For years, the alley behind Greg Nicklas’ 17th Street house served as a makeshift public utility for Mount Pleasant drunks. When people weren’t pissing in the alley, they were using it for dope deals, prostitution, or just as a transfer station for heaps of trash.
“The space was basically used as a bathroom,” says Nicklas. “It was called ‘Urine Alley.’ No other Mount Pleasant alley was like that. It drew a bad crowd.”
Last month, Nicklas decided to take matters into his own hands. After circulating a petition to his neighbors, he built gates at both ends of the alley, which runs through the block bounded by 17th, Mount Pleasant, Kilbourne, and Kenyon Streets NW. Since then, he says, the space has seen a sea change. “One grandmother pointed at her grandson, who’s maybe 25, and said not since he was 5 has this space felt safe.”
A 14-year resident, Nicklas describes his effort to build a mini-gated community as an affirmation of everything that first brought him to Mount Pleasant. “It’s a very diverse block in race, ethnicity, and income,” says Nicklas. Yet “every household had at least one person out with brooms and hoses to wash it down and clean up the trash.”
Not everyone, though, views the gates as a sign of progress. Members of the Community of Christ, a small ecumenical congregation whose building lies across the alley, have expressed concerns that the gates may impede access by emergency vehicles to the congregation’s life-skills center for mentally retarded adults. But congregation members’ real beef against Nicklas was for essentially privatizing public space.
“There were some people, including me, who remain concerned about the notion of blocking something offthe message it sent,” says Doug Huron, a Community of Christ member.
Like any city official worth her title, Mount Pleasant advisory neighborhood commissioner Polly Donaldson couches her reaction in elegant bureaucratic terms. “The philosophical question is the reason there’s a whole process to go through in the first place,” says Donaldson. “I haven’t heard any complaints, but I don’t necessarily agree with the how of it….There’ve been a lot of problems in the alley, but I also don’t want to see alleys closed all over Mount Pleasant. It’s not a good message to send.”
Nicklas is actually following a time-honored tradition of D.C. residents exercising a kind of personal eminent domain over public spaces. A few years ago, the National Park Service had to systematically push back property owners who had usurped significant portions of Rock Creek Park by expanding the boundaries of their yards. Though fear of crimeand not greedis the motive in this case, Nicklas’ gates take the privatizing one step further. Yet he maintains that because the initial plan left one of the gates unlocked, the alley always remained a fully public space. (He also says this has spared neighbors the complicated and expensive process of getting city approval to formally close a public alley. At present, Nicklas has dealt only informally with fire and police officials and appears uncertain about the legality of his actions.)
After several meetings, homeowners and the church group on June 4 reached a compromise under which both gates are to remain standing but unlocked. Though some people may be scared off by the gates, which are imposing and hard to open, Nicklas says the new setup actually allows “as much access as there ever was before. In fact, there’s more community access now than before. Then, people were scared.” Nicklas claims neighbors are planning to use the alley weekly or biweekly for organized events and even as an art exhibit space.
At the very least, Nicklas says, the alley “closing” has turned once-apathetic residents into activists. Several of his neighbors, he says, are now planning to join him in working with a local nonprofit helping Mount Pleasant’s down-and-out. Community of Christ member Bob Pohlman trumpets the neighborhood’s conciliatory mood. “We’ve always been very sympathetic with the neighbors’ desire for safe and sanitary living conditions. This isn’t a one-side-against-the-other thing right now,” he says. After the meetings, says Pohlman, “there’s a real spirit of everyone trying to address the larger problems” behind the festering alley.
But while brawling drunks may be a thing of the past, the minirow over the alley is very much a sign of the times. It represents a clash between two liberal images of city life. In one, homeownersmany of whom chose the neighborhood specifically for its diversityrally to protect their homes. In the other, citizens work to make sure that the forces of gentrification don’t rub out the community identity that made it attractive in the first place. For now, those two ideals are separated by a gate in Mount Pleasant.CP