When Mayor Barry last December singled out white Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson as enemy No. 1 of the city’s predominantly black University of District of Columbia, he generated truckloads of hate mail. Don’t exploit race for political gain, cried critics from all over town, the city is divided enough as it is.
The critics, of course, were right. The first chapter of any civics book on the District opens with a primer on the city’s neatly drawn geographical, racial, and class fissures. West of Rock Creek Park lives a class of white, affluent Fresh Fields shoppers who have the time and money to protest things like the closing of movie theaters. Between the park and the Anacostia River you find a mix of gentrified and hollowed-out neighborhoods in equal measure. And popular mythology paints areas east of the Anacostia as uniformly black, poor, and crime-ridden, a stereotype that ignores their prosperous communities.
It’s bad enough when leaders like Barry use rhetoric to heighten the city’s barriers. But it’s even worse when the Department of Public Works (DPW) gets in on the act. By the time DPW gets done dividing the District, Bosnia will look positively tightknit.
It started quietly. Certainly no one in town hoisted any red flags last year when DPW corralled the orange-and-white barrels and barricades around the Whitehurst Freeway in preparation for a long-promised overhaul. Months earlier, a chunk of the freeway had fallen onto a car parked along K Street. And the conspiracy theorists were silent when the hard hats started hammering away at the Massachusetts Avenue bridge over Rock Creek Park. According to DPW traffic engineer John Payne, the bridge’s bed was crumbling, as were its well-traveled sidewalks. The work may have been necessary, but the snarl that ensued is anything but routine: Since last fall, west-of-the-park commuters have gotten a good look at every last brick of the British Embassy/high-school gym.
The real agenda behind DPW’s roadwork didn’t surface until late November, when a crew of the agency’s construction workers plopped their tools of racial/geographical/social division onto the pavement of Calvert Street just west of Connecticut Avenue, another popular crosstown route. A DPW press release issued at the time could not have sounded more innocuous. “The project consists of constructing a new 10-inch reinforced concrete pavement; installing a new storm drainage system, granite curbs and concrete gutters; and replacing all lead water service lines,” it read.
Payne’s account of why DPW scheduled construction on both the Massachusetts Avenue bridge and Calvert Streetboth of which connect Ward 3 with the rest of the cityis nothing more than a conspiratorial confession couched in bureaucratese. “We probably wouldn’t do Calvert Street and Mass. Ave. bridge at the same time, but we did because both needed work and were programmed for the same time. We saw no reason to hold off any longer,” says Payne.
Where Payne sees happenstance, Jodie Allen, a Northwest resident who drives to her downtown office, sees conspiracy. “One of Washington’s great virtues used to be the ability to get from outlying neighborhoods to the monuments and downtown really easily,” says Allen, Washington editor of Slate online magazine. “But the authorities have apparently detected that last remaining attraction and stamped it out….The larger plan here is to destroy the city’s commercial base altogether.”
Teuvo Honkakunnas, who supervises the limo drivers at the Finnish Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue, says his drivers have resorted to circuitous alternate routes, like the streets of Georgetown and a byway he calls “Vultone Street.” “They have to think ahead,” says Honkakunnas, adding, “I am just visiting here, so I can’t say anything. I have to accept what’s coming up.”
But Honkakunnas’ air of resignation may deepen when he learns what’s actually coming up. In a second wave of bridge Blitzkrieg, DPW will drive its concrete-and-reinforced-steel wedge further into the heart of D.C. Next week, a DPW column will be deployed at the M Street bridge over Rock Creek Park. At around the same time, a separate flank will head north to establish a beachhead at the Military Road bridge, which Payne says “carries a lot of traffic, which causes wear and tear.” Likely story.
The folks who don’t want to wrestle with Georgetown traffic to access the Pennsylvania Avenue crossing, or zigzag through the backstreets to the bridges on P and Q Streets, will end up funneling onto the bucolic two-lane bridge on Park Road over Piney Branch Creek. And guess what? DPW will soon be there, too. According to Payne, workers will reduce traffic to one lanewestbound only.
Councilmember Patterson has asked DPW officials for a full explanation of the odd timing of construction on the city’s crosstown routes. “Part of the information that we [got] was that these were things we had on the drawing board for a long time,” says Patterson, who insisted that Ward 3 motorists would find a way to get through to their eastern brethren. “I think it’s poor planning, not a conspiracy,” she says.
Jon Haber, a communications consultant who has seen a routine commute balloon to a 40-minute trek from his upper Northwest home to his downtown office, puts a tighter spin on Patterson’s thinking. “I don’t believe there is a conspiracy,” he says. “For there to be a conspiracy, they would have to be competent. And they aren’t.” CP