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Solomon Graham promised to accomplish great things in the space he rented at the Armstrong Adult Education Center on First and P Streets NW. He promised to set up the Graham Institute of Construction Science Ltd., a vocational school that would teach youngsters how to build a house from the ground up. He promised that graduates of the institute would help the city rehab thousands of boarded-up buildings. He also promised to pay monthly rent to the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS).
Graham has had some trouble keeping his promises. Although he says he is hard at the business of educating young people, he’s in arrears on his other commitments. Since signing an eight-month lease in early 1997, Graham has yet to make a single monthly payment to DCPS. The lease expired last November, but that doesn’t much matter to Graham, who continues to run his school at Armstrong. DCPS has tried to wring payments from Graham and is now going through eviction proceedings. The campaign started with mildly worded warnings, then soon escalated into full-blown threats and police raids. At one point, Graham ended up sleeping at the school, clutching a baseball bat for protection. His school sleepovers last fall went on for three months.
Although not many of Graham’s agenda items have come to pass, you have to give him credit for steadfastness. Even though he owes $200,000 in lease payments, DCPS can’t budge him from his bunker at Armstrong.
Judging by a tour on a recent Friday afternoon, it looks as if the money Graham has saved isn’t being used for upkeep of the facility. The Armstrong building is hemmed in by 3-foot-tall grass and weeds. At the front entrance, a tangle of black garments lies baking in the sun. They’ve been there for a couple of days. An empty Miller Genuine Draft bottle stands at attention by the parking lot. Assorted rubbish rings the building and adjacent tennis courts. A paper sign on the back door reads “Registration (today) Graham Ed. Institute.” It’s been there for four to five months. The building looks consummately forgettable, but DCPS officials haven’t lost track of Armstrong or the fact that Graham owes them big time. They just can’t seem to do much about it.
When Graham, 60, answers the door to Armstrong (all the doors are always locked), he’s paranoid enough to give a false name. He calls himself “Ron Thomas.” Thomas né Graham hands out a few brochures and eases into a chair behind his desk. As he puffs on a cigarette and talks “construction science,” his soft voice competes with a Zenith television set blaring a cartoon version of Jim Carrey’s The Mask. Graham says he has hired 17 teachers and enrolled 137 students. He says he’s working on picking up grants from area corporations and government agencies. He says he’s even shelled out $300,000 of his own money for the project.
When asked if the institute is having financial difficulties, Graham says: “You have your normal problemsthat’s all.” Like paying the rent? “Just students,” answers Graham. “Two dropped out, defaulting on student loans.”
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Graham ignores questions about DCPS about as effectively as he ignores DCPS itself. On May 14, 1997, Veronica Falwell, DCPS’s senior realty officer, sent the first dunning letter to the school. Graham had yet to pay April and May’s rent, totaling $46,158, and Falwell tried to scare him into action. “Your failure to make your account current, or to make timely payments, thereafter, may result in the termination of the use agreement, and your immediate eviction from DCPS property,” she wrote.
Graham called DCPS’s bluff and paid nothing.
Determined to get closure on the case, Falwell and Suzanne Conrad, DCPS’s senior director for policy and planning, made about a dozen calls to the institute with warnings about rent delinquency. They got nowhere.
In a July 18 letter, Conrad threatened that all the school’s locks would be changed and that all the institute’s property would be “packed and stored” at Graham’s expense. On July 31, when Graham’s unpaid rent bill registered $76,930, Gen. Charles Williams, former facilities chief for DCPS, and Conrad decided to do a site visit. Conrad reports that the two saw a building in poor condition and found evidence that Graham was subleasing part of Armstrong to a commercial print shop.
“Mr. Graham was there and walked around with us for a little,” Conrad remembers. “We didn’t have a formal meeting. There appeared to be some kind of registration going on. We were there to do a building inspection.” Still, Conrad doesn’t recall if she or Williams discussed the rent.
When Williams returned to work, he got angry and fired off his own terse missive. “Based on my visit to Armstrong School this morning, this letter is to emphasize that you are to be physically out of the Armstrong School no later than August 1, 1997 at 4 p.m.,” wrote Williams in bold type. “This situation cannot continue.”
Inking the lease with Graham, concedes Conrad, is one decision DCPS wishes it could have back. “The guy is very good on his feet,” says Conrad. “He talked about his promises. He was very exacting about his program.”
After receiving Williams’ letter, Graham got a lawyer and pledged to pay his rent by the end of August. Conrad says that Graham agreed that if he didn’t pay up, he would leave on his own. Now, nearly a year later, Graham still hasn’t paid a dime. And he’s still squatting at Armstrong.
Since August, Conrad says her security team has tried to get his keys, change the locks, or just plain get the guy outall to no avail. During the last week of October, DCPS started to increase the pressure. Graham says six DCPS security staffers showed up one night insisting on changing the locks. Graham wasn’t going to budge. “I told [them] they weren’t going to do that,” he says. “They didn’t have court documents or anything.”
“I told them, ‘Don’t take it personally, get your overtime, go home,’” Graham says. The security detail instead called the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). Twenty minutes later, about 15 MPD officers arrived. Graham produced a lease, and the cops and security force backed off.
