Attention, future D.C. residents! We love living here, but if you move to D.C., you need to know what you are getting into. Living in D.C. is like having a second job.
In many cities, people come home from work and spend evenings enjoying family life. But in D.C., people come home from work and spend evenings attending meetings (sometimes weekends, too). If you move here, you will need to go to meetings, too -- it's smart to go out and see what your government is up to. In the last several years, D.C. or federal government planned the following amenities for our neighborhood:
* A halfway house for 200 men accused of criminal offenses, to be located in a residential area.
* A halfway house for 30 returning prisoners, across the street from an elementary school.
* Moving hundreds of impounded cars to a nearby parking lot.
Community action foiled these plans, but eternal vigilance is the rule. For example, D.C. may be planning a new highway bridge over the Anacostia River, cutting through a residential area. We're not sure yet. Not every story has a happy ending. For example: The Cadillac Grand Prix auto races in July at the RFK Stadium parking lot generated high-decibel noise and pollution in a residential neighborhood. Some residents were offered a free weekend at a hotel to get away. But the damage goes on. Before the Grand Prix, you could drive to the Saturday farmers market at the stadium parking lot, park anywhere, buy fresh fruits and vegetables and check out the flea market.
Now, the racetrack area is barricaded, making parking almost impossible -- only the Maine Avenue fish market on a summer Saturday is worse. Parking is so bad, I have stopped trying to shop at the farmers market.
City planning goes on without end. You can attend meetings on: Strategic Neighborhood Action Plans (there are 39 of these -- one for everyone), Anacostia Watershed Initiative, D.C. General land use plan, Old Naval Hospital plan, Canal Road/Pennsylvania Avenue Scenic Byways, siting halfway houses, street signs for historic districts, way-finding signs for Metrorail stops, proposed "street furniture" -- benches, kiosks and public toilets (stealth advertising on the way?). This is in addition to Advisory Neighborhood Commission meetings, civic association meetings, police-community meetings and Orange Hat patrol meetings.
If you crave still more meetings, you can become active in the community. Warning: This may involve extensive contact with lawyers.
We had a bad-news carryout selling beer and wine to drug dealers. It took 40 people, plus $3,500 to hire a lawyer, to oppose renewing the carryout's ABC license. Neighbors took off time from work to attend ABC hearings. It worked, but it took work. Multiple neighbors are currently litigating against a social service agency's plan for a large facility at one of the Metrorail stops. Or, if you need still more projects, you can get exercise making lists of vacant buildings, abandoned cars, dead trees, empty tree boxes, burned-out streetlights, asphalt blobs in the sidewalk, and then try to get D.C. government to fix the problem.
It's not just evenings and weekends. Consider jury duty. Two courts can call you: D.C. Superior Court and U.S. District Court.
Expect a summons every two years from each. In 2001, I served on a U.S. District Court trial jury for one week and on a Superior Court grand jury two days a week for six weeks. Several fellow jurors spent more days on jury duty than they did on vacation. Chief Judge King is trying to reform the Superior Court System to crack down on scofflaws who ignore their jury summonses. I hope he succeeds.
And consider car ownership. The employees at the main office on 300 Indiana Ave. are organized and courteous. But watch out for the inspection station! Some lessons learned the hard way: Never go in the afternoon. On Code Red pollution days, they close at 1 p.m. and you are out of luck. On afternoons when they are open, the line may stretch for blocks. Plus, the inspectors may be irritable in late afternoon -- one inspector said my car had an exhaust leak and flunked it. The mechanic scoured the car and found no leak. Next day I got up at 5 a.m., got in line, and it passed.
Here's a suggestion for Mayor Williams: Do we really need these people? Why not inspect a car only for emissions, or only when purchased or sold, like Maryland? Why not arrange for D.C. cars to be inspected in Maryland and close the D.C. inspection station? There would be dancing in the streets.
Also, D.C. Public Schools. Opportunities for expending time include PTAs, fundraising (house tours, auctions) to hire additional teachers, and generally checking up on things. Or, for extra credit, as one parent did, get two principals fired for misconduct -- requiring hundreds of hours.
In addition to the well-publicized waste of taxpayers' money -- citywide -- more waste goes on in the neighborhoods. For example, the D.C. General land, with a Capitol Hill location, river view and its own Metrorail stop, could benefit D.C. taxpayers, if wisely used. Instead, a politically connected private school will get four acres (estimated value $25 million) through a 99-year lease at $1 per year. This school charges D.C. taxpayers $30,000 per year per student for special education services. Most of the rest of the land will become a D.C. government office park. In an era of budget shortfalls, is this smart?
In closing, our neighborhood, in eastern and unhistoric Capitol Hill (closer to the troubled D.C. jail than to the Capitol) is like many D.C. neighborhoods. Those who have lived here awhile will recognize these problems. And we don't even have some problems other neighborhoods face: lots of noisy lethal bars, zero parking, giant microwave towers or trash transfer stations. So, please, move to D.C., but remember, you were warned.
Beth Purcell is a lawyer who has lived in the city for 15 years.