim LeMay. The name didn’t inspire the awe of a Gumbel, but there was a job offer on the table—though it was one with a substantial dip in pay. Still, LeMay offered to let McGinty play to his strengths, “to pursue issue-oriented stories…rather than just chase fires,” LeMay says. McGinty started in November, reporting three days a week for the station’s evening news and co-hosting Good Morning Washington each weekend morning. Old friends are hooking him up, too: He’s continuing to work for PBS and WETA, and is currently finishing up his first piece for Gumbel’s HBO sports show.
There’s no way to portray the move from CBS to Channel 7 as a step ahead, but McGinty can spin with the best of ’em: “I’m learning a whole new skill,” he says. “With CBS, I’d go out [and report], but you go out with a producer and an associate producer…and they write the story a lot.” At Channel 7, he’s largely on his own—an experience that may help him stick to the bigs on his next tour.
“When I was looking for people I believed in, he’s someone I wanted—period,” Gumbel says. CBS executives “may disagree with that—it’s a subjective business—but I think they’re wrong….I still believe in him.” —Jake Tapper