Mount Pleasant has had a hard time coming into its own. Neighboring Columbia Heights has bloomed with new investment. But in Mount Pleasant, long the more upscale of the two neighborhoods, empty storefronts dot the commercial strip. Still scarred by the Deauville apartment fire of 2008, Mount Pleasant Street NW can look downright dingy.
Cash, in this case, isn’t the problem. Quite the contrary: Until earlier this week, local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners were trying to fight off money to spruce the place up. A $242,000 taxpayer grant to Mount Pleasant Main Street would pay for things like refurbished lampposts, new benches and tables, and decorative lights. After delaying its implementation for weeks, two members of the six-person ANC threatened a resolution forcing the city to take back the funds altogether. ANC chair Gregg Edwards, who previously spoke out against the grant, told Housing Complex on Tuesday that he would let it proceed.
But why say no to free money in the first place? It’s as compelling a question as why a neighborhood where Victorians have sold for $1 million would still have a main drag dominated by humble dollar stores and cheap restaurants.
Commissioner Jack McKay, who also opposed the grant, says the small, cosmetic changes are a waste of money better spent elsewhere in D.C. He and Edwards also worry that accepting this grant could make the city less willing to fund a plan they like better: theirs. That vision calls for a “pedestrian encounter zone” with widened sidewalks, rerouted buses, and laws requiring cars to yield.
“Let the grant go forward, but without an ANC endorsement of this unhappily frivolous use of public funds,” McKay e-mailed on Tuesday. “Paint the streetlight poles black, indeed.”
The foot-dragging ANC commissioners and their critics in the civic associations agree on one thing: Low-to-the-ground scrums like this one give Mount Pleasant a reputation as the neighborhood where it’s impossible to get anything done.
Of course, they have different ways of making their points. “Local groups should stop lying, misrepresenting, and backstabbing,” Edwards says. “This kind of behavior that’s gone on here for a quarter-century just adds to Mount Pleasant being a toxic environment.”
“The ANC tends to want to dominate and run all the activity in the neighborhood as opposed to being more of a facilitator,” responds Main Street President Adam Hoey. “Essentially what our community needs is…some new leadership.”
Academic research backs him up. This spring, University of Nebraska graduate student Jessica Rial released a paper on the degree of democratic governance in ANC 1D, which she spent six months researching. One of her conclusions: The panel was “generally unswayed” by citizen input during meetings, helping to create a sense of disengagement and distrust.
Though Edwards asserts the importance of not letting one group dominate, his attempts at fairness can backfire. In one “informal” meeting Housing Complex attended, instead of allowing free conversation, the chair made attendees speak in sequential rounds strictly timed at a few minutes each.
Even co-commissioners are sick of warring with other neighborhood groups. “From my point of view, the civics are just trying to get things done, and the ANC jumps in at the last minute and tries to control them,” Commissioner Phil Lepanto says, referring to the grant debate. “If the civics disagree, then the ANC labels them as illegitimate.”
Edwards, a “futurist” who has a PhD in theoretical physics from Rice University and moved to Mount Pleasant in 1974, sees the conflict as representative of a fundamental cultural divide in the neighborhood: affluent homeowners versus working-class apartment dwellers.
Edwards isn’t necessarily a natural representative of the proletariat. He says he lives in an apartment—but he also happens to own the building where said abode is located, at 16th and Lamont Streets NW. Still, he says the streetscape-beautification grant is just an attempt at cultural domination. In an e-mail, he noted that he knows of similar-minded neighbors who had used voodoo in order to ward off gentrification.
“That aesthetic style is not functional, and it is the style of one group that really doesn’t shop on Mount Pleasant Street that much,” Edwards says. “Working folks tend to have a different style than managerial, professional folks. It’s more functional. It doesn’t spend much more money on filigree. It tends to be cheaper and sturdier. Mostly you just concentrate on giving them a service.”
But Juan Carlos Ruiz, who represents quite a few apartment dwellers as leader of the Latino Association of Mount Pleasant, is all for the improvements—and thinks Edwards’ opposition sends the wrong message to city agencies. “It creates an atmosphere that Mount Pleasant is divided, and ‘Don’t send money here because leadership of the ANC is very controversial,’” he says.
But when locals were given the chance to change leadership during the last two election cycles, all six ANC spots went uncontested. Multiple neighbors attribute that to fatigue over the number of efforts that have failed to change anything. “Some people in the neighborhood are jaded with all these things, saying ‘I’m going to check out, because we keep having all these meetings and nothing happens,’” says Sam Broeksmit, president of the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Association.
To wit: In 2005, the Office of Planning and Economic Development sponsored a new design for Lamont Park. It’s been on a shelf ever since. In 2008, a city-funded transportation study offered a list of recommendations. They haven’t been followed. Last year, Main Street received a $100,000 grant to bring in the nonprofit Responsible Hospitality Institute (RHI), which tutored locals about a process used around the country to manage neighborhood nightlife. But then a neighborhood eatery applied for a nightclub license outside the process’s guidelines, and everything ground to a halt.
Jim Peters, RHI’s president, came away exasperated. “I have not worked in a district with the same level of personal conflicts as they have in Mount Pleasant,” he says.
Most recently, the Office of Planning has finished a draft small-area plan for the neighborhood. It includes practical changes like training small business owners and linking them with capital, greening the street, and promoting the area as a destination. But Edwards, who asked for the study in the first place, now complains that the planners ignored his more sweeping proposals. “I think it’s very interesting that to simply mention ideas that are working elsewhere triggers calls of personal defect—that I’m an idiot, that I’m a dreamer, a moron,” he says. “[It] shows great intolerance for anyone who thinks beyond the immediate practicalities of a dominant group.”
The acrimony over the $242,000 might be just the jolt Mount Pleasant needs. It prompted five-year resident John Craig to run against Commissioner Angelia Scott, who joined Edwards and McKay in initially voting against the grant. “I’d always been thinking about it, but that was kind of the last straw,” said Craig, who outlined a pro-business platform. “If the ANC’s got to the point where they’re dealing with academic arguments and philosophical arguments, I think we need to let other parts of Mount Pleasant step in and say, ‘Let’s just start simple and work on the things that we can fix.’”
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