O ne of Washington's singular pleasures is the drive on O and P streets west of Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown, where, if you steer up onto the old trolley tracks, you can glide along the smooth steel rails, floating by the historic blocks as if you were sailing above the cobblestones.
You won't find trolley tracks like these anywhere else in the country, the historians say, nor will you find a better place to appreciate Georgetown's story of three centuries. So it stands to reason that a bunch of neighbors have joined with city bureaucrats in a campaign to rip the tracks out of the ground and junk them.
The trolley tracks have been in place since the late 19th century, and the streetcars ran until 1960. Although the rails were removed or paved over in most of the city, they have remained on O and P streets to recall that time and its distinctive charm.
Now the D.C. Transportation Department, which will spend $5 million or so to rebuild the streets as part of an upgrade of underground utility lines, proposes to remove the P Street rails and to preserve only a block or so of the O Street track. That thrills some neighbors, who complain that cars sometimes slip off the rails and into parked vehicles.
But other residents of those streets, as well as many other fans of trolleys and neighborhoods with historic character, are appalled that the city would even consider defying a federal court's 1977 ruling that the O and P street tracks be "permanently exempted from all orders" requiring removal of streetcar rails. U.S. District Judge Gerhard Gesell ordered that the tracks be protected after the city concluded that they posed no safety hazard and the National Park Service urged that they be kept "as a unique artifact of rail transportation history."
At a community meeting this month, 100 neighbors argued over whether the rails were a nuisance or a treasure.
"You're destroying something that doesn't exist anywhere else," said Charles Schneider, a lawyer who led the 1970s fight to save the tracks. "People say the tracks are old and useless. Some people felt that way about the C&O Canal."
"This is our history," said Peter Kohler, a lifelong Georgetown resident who recalls photographing the tracks as a fifth-grader carrying a Brownie camera. "It's expensive and uncomfortable to live in a historic neighborhood. But Georgetown was a center of our transportation network for a lot longer than it was a colonial seaport."
This city's attitude toward history can be downright bizarre. While the nation's most treasured monuments and government buildings are insulted with ugly anti-terrorism barriers, mediocre structures of far more recent vintage are routinely added to official lists of historic places.
Downtown is littered with comical facade jobs in which only the front of an old building is salvaged while ugly office boxes rise behind them. A large portion of Northwest Washington has precious little fire service, because preservation zealots insisted on saving the ugly facade of an outdated, unusable fire station on Wisconsin Avenue, paralyzing that project. In the Palisades, a wreck of an old Sears bungalow is holding up the rehab of a city park because preservationists want to save a house that has no historic value.
Now the city says it has to remove the rails from P Street to make room for new water mains. The road work can be done while leaving the O Street tracks intact, but the city proposes to remove most of them -- even though the price tag would be higher.
This being Georgetown, the two sides of the debate include diplomats and corporate chieftains, socialites and politicians. One resident went so far as to ring up the campaign offices of John F. Kerry, who lives on O Street, and John Edwards, who lives on P Street, to put the Democratic ticket on the record on the tracks issue. The resident was shocked to be told that the two senators had opposite positions on the question.
Luckily, another senator, Max Baucus of Montana, was at the meeting. He was asked to explain the discord between Kerry and Edwards.
Baucus rose slowly and said, "There's a simple explanation." He paused to think of one. "They complement each other."
The room broke up, pro- and anti-tracks alike.
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