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Great America

The Nation’s Capital Is a Haggard Old City of Marble

Washington, D.C. looks tired. Even the vibrant new neighborhoods with luxury apartment buildings and trendy bars and restaurants lack some essential vibrant spirit.


- January 20th, 2020
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Several weeks ago, I carefully extracted a partially decomposed rat carcass from a toolbox stored in the small open-air vestibule in front of my apartment. The stench was nauseating and the entire specimen was infested with maggots eating the rotting flesh from the inside out.

This wasn’t the first time this year I had to clean up the dead and decaying remains of a rodent and it won’t be the last. Just this morning, with an unopened letter from Yale (no doubt asking me for a donation) I carefully scooped up a dead rat from the sidewalk.

Few Washington, D.C. residents will find these stories particularly shocking. Biking and walking around the city, one will find many dead rats in various states of decay.

Some have been steamrolled into the pavement by passing cars and exist as bloodied smears of flesh, recognizable only by their general grayish color and long rubbery tails. Some have succumbed to the elements during a particularly cold night and remain mercifully intact for easy cleanup. And some have been splayed open by ravenous carnivores, with their internal organs displayed to the world as an open buffet.

Photo by Karl Notturno

Over the past few years, the total number of rat complaints to the D.C. government has steadily increased, jumping from around 3,000 in 2016 to more than 6,000 in 2018. And in spite of a $1 million rat abatement program in 2018, the problem is just getting worse, with nearly 6,500 rat complaints in 2019.

And those are simply the numbers of people who called in each year to complain. Think of the countless rational citizens who have long since given up on local government fixing anything.

After all, the rats aren’t the only thing making the city miserable.

Flying into Dulles from Copenhagen last weekend, I was struck by how old and tired Washington’s international airport is. It certainly did not feel as though I was flying into the capital of the world’s leading superpower. The harsh fluorescent lighting and the grubby decor were an assault on my senses when compared to the slick hardwood floors and tasteful furnishings at Copenhagen’s airport.

I get it. I’m a snob, some will say. But awesome grandeur invigorates and inspires the spirit. Bleak surroundings grate on the soul.

But as drab as the airport is, it is a positively pristine pulpit of aesthetic grandeur compared to the sights that revisited me in the city.

Driving back into D.C., I was immediately accosted by tent after tent propped up on Rawlins Park near the E Street Expressway, just two blocks from the White House. Several homeless men, with grim looks in their eyes, looked out at the cars driving by. It seemed as though the life had been drained from their faces. But here they were, living in makeshift dwellings, a short walk from the trappings of presidential power and prestige.

If that juxtaposition seems stark, just remember that the city commissioned a $2 million art installation over the heads of another homeless encampment, just a short distance from the aging grandeur of Union Station and mere steps from sparkling new apartment buildings that themselves are little more than soviet cell blocks with a varnish of charm and luxury.

Several years ago, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser issued a strategic plan to deal with homelessness. In the colorful and glossy document, full of charts and optimistic stock photographs, she pledged that “by 2020, homelessness in the District will be a rare, brief, and non-recurring experience.”

It is important to dream big. I mean, why dream small? And it is true that the homeless population in D.C. has dropped marginally for three consecutive years. But there are still over six thousand homeless individuals on the streets of our nation’s capital. Many of them taking shelter near the grand edifices that are the emblems of our country.

In fact, tent cities have popped up across Washington with an alacrity completely unchecked by the city’s homeless encampment cleanups, technically called “encampment protocol engagements.” Gotta hand it to them—their euphemistic language would make Orwell proud.

The “encampment protocol engagement” process is pretty simple. The city schedules a cleanup and provides 14 days of notice to the homeless people residing in the encampment. Workers come to help move all possessions away. Personal belongings packed in provided containers, as well as personal belongings “in plain sight, considered to be of obvious value,” are stored for pickup for 60 days at the Department of Human Services. And within a day or two, the encampment typically returns, as though nothing happened.

In fact, the city’s Frequently Asked Questions pamphlet on encampment cleanups contains a section titled, “Why does the city allow people to move right back after a cleanup has been done?” Their answer is a masterpiece of PR garble:

There is a public expectation that during an Encampment Protocol Engagement encampment residents will vacate the posted public space ahead of the scheduled cleanup, remove or store with the District all belongings that are present on site that persons intend to keep, and if the individual is experiencing homelessness, that they will, with the District’s support, seek shelter in a safer, healthier place.

The District understands the community frustration with the return of encampments, and appreciates the question; however, the District is working within the legal constraints that require adequate notice and due process prior to conducting a clean-up. In addition, enforcing public space usage through citations has proven to be both ineffective and to increase barriers to employment and housing, thereby exacerbating the problem.

In other words, they understand that we expect them to have an effective solution to the problem. And they understand that their solution isn’t effective. But they’re going to continue implementing their solution, even though they know it won’t be effective.

Most Washington residents likely would prefer the city to leave the poor homeless people in peace for a few months, save the money wasted on pointless cleanups, and put more thought into an effective long-term solution.

I went down to one of the cleanups on Thursday morning. Police, city workers, and journalists swarmed the tent city at the K Street underpass. I saw volunteers carrying a tent, still fully pitched, a short distance to a new home on First Street. Camera crews filmed as the homeless who had called the underpass home were uprooted.

Photo by Karl Notturno

A new orange sign accompanied the notice of the cleanup — it designated the sidewalk a “pedestrian passageway” and warned that all property blocking the sidewalk was “subject to immediate removal and disposal.” Unlike each previous time, this cleanup was going to be permanent. At least for the K Street underpass.

A handwritten sticker pasted on the sign said, “no time for that, nope.”

Photo by Karl Notturno

When I asked, several people told me that the city was going to let them move to the L and M Street underpasses. But adding 40 additional tenants to those underpasses would likely lead to the same concerns that led to the evacuation of the K Street underpass. Some speculated that the city would soon permanently remove them from those locations as well, using the same justifications behind the K Street “engagement.”

Where was the ultimate destination for these people? No one seemed to know.

As the tents were cleared out and moved short distances to their new locations, the journalists and camera crews gradually dispersed. I walked down K Street towards North Capitol Street, thinking about what I had just seen. Within one block, with my head down, I saw multiple needles, a used condom, and a crushed beer can on the ground. Lovely.

Photos by Karl Notturno

As I reached North Capitol Street, I turned to the left to see the imposing dome of the Capitol, with the Statue of Freedom surveying the city.

Washington, D.C. looks tired. Even the vibrant new neighborhoods with luxury apartment buildings and trendy bars and restaurants lack some essential vibrant spirit. Perhaps it is the same lack of spirit that allows woke liberal millennials to walk past the homeless on the sidewalk and completely ignore them.

They all live in their own little bubble without any real connection to the city. Few grew up here and few will stay. Those who do will eventually move to a nicer part of town where they will not have to see the growing pains of gentrification.

When asked why they prefer living in tent cities over going to homeless shelters, street dwellers will sometimes cite poor conditions in the shelters. But they will also cite the sense of community that they have living on the streets.

Ironically, they may have a better sense of community than their materially wealthier neighbors.

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