During that same week four fires broke out in the building. According to a District official on the scene, the fires were ruled arson attempts. Graham, who is prone to seeing life through a prism of conspiracy, suggests that DCPS is trying to smoke him out by setting their own facility on fire.
“Those people set the fires. They tried to get the fire marshal to get us out of the building. I called the FBI. The FBI told me to call the mayor. Why would I call the mayor? Why? We laughed about that….Why should I call the mayor about a fire?” Graham recalls. DCPS scoffs at the notion that they put a torch to Armstrong.
Graham even called the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. “They said they couldn’t investigate because they have to be invited in,” he reports, sounding miffed that they wouldn’t buy into his conspiracy. D.C. Fire Marshal Alexander Bullock says that the cases are still pending.
Last fall, DCPS reached the end of its rope and handed the Armstrong case over to the District’s Corporation Counsel. The case is set to go before Landlord and Tenant Court on June 8. It couldn’t come any sooner. “It is disheartening when you have a property tied up,” DCPS’s Conrad complains. DCPS acting general counsel Lawrence Crocker wishes he could get Graham out sooner.
“We have to wait for our turn at bat,” Crocker explains.
Mary Miles also had to wait her turn after she rented a house her late aunt had owned to Graham in the fall of 1996. He signed a lease for the carriage house, located at 6203 Piney Branch Road NW, for six months with an option to buy. He came highly recommended by a business partner of Miles. “He said he needed the place,” she remembers. “I thought he’d be reasonable. He said he was a plumber.” Graham proceeded to stiff her on rent, along with back utility expenses, according to Miles.
Miles, who’s in her late 70s, took Graham to Landlord and Tenant Court. “I tried not to deal with him, period,” she says. She just wanted him out. On Sept. 29, 1997, she received a judgment for $5,061. On Nov. 12, a trio of marshals came in to evict Graham. Miles says they were met with a porch coated in dog feces, rooms filled with broken antique furniture and kitchen appliances, food all over the walls, and a yapping mutt. But no Graham. Inside, amid the wreckage, Graham’s belongings were already neatly packed in boxes; he had known what was coming. He later arrived and quietly cleared out.
Miles was furious. “I’m an old lady, but I’m a ladyI would have jumped on him like a chicken on a junebug,” Miles says. “He said he was sorry; he apologized. He said, ‘I’m sorry things turned out like they did. I got a million-and-a-half dollars coming, and I’m going to pay you everything I owe you.’” To date, she has received $102. She’s still waiting for the rest.
Ironically, the master builder is staking his case against DCPS on the very building he’s squatting in. He says Armstrong was uninhabitable when he opened up for business last May. Indeed, the school had been closed a year earlier, according to the Washington Post, because of its age. (The school was built in 1902.) DCPS’s own records show that the school had “major deficiencies” in windows, plumbing, and interior and mechanical conditions.
A week later, Graham offers a tour of Armstrong to prove his point. The school looks as if it has been looted and left to rot. School supplies sit baking in dust and rust. Ceilings leak on all floors. Paint peelings are everywhere. In two bathrooms, pipes run from the ceiling straight into toilets. The boiler room floods when it rains. Old computers, NCR typewriters, and copy machines the size of homecoming floats sit stacked in vacant rooms. Windows are busted in almost every other doorway. DCPS even left its library books.
It also left school records dating back to 1902which include Duke Ellington’s transcript, which lists one “William (Duke) Ellington,” a kid who had trouble with most subjects, except music, of course. “All of this was left in my care,” Graham says, staring at the rows of filing cabinets stuffed with yellowed records. “It’s crazy….They left all of this shit here.”
Moving up to the third floor and an electronics classroom, Graham shows off the piles of what looks like World War II-era radio gear. A dozen useless CPUs are stacked in a corner. The lesson on the blackboard shows how to insert a floppy disc. There are pigeon droppings splattered all down the hallway. A flock can be heard pecking and squawking in the attic.
Mopping up bird droppings isn’t want Graham bargained for. He’s spent months cleaning the building, and he can still only use 40 percent of it. He estimates that it will take him another five years, with the help of his students, to finish the job.
He says he hasn’t paid rent because DCPS has failed to clean up the building. He believed that the department would make the necessary repairs before he moved in, but it didn’t. “They were going to compensate us by cleaning the building. The building was left in shambles because everybody was firedteachers, principals,” Graham explains. “They were supposed to compensate us for the rent.”
“Fifteen thousand, three hundred and eighty-six dollars [per month] is a hell of a lot of money to pay for a rundown building,” Graham complains. “Why would they want us to pay that kind of money?”
Conrad says Graham is ignoring some hard and fast contractual language. The lease agreement Graham signed specifically stipulates that he accept the property “as is” and that the Institute be solely responsible for any costs for the building’s upkeep and repair.
Armstrong had problems, Conrad admits. “The building was in poor shape, but all of our buildings we lease are in poor shape,” she explains. While the school system did agree to pay for hauling of trash, Conrad says Graham never submitted a bill for his cleanup.
Finishing a tour of his trashy kingdom, Graham returns to his office to answer phone calls and smoke another cigarette. None of this past year’s events faze him too much.
“I’m not about to leave,” he says in a low, parched tone. “I’ve been trying to do this for 20 years….There’s no way I’m out unless they take me out in a fucking box.”CP