26 July 2010

Is it in Northeast, or Northwest?

Photo: 23am.com
This month, the Washington Post ran a couple stories about a homeless man who had formed a basketball league for children. Those stories were followed by a feel-good editorial in last Saturday's edition.

The articles state that the basketball league is located in and serves youth in "Northeast," even when all the photos that accompany the story show that league games are played in the park across the street from Big Bear Cafe at the corner of 1st Street and Florida Avenue NW.

One question I have is this: In which quadrant of the city does the Washington Post believe this story takes place? I realize this is a very pedantic question (many of the questions I ask are!), but there is a serious point behind this. While North and East Capitol Streets may be artificial lines placed on the landscape years ago, our society and media imbue those lines with enormous psychological meaning and power.

Mention "Northwest" or "Southeast" when talking about DC, and you'll often conjure images of rich versus poor, black versus white, and advantage versus disadvantage. A story about the poor in Northwest, or about a fancy restaurant in Northeast, is often framed as a juxtaposition, or an oddity, for those who are not intimately familiar with the city. Media outlets (especially the local television stations) often give only the city quadrant, instead of more specific neighborhood names, when reporting a story in the city.

So which is it, Northeast or Northwest? The Washington Post should publish a clarification.

21 July 2010

Plugging up holes on N Street NW

N Street NW, between Connecticut Avenue and North Capitol Street, has horrible pavement. It's rutted, full of potholes, and patched so poorly that it's a stretch in places to call it a paved street.

But N Street NW has other holes in it as well. Gaps in its urban fabric. Small lots big enough for a rowhouse and nothing more. These lots don't lend to exciting speculation, like the large developments including City Center DC or The Yards, but small infill development projects are having an easier time getting financing in the current sour economy. Progress is happening here, things are moving forward, unlike those large projects.

Here are picutres of a couple of them (the photos are already a few weeks old, so progress has made things look different from what you see here):

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907 N Street NW before (lot full of Ailanthus trees)

907 N Street NW after

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226 N Street NW before (concrete barriers protecting a giant hole in the ground)

226 N Street NW after (a large rowhouse appears)

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

16 July 2010

We're not the only curmudgeons on the block

Neighborhood listservs were the digital precursor to many neighborhood blogs in DC, and they are still home to large readerships and healthy discussion and debate in many neighborhoods. I've personally been a member of the Shaw listserv for many years, going back to when I lived in the neighborhood. In that time, I've seen lots of interesting debates, crazy arguments, and angry flame wars.

But one of the most reliable things on the listserv is the writings of Ray Milefsky. Ray has lived on the 800 block of Q Street NW for over 20 years, next to the vacant eyesore that was, in the very recent past, known by many as the "Slum Historique" building. Today, the "Stinky Whore Cafe" is merely a memory, but many of the other challenges of urban life still exist in Shaw, and Ray has a way of dealing with them with a writing style that is sharp and mischievous.

In the last week, Ray wrote two biting posts that I want to share with a wider audience than just those who live in Shaw. The first was titled Shaw Slum B&B?:

The scene out my front window this morning (and this week). He has taken up residence since the new neighbors next to the vacant pizza place at Ninth and Q chopped down the undergrowth in front of the vacant lot.

As the city won't declare the boarded up property either blighted or neglected, perhaps we can go after the owner for operating a B&B without a license? I suspect that would involve a separate DC Gubmint agency. I would hope in the meantime one could serve something better than Steel Reserve for breakfast.

Please, before you judge me for being callous, provide me with your address so he can take up residence on your front stoop so we can all share the collective benevolence.

My new neighbor Kirk just had all of the copper piping stripped out of the largely gutted house on the other side of me. Kind of makes it hard for him to take a shower now. That, I reminded him, is the Shaw Welcome Wagon. Same thing happened to me when I moved in. Old traditions die hard.

And here's the second, the Theft-proof "Jardins de Shaw":

Even though the busy young moderns have replaced most of us old front stoopers, it remains consoling to know that my new neighbors have taken great pains to retain some of the classic gardening traditions of our historic slum. I give you three styles from my block you might consider emulating for their tried and true historic aesthetics, low maintenance, and psychic powers to suppress rising property values. I can assure you, no one will want to steal any vegetation from these yards.

