Metro rips out Phantom Planter’s flowers at Dupont Circle station


Henry Docter, 52, of NW, D.C., is photographed next to the Morning Glories he planted at the Dupont Metro North Station on June 21, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Robert McCartney
Columnist July 6, 2013

It turns out I underestimated Metro bureaucrats’ capacity for folly.

Two weeks ago, I wrote that the transit system would look silly if it let perish 1,000 flowers planted secretly at the Dupont Circle station by local garden artist Henry Docter, the self-described Phantom Planter.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

I feared that Metro would merely neglect the flowers. Instead, last Sunday, it sent workmen to yank them out.

The transit system regularly pleads poverty, yet employees devoted supposedly valuable time to remove more than 1,000 morning glories, cardinal flowers and cypress vines that Docter donated to the city — albeit without permission. The plants would have bloomed from August to October in a patriotic display of red, white and blue.

Instead of greenery today and colors to come, the 176 flower boxes along the top stretch of the escalators at the station’s north entrance now feature dirt, a few straggling stems and the occasional discarded soda can.


Docter, known as “The Phantom Planter” had taken it upon himself to plant Morning Glories, Cardinal Flowers, and Cypress Vines on Metro property at the Dupont Metro North Station. He was told that he would be arrested if he watered or tended to them in any way. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Posy)

“It never occurred to me that Metro would think it was more efficient to rip out the plants than to let someone water them,” Docter said.

Metro tore out the foliage without waiting to solicit the neighborhood’s opinion, as it said it had planned to do.

“We want to meet with the community and see what the community would like. We will move forward with their wishes, as long as they are reasonable, sustainable and safe,” Michael McBride, manager of Metro’s Art in Transit Program, said June 21.

No meetings have taken place since then. Local leaders were aghast that Metro ignored their wishes for a compromise to keep the flowers in place.

“They paid people to tear out plants that everyone loves? Well, this is cause for insurrection. Talk about fixing something that’s not broken,” said Robin Diener, a member of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association board of directors.

“The guy was trying to be a really good guy, and Metro got really uptight,” said Dail Doucette, president of the Historic Dupont Circle Main Streets board of directors. “They [at Metro] don’t want to be involved. They don’t care about our neighborhood.”

(McBride met June 12 with an intern from Doucette’s group, but there was no follow-up.)

Docter, 52, has engaged in stealth gardening in public places for more than three decades. He describes his work as performance art.

He went public about it for the first time last month after Metro formally threatened him with imprisonment if he watered, weeded or otherwise cared for the flowers he’d planted.

Metro said it was concerned that Docter could not safely negotiate the steep, cobblestoned inclines in which the Dupont Circle flower boxes are set. A Web petition defending him has attracted more than 3,600 signatures.

According to the official explanation Friday, Metro removed the flowers because it needs to repair the paver blocks on the embankment.

Spokeswoman Caroline Lukas said that work had been “scheduled prior to the unauthorized planting of flowers.” When it’s complete, she said, Metro will plan “a low-maintenance ground cover.”

I’m skeptical. Such a need for repairs wasn’t mentioned in my extended June interview with McBride and Metro spokesman Dan Stessel.

I asked Lukas why we were suddenly hearing about the repair plan now. She said she assumed McBride and Stessel were coming at the issue from the perspective of McBride’s art outreach efforts, whereas the maintenance office was handling the repair and replanting project.

At best, that sounds like one part of the bureaucracy doesn’t know what another part is up to.

Lukas also said the flowers were removed after they had wilted. Docter said that was impossible to believe, given our recent weather.

“Rain would make them not wilt, and all we’ve had is rain,” he said.

More than two inches of rain were recorded at Reagan National Airport in the 48 hours preceding last Sunday, the day Metro said it removed the flowers. Total rainfall this June was more than double the monthly average.

Despite what he called Metro’s double talk, the Phantom Planter was philosophical about his setback.

“The fact is, not all performance pieces end in comedy,” Docter said. “The flowers have been uprooted, but the memory of the gift remains in our brain, and that’s something that no bureaucrat . . . can ever take away.”

For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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