Quincy Lewis Gatling was feeling good. He’d had a string of bad luck, starting a few months ago when a passing car bumped him on a Northeast street, putting his arm in a brace. Then, in June, he was one among dozens mowed down by a driver at Anacostia’s Unifest and broke his arm. But his streak seemed to be coming to an end.
A big check compensating him for his Unifest injury would clear the next day, he told his friend Tony Brown, as they sat on a stoop listening to music and cracking jokes in the 1800 block of North Capitol Street NW. Brown, perhaps hoping to inspire Gatling to use his windfall to pay back the $40 he owed, bought him two Bud Ice beers from the corner store.
“I went to the restroom, got a sandwich, and when I came back, I seen yellow tape,” Brown says.
The 46-year-old Gatling had tried to cross North Capitol, probably to go to his home in the unit block of Todd Place NE. Usually, he walked over a small bridge at T Street—a block south of Todd. But instead, on July 15 at 8:05 p.m., Gatling used a common shortcut—leaping into an underpass, where he was struck and killed by a Dodge Ram pickup.
“I always do it,” Brown, 33, says about the shortcut. “But that was the first time I seen him do it. I shouldn’t have bought him those beers.”
As North Capitol cuts between the Bloomingdale and Eckington neighborhoods, through-traffic dives under T Street and Rhode Island Avenue. The underpass spans six blocks from Randolph Place north to W Street. There’s also a wrought-iron fence in the median, starting at the traffic light at Randolph and continuing two blocks north to Seaton Place, where the underpass is about 10 feet below street level and keeps sinking.
The underpass and fence turn what could be a 20-yard stroll to the other side of the street into a roundabout, two-block-plus inconvenience. It’s not a huge inconvenience, but enough of one that both young and older men put themselves in danger to avoid it. Their shortcut involves crossing where the median fence ends, which means hopping over a side railing and dropping down about 10 feet, possibly into dangerous traffic.
Just a day after Gatling’s death, another man perches himself atop the railing like a wannabe Spider-Man. His arms are locked tightly around the top rail behind him and his knees jut out. His potbelly bulges forward and the soles of his sneakers are pressed flat against the stones of the underpass’s retaining wall.
Some 10 to 15 feet below, cars whiz north toward Washington Hospital Center and south toward Union Station. He waits for a clearing in the traffic to pounce onto the pavement below and cross four lanes at a point where there’s no median fence. This was where Gatling, too, tried to cross.
Plenty of locals testify to the shortcut’s popularity:
“I been around this area all my life. I know people that got hit. I do it when it’s not busy,” says Richard, a 30-year-old man who lives on the east side of North Capitol.
“It’s just a shorter way,” says one 40-year-old man who uses the shortcut to get to a corner market on the west side of the street. He declined to give his name for fear of punishment.
“I think it’s safe. Ain’t nothing wrong with North Capitol,” says Dayvon Taylor, 24, who lives on the east side and has successfully climbed over the railing numerous times to get to his child’s mother’s house, which is on the west side.
The city disagrees with Taylor’s assessment. Last year, the city’s transportation department erected the median fence to discourage illegal crossings, replacing an old chain-link model rife with cut-out or bent-back gaps.
“If people are determined to break a line, they find a way,” says department spokesperson Erik Linden. “We may have to take another look at what we can do.”
The city is currently implementing parts of its Pedestrian Master Plan to improve safety and access, but the North Capitol Street area has not been identified as a priority corridor by the city or police. For Ward 5, the priority is Bladensburg Road NE between Benning Road and Eastern Avenue. Still, police have held community meetings and talked to schoolchildren about using crosswalks instead of shortcuts, but the practice continues.
“It’s almost like the message has got to the smaller kids; the message is geared to the adults who should know better in the first place,” says Capt. Melvin Scott of the 5th District. “It’s a very unsafe practice. It’s like Russian roulette every time they do it.”
Chubby Lee Washington, a real-estate agent with properties in the Bloomingdale neighborhood, who knew Gatling, suggests that the fence be extended north for the full length of the underpass to deter any extreme jaywalking.
“I’m really sorry that it happened, and he was a really nice guy, but nobody should be crossing the street like that,” Washington says.
Brown thinks so, too.
“The slots need to be shut tight,” he says, speaking of gaps in the railing around light poles that people can slip through. “And the fence needs to go all the way down so we have to walk around.”
Taylor, on the other hand, proposes that the entire fence be removed so it’s easier to cross.
Kris Hammond, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in the area, says he tried to stop one man from sliding through the protective railing to cross North Capitol Street by reminding him of Gatling’s recent death. But the man, he says, ignored him and crossed anyway.
Hammond is calling for the fence to be extended.
But adding more fence may not fix the problem. Some people don’t bother finding a way around the barrier as it is, including a group of teenage boys seen reaching up and easily flipping themselves over the 6-foot fence at S Street one weekend night.
Pat Mitchell, a member of North Capitol Main Street, a neighborhood revitalization program, agrees the problem isn’t with the fence but with those willing to risk their lives to save a couple of minutes’ walking. “What idiot climbs a fence in the middle of one of the busiest corridors in the city with a landing on either side of less than 2 feet wide?” she asks. “After you climb over it, there’s got to be at least an outside thought, if not a reasonable expectation, that you could land in oncoming traffic.”
After his friend’s death, Brown has been trying to keep people from using the shortcut—although he risked it himself again to tie teddy bears and flowers around light poles on both sides of North Capitol where Gatling was hit.
“If I ask you not to do it, don’t do it,” he says, but some don’t listen. “When they do it, I just turn my head.”