The first is the full-weed garden [Vollunkrautgarten]. This is testament to Darwin's survival of the fittest. If it grows it stays. A fully textured yard with subtle shades of green and brown, offset by the vibrant blue of the wheeled recycling container provide a welcoming "Entre vous, s'il vous plait" through the contrasting unadorned black bars and windowless white door. You know these folks are way too modern and are unashamed to show everyone they have ELECTRICITY! writ large with a panel almost as big as the front door. The garage door, however, is the architectural pièce de résistance with that distinctive Secaucus, New Jersey Provençal look that sets this property apart from all the dull historic DC architecture in the neighborhood. Now this is just the kind of garden that calls out for a decorative angora goat or two and not a yapping pomeranian.

The second example is the classic "Form folgt Funktion" Bauhaus Betongarten (concrete garden). Ayn Rand would love it. Vegetative green has to really want to compete to survive between the cracks among the functional green of this boarding house's burgeoning trash cans. Here too the owner is proud of the fact that he too has electricity with a massive panel as well as dishes noting multiple satellite audio-visual stimulation units. Still the residents are not so electronically addicted that they'll pass up now and again sitting out and listening to the flies buzz lazily around the trash cans through the haze of the dim tree-covered street light. This is Shaw Life at its finest.

The third is the post-Apocalypse garden of the future. The new owner of the foreclosed property just had the copper pipes stolen from this now largely gutted wooden house that shows up on the 1841 plat map of DC, the site of a former farmhouse. Once the home of Aunt Mildred, the venerable "variety store" reefer momma on Ninth Street since the 1940s, and her later crack-, pitbull- and gun-purveying kin in the 1980s, I learned most of the words of Thomas A. Dorsey's "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" going to funerals for members of the family. From their earnings, however, they were finally able to concretize most of the front yard, which was tamped down dirt when I moved in next door in 1986. Squatting on a stool, Aunt Mildred would spend entire afternoons pulling weeds out of the dirt, then stamp it down, telling me she was getting rid of bugs and snakes. This, I later learned non-ironically, was African tradition. With the sagging chain link fence gone and the vibrant astro-turf ripped out, the house now looks like nature will take her over unless the city issues the new owner the requisite permits soon. I suspect the Ailanthus (ghetto palm) in the middle column will grow up above the porch before we see the city shift its posterior into gear. ...the stories I could tell about that house...

Finally, here is one from a couple weeks ago. The true gem here is the response from DPW staffer Kevin Twine:

Subject: Are recycling boxes a thing of the past?

Mr. Twine:

For the last two Tuesdays (my recycling day) I have put out my now way overfull green recycling box (compliments of Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly). It has remained full each time when I come home from work. This is not the first time. I don't produce a lot of trash in general -- one box and can every month and a half or so, so don't need one of those large light blue recycling wheeled containers that uglify my streetscape with no alley now that the busy young moderns have moved in and need bigger guilt expiation vessels to justify their trash prolificity. I appreciate that the inadequately weaned youth need those plastic water bottles in one hand to accompany their plastic adult rattle iPhone 4s in the other, but recognize they need the nanny state to tell them their sins are forgiven if they throw all those plastic water and diet soda bottles into the magic blue wheeled cans, whose contents mostly end up in dumps in West Virginia. Mon Dieu, just imagine if regular DeeCee leaded tap water were to pass their privileged lips?

Shall I just go back to my old ghetto tradition of barely half a decade ago of ignoring the recycling scam and just dump recyclables into my regular trash? Are the old green boxes now completely passé?

Seeking DPW absolution,

And here's Mr. Twine's response (bold emphasis mine):


Mais non, we do not discriminate based on the type of recycling container used. We will certainly take your contribution to our recycling program any way we can get it. Your recycling box, while smaller, more unsightly (especially when left in the rain), and more stressful on the lumbar area, is certainly adequate when dealing with minimal amounts of recycling. The fact that your recycling was not collected not once but several times was an egregious error on our part and for that, I sincerely apologize.

Thank you for your letter on the listserv. The one thing that your letter didn't include was your address so that we can give this our immediate attention. We will collect your recycling ASAP and make sure that it is collected in a timely manner from this point forward. To move things along more quickly, please feel free to email that to me directly. I cannot offer you absolution as I am not a man of the cloth. I can, however, promise you that we will make every effort to make sure this oversight does not happen again.

Kevin B. Twine
Staff Assistant
Department of Public Works

14 July 2010

Stenciling on the sidewalk

Here's something that I haven't seen much about in the news (perhaps I'm not reading the right news sites).

The 5th Congress of the African People's Socialist Party has been going on this week on the campus of Gallaudet University. In the last few weeks, they've wheatpasted the heck out of streetlights in the surrounding neighborhood, and they even stenciled a sidewalk in the neighborhood with their logo (the picture below was taken at M Street and Florida Avenue NE, across the street from Gallaudet's campus).

