An effort to get city officials to install a stop sign may not seem like the kind of thing that would generate vastly different accounts.
But that is exactly what happened between residents in the 700 and 800 blocks of Varnum Street NW and D.C. officials.
The residents say they nagged, pestered and badgered the city for more than 10 years to get two stop signs at what neighborhood children call "killer's corner," at Varnum and Eighth streets NW. The city's Department of Public Works, meanwhile, said it responded promptly to the only request it received.
Residents said Maryland and District commuters speed down Eighth Street every day. And frequently, they said, one of them would smash into a car trying to cross the intersection.
Over the years, there were so many accidents that a few residents created their own emergency-response team: Malissa Stephens, 80, who lives near the intersection, would dial 911 while another neighbor would call Joan Thomas, 64, who would grab her note pad, run to the scene, scribble down the victims' names and addresses and call their families.
She would also retrieve a copy of the accident report number from police. The number was valuable evidence to be used to convince city officials that a stop sign was needed.
Not only did Thomas keep a record, but several other residents in this close-knit, middle-class neighborhod dutifully jotted down every accident on their wall calendars. Only trouble is, every January every one of them dutifully tossed those calendars into the trash. "That was a big mistake," Thomas conceded.
The residents had additional trouble making their case because no one was killed in any of the accidents, a big consideration for the bureaucrats who rule on these things.
Thomas has been the neighborhood's advisory neighborhood commisioner for 15 years. Eleven years ago, a youth riding a scooter was killed in an accident a block away, and the city installed stop signs within a week, she said.
She and others said residents and community groups wrote more than 60 letters to the city pleading for two stop signs at the intersection of Varnum and Eighth streets NW. But they said city officials kept telling them the same thing: There isn't enough traffic to justify a four-way stop.
Thomas said the city monitored the traffic in the middle of the day, when the reckless commuters were safely downtown. Meanwhile, during rush hour, cars kept bashing each other, or skidding into Sarah Lowery's bushes or running into John Brown's fence and brick wall. Brown's fence is now bent and his wall is crumbling.
But, Thomas said, she kept trying. If anybody could procure a stop sign from the Department of Public Works, it would be Thomas. This is a woman who organizes a community festival for 3,000 people every year.
"If you see trash in your alley, just tell her about it and in a couple of days it will be gone," said James Groom, 64. Last year, when a neighbor was evicted from her apartment because she owed $2,100 in back rent, Groom said, he told her, "Don't cry, let's see Miss Thomas."
Within a couple hours, Thomas persuaded the city to pay the back rent.
This summer, the 4th District police asked Thomas to help them get out of a bind. She said the police, acting on a request by residents, had towed away some trucks and vans from the neighborhood and had damaged one.
They needed a favor. They needed a letter saying the residents had asked police to tow the vehicles. She wrote the letter all right. But when a police officer came to pick it up, she told him about the stop sign.
On Sept. 14, about a month later, a stop sign appeared at Eighth and Varnum streets NW. Then another went up on the other side of the street. "It was a long battle, but we finally won," Thomas said.
Now, that's a cute yarn, but it's just not true, said Tara Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Works. She said the department has never received a letter from residents of Varnum Steet NW.
In fact, she said, computer records indicate that they received only one phone call, last April. And that prompted a traffic survey that led to the installation of the new stop signs. "So just one phone call resulted in a stop sign at this intersection," Hamilton said.
Hamilton just doesn't want the city to look bad, Thomas said in response. "I'm very appalled that they would say something like that."
Whatever the real story, one thing is clear: Since Sept. 14, there have been no accidents at the intersection.