By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 4, 2005
A parking ticket on your windshield used to be as far as the stubby arm of District law would reach. But now, drivers are ticketed by robot cameras, holding a cell phone when driving is verboten and no one is allowed to have more than one drink at a time at city bars. Last week, D.C. police were handing out $10 tickets for jaywalking.
It makes some people wonder whether the District is turning into a Big Brother "nanny state." With these official efforts to make urban life safer, is there danger of Washington losing some of its buzz and the organic street life that makes a city a city?
"If there was no crime, everyone had a job and affordable housing, then the city can start being paternalistic," said Kevin Cuddy, 33, of Logan Circle, who was handed a warning Friday for jaywalking on 16th Street NW, even though 10 seconds were remaining on the crosswalk indicator when he stepped off the sidewalk. D.C. police say it is against the law to begin crossing the street when the red hand appears, regardless of the time left.
In addition to the jaywalking crackdown, District officials also are enforcing restrictions on tinted car windows and cyclists running red lights. Intersection monitors are posted at key gridlock points during rush hour. Jersey barriers surround many formerly accessible buildings in the city while surveillance cameras watch overhead. Children in vehicles must be strapped into car seats until age 8. District leaders are considering a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants.
D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) defended the quality-of-life campaign, saying city leaders have to strike a balance between making urban life safe and livable and preserving the fun of city living.
"It's not always that the government is looking for ways to be more of a nanny," he said.
Yet for some Washingtonians, what's happening crosses the line between vigilance and intrusiveness. For them, it is as over-the-top as Metro police arresting a woman for eating a candy bar in a station, as happened last July.
"For a city of liberty, I don't know what's happening," said C. Peter "Buzz" Beler, longtime owner of the Prime Rib on K Street NW and an opponent of the proposed smoking ban. He recently had to pay an electronic speeding ticket but got away scot-free when he jaywalked Thursday.
In a buttoned-down region, the District has always been the place to party. For years, the minimum drinking age was 18, and the attitude in the streets seemed to be "anything goes." In the 1990s, the city was broke and practically lawless. Its mayor was arrested for smoking crack cocaine in a hotel room.
Today, the District has $1 billion in the bank, crime is down and the mayor is a bow-tied accountant. Downtown is revitalized, and empty nesters and young couples drawn to urban living are rehabilitating neighborhoods. And as in such cities as New York, political leaders are focusing on other, arguably lesser problems.
Dean Chandler, 34, of Hyattsville, who has been ticketed for jaywalking, said the crackdown is a natural result of all the changes the District has undergone in the past 15 years. He said he thinks city leaders are trying to "weed out" those they don't want to be part of the new, gentrifying District.
"It's changing," he said. "Everything was kind of loose. But now it is less the District of Columbia and more of an American city. People with power and influence come here, and now they are changing things."
But Mendelson said jaywalking is dangerous as well as illegal. He said the city is joining in a regional educational effort about pedestrian safety in reaction to a number of deaths. Each year in the District, pedestrians account for an average of 14 fatalities and nearly 800 injuries, according to the city's Department of Transportation. Eight pedestrians have been killed this year.
Mendelson, chairman of the council's judiciary committee and a sponsor of the proposed smoking ban, said the city also has repealed rules that don't make sense, such as requiring permits for restaurants that put lighted candles on tables.
Those who study such things say the District's recently imposed restrictions and crackdowns are part of a trend of looking to government not just to protect life and liberty but to enforce society's rules of behavior.
"People are promiscuous about giving up other people's rights," said Eugene O'Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor who is a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "Individually, it's hard to argue against these laws. The problem is when you aggregate it. It's a creeping sort of thing."
This uneasiness could be felt during a 12-hour D.C. Council hearing nearly three weeks ago on the proposed smoking ban. Proponents cited dozens of studies showing how dangerous smoking is and how a ban would protect workers. Opponents waved other studies showing how a ban would ruin the city's bar and restaurant industry.
But between the lines, the debate was about freedom: the freedom to light up a cigarette in their favorite bar vs. the freedom to enjoy a drink or a meal without inhaling a stranger's smoke.
"In reaction to the lawlessness of the past, there is a sense that any expression of spontaneity has been wiped out," said Joel Kotkin, author of "The City: A Global History." "You don't want people smoking crack on K Street, but you have to wonder at what point do you feel like you're in Disneyland."