Has anyone seen any more of their logos spray painted on the sidewalk?

What are they chances they'll remove this (or the posters) after the conference is finished?

13 July 2010

Parking is a mess at the New York Avenue Metro station

The bicycle parking at the New York Avenue Metro station is substandard, and every day automobiles are spread all around the pedestrian areas.

I take the Red Line to and from work every day, entering the system at the New York Avenue Metro station. I bike there from our house in Trinidad, parking my bicycle at the racks near the northern entrance to the station. Those racks, as well as the small plaza they are located on, should be a safe place to park a bicycle, but in my experience, they've proven to be anything but.

The area around the station is currently a massive construction zone. Constitution Square, an enormous mixed-use building with over 2.5 million square feet of office, retail, and residential space is nearing completion on the block bordered by M, N, and 1st Streets NE and the Metro station. The angle of the Metro tracks in relation to the city's street grid creates the equivalent of a pocket park here. You can see it on this map. This plaza contains a sculpture of a leaf of the state tree of DC, the scarlet oak. Once all the surrounding construction is complete, it has the potential of being a nice little gathering place.

Currently, though, that's not possible. Why? Because construction crews park their personal vehicles in the plaza, WMATA employees (including station managers) use it as a private parking lot, and workers at the ATF building across the street park their motorcycles there.

Motorcycles blocking bicycle parking.

More motorcycles blocking bicycles (as you can see, it's often the same ones).

A minivan block the bike racks on Monday morning.

Turns out that minivan belongs to station manager Dana Buckner.

Ms. Buckner had moved her van away from the bikes, but still on the plaza, by Monday evening.

Aside from the inability to safely get to the bicycle racks in the morning, there is the problem of the location of the racks themselves. They were installed too close to the wall to properly lock a bicycle.

The pertinent code is located here:
2119.5     An aisle five feet (5 ft.) in width shall be provided between rows of bicycle parking spaces and the perimeter of the area devoted to bicycle parking.
As you can see in the photo below, the racks are just over one foot from the wall. There isn't enough room to properly lock up a bicycle without turning the front wheel to the side.

Example of a bicycle with enough space to park properly (Photo: Greg Nissen).

When the construction next to the station is complete, some of these parking issues should resolve themselves. There's still no reason that a plan couldn't have been in place already to ensure that people like WMATA employees (who will continue to be here every day once the construction is complete) don't park their cars where cars don't belong.

The bicycle parking is another issue that could be solved easily, but it would likely involve finding the right contact within WMATA's vast bureaucracy, and I don't know who that person would be.

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

12 July 2010

Epilogue: Where does your (DC) Water come from?

Last month, we covered a blogger roundtable with DC Water, discussing about a wide range of issues related to the DC utility that supplies our drinking water and treats the sewage of DC and surrounding municipalities.

Our website reported on an interesting map that showed the location of reservoirs in the city, and how each one serves areas at a common elevation, regardless of the reservoir's proximity. Unfortunately, the map had to be redacted due to "security concerns" regarding the ability to glean information regarding the water system from the map.

Interestingly enough, the Washington Post ran an article ten days ago regarding a broken water main in Montgomery County. That article included a link (PDF) to a map that shows the water main network for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) in Prince Georges and Montgomery counties.

To the best of our knowledge, no one has requested that map be redacted, since it has been online longer and hosted on a website that gets viewed my many more people than the DC map we posted. Perhaps it's because the map is not very sharp, thus making it difficult to ascertain the location of information depicted on the map.

09 July 2010

They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot?

While parking lots are on the wane in some parts of town, that's not the case everywhere. Houses in Truxton Circle have been torn down at a notable rate recently, and some of those have simply been turned into expanses of asphalt to house cars instead of people.

Parking lots draw the ire of many who live in DC. They're not the best use for limited city land and they're often ugly in appearance. Close to downtown in recent years, though, they have been replaced by buildings that increase the city's tax base by providing more space for residents and businesses. Often, these new buildings increase the amount of parking in the city, as there are more spaces in two or three levels of underground parking than there are at one level on the surface.

A couple weeks ago, at the Other 35 Percent, Cary Silverman mentioned a proposed change in Baltimore's zoning code that would require that vacant lots be used for parkland or green space instead of parking lots after buildings are torn down.

This isn't the rule in DC. Temporary parking lots proliferate in places where buildings have been recently torn down. All over Near Southeast and Southwest near the Nationals ballpark, parking lots were built on land that is intended to be developed, once the economy turns a corner and demand for new construction increases. Another recent example of a new parking lot can be found just east of North Capitol Street on the unit block of P Street.

