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Environmental justice for Ivy City

The D.C. neighborhood of Ivy City is small, poor and wedged between three major transportation arteries. The community feels worlds away from the leafy, charmed streets and rows of renovated townhouses of many D.C. neighborhoods.

Residents of Ivy City believe that the economic success of recent decades has passed them by, and in a way it has, quite literally: Those who drive in and out of the District on New York Avenue NE zoom past the neighborhood. All that car and truck traffic leaves pollution in its wake, contributing to serious health issues for many of Ivy City’s residents.

In the latest insult, the District has proposed parking tour buses in the neighborhood. The buses do need a place to park, as the alternative is for them to circle around for hours. But must the buses — and their exhaust fumes — be sent to Ivy City?

The imperative not to concentrate things with negative public health effects, such as power plants or major highways, in poor neighborhoods is known as “environmental justice.” The Bronx famously knows the issues well: Robert Moses drove numerous highways through its poorer neighborhoods as wealthier ones elsewhere in the city, such as Greenwich Village and Brooklyn Heights, mobilized to alter the plans for similar roads in their areas.

D.C. residents in more affluent neighborhoods of Wards 3 and 4 — black and white alike — stopped similarly destructive freeway proposals and have managed to transform arterial roads such as 16th Street NW into more pleasant streets, thanks to elements such as grassy, tree-lined medians.

Not so Ivy City and New York Avenue. The neighborhood lacks the street trees that fill other parts of the District. It also lacks park space, though, ironically, not “green space,” which is abundant in the large cemeteries on the other side of West Virginia Avenue NE. But graveyards don’t give children places to play.

Residents feel betrayed because the bus proposal (blocked, at least temporarily, by a D.C. Superior Court injunction, issued last week) doesn’t mesh with a vision devised by residents and government officials in 2011 to remake the Alexander Crummell School at the heart of Ivy City. This plan would provide meaningful park space, a community center and job-training facility, along with other ideas to “green” the neighborhood, starting with trees. Ivy City deserves to see this vision come to fruition. More than that, it deserves to be less of a high-speed car cut-through.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) recently had to narrow New York Avenue to two lanes each way (instead of three) for construction. But rather than bringing bumper-to-bumper “carmageddon,” congestion on the street actually decreased.

This strongly suggests that the District could permanently give New York Avenue around Ivy City a “road diet,” with a planted median and new trees to help clean the air. This change would steer drivers away from Ivy City, diverting some motorists onto transit and others onto alternate routes, further reducing pollution in the neighborhood.

West Virginia Avenue and Mount Olivet Road NE could also continue to serve drivers without such impacts on Ivy City if some traffic-calming measures were taken. The Ivy City neighborhood’s own plan suggests including bicycle lanes, which would make the streets feel more like neighborhood roads.

I know what some of you are thinking. Do I think bike lanes are the answer to every problem? No. And certainly, bicycle facilities are not the top priority for most in the neighborhood. But remember that such infrastructure is dirt-cheap compared to other transportation infrastructure. More importantly, the neighborhood’s own plan includes these bicycle lanes, which is ironic given that some critics have tried to turn bicycle infrastructure into a symbol of apathy toward Ivy City. In two recent columns, Courtland Milloy suggested that bike lanes directly crowd out other investments, such as job training.

He’s right that job-training programs still aren’t enough of a priority for most city leaders. We’re not doing right by Ivy City or the District’s unemployed residents.

However, this isn’t a zero-sum game, and finger-pointing won’t solve anything. To the contrary, blaming bicyclists lets off the hook those D.C. leaders, including on the D.C. Council, who aren’t especially interested in spending money on the real needs of our most vulnerable residents, or in making transportation changes for residents’ health that interfere with shopping trips to Maryland. Instead of really solving problems, it’s much easier to scapegoat one of the cheapest and chronically underfunded transportation programs.

The people of Ivy City don’t need more blame in any direction. They need jobs, safety, parks and trees, and they deserve these things. And they actually have a plan to get much of it (and bicycle lanes, too). There’s no excuse not to fully follow through on this plan as soon as possible, because every citizen deserves justice, including environmental justice.

The writer is the editor of the blog Greater Greater Washington.

 
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