(This isn't the beautiful Hawaiian landscape that inspired the line from Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" in the title, but please indulge me.)

At my old blog, bloomingdale (for now), I noted a garish pop-up that was being constructed on the unit block of P Street NE. Next door to that abomination were the burned-out shells of rowhouses that had existed on the site for a century. Those shells used to house people, but they had become vacant and neglected. There are and have been many more houses similar to those that have been successfully been turned back into nice houses lived in by people who pay taxes and contribute to city life.

Eventually, the news came that these houses were to be torn down instead of being renovated for some contributing use. I documented the demolition of those houses, asking the construction crew what use was intended for the property. At the time, I was told it would become an apartment building.

In the meantime, the local real estate market tanked, especially in sub-markets that would be considered "marginal." Truxton Circle, (especially along North Capitol Street) could certainly be considered one of those marginal markets. Whether an apartment building was ever really intended for those lots we'll likely never know. (I checked DCRA's PIVS website for construction permits at these properties, and found nothing.)

So, what became of that empty land? A parking lot:

Granted, it wasn't all buildings beforehand. There was a used tire store there as well (see what it looked like in 2004 here), so one could argue an empty lot isn't the ugliest thing possible on this space. Today, though, what good is a parking lot on that land? There is plenty of parking nearby for those who might be driving to the their jobs across the street at DDOT's offices:

Other new office space built nearby has plenty of underground parking, and is within a very short walk of the New York Avenue Metro station.

Would a nice temporary green space have worked here? It's hard to say, but that part of the city and Ward 5 certainly has very little green space, and could use every little bit it can get. Look at this map (it's a PDF) from  the Capital Space plan, and note that there is a area devoid of large parks centered on the Eckington and Truxton Circle neighborhoods.

I don't see how an empty parking lot (since it doesn't appear to be attracting a lot of business) could possibly pay the bills.

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

07 July 2010

Vince Gray on IZ, New Communities, and rent control—oh my!

Both jaime and IMGoph contributed to this post.

We sat down with Vince Gray at Ben's Chili Bowl on Monday, along with DCist, We Love DC, and Borderstan for the first "Blogger Roundtable" discussion of his mayoral campaign. Gray's stated goal is to unite residents in "One City," and he noted that while DC is currently "very divided by geography, age, gender, and race," ultimately "people have got to feel like there's a place for them." While education, economic development, and workforce education are pieces of this puzzle, without suitable and ample housing for all, we will continue to struggle as a divided city.

Gray noted that he pushed for inclusionary zoning from the start of the two-and-a-half year struggle to get the regulation on the books, working through one emergency legislation after another while the Fenty administration delayed implementation. Lamenting the loss of potentially hundreds of affordable housing units during the hold-up, Gray says that if elected mayor, he will "aggressively implement" IZ.

Another housing issue we discussed was rent control. Under current legislation, which Gray co-sponsored, rent control is up for re-authorization every five years. Gray promised that, as mayor, he would work to make rent control permanent, (ed. note—Lydia DePillis reported on this today at the City Paper's Housing Complex blog) though he acknowledged it could potentially be challenged as unconstitutional.

Avoiding displacement is perhaps one of the most daunting challenges to housing equity. Under federal programs like HOPE VI, new mixed-income, and sometimes multi-use, developments are built with the intention of providing homes for both current and new residents of the community. A hiccup comes when low-income residents "temporarily" move to make room for new construction. Under the New Communities Initiative—established at the end of Anthony Williams' administration—Barry Farm (Ward 8), Lincoln Heights/Richardson Dwellings (Ward 7), Northwest One (Ward 6) and Park Morton (Ward 1) are to "transform [from] highly concentrated low-income neighborhoods into healthy mixed-income neighborhoods." Perhaps the most important component of this initiative is the guiding principle of "build first" which "calls for new housing on publicly-controlled lands to be built prior to the demolition of existing distressed housing to minimize displacement."

When asked how best to retain current residents while improving housing, education, and economic opportunities, Gray pointed immediately to New Communities. While not a new initiative, it is one we seem to have lost track of as the economic boom turned into a bust. The reality is that while most of us are facing challenges in the current climate, many residents in our city who were struggling at the peak are in further distress now. Gray, at least on the campaign trail, is able to recognize this gulf that continues to divide DC, and he seems to be genuinely interested to continue to push for solutions that have been staring us in the face for years now. Issues like inclusionary zoning, rent control, and New Communities are all ways the city can help bridge that gulf—they just need to truly be championed in order to work. It will take serious sustained effort from all the city's leadership to accomplish these goals.

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.