When we moved to Washington 12 years ago, we had the good luck to live in the Smithsonian's Barney Studio house on Sheridan Circle. It was one of two non- chancery houses there, and the different attitudes between chancery dwellers and the natives became instantly apparent.
Turkey, two houses down, was a model neighbor. It kept its magnificent palace, designed by George Oakley Totten, in shining condition, inside and out, and was gracious about letting visiting art historians in to see its exuberant riches (those good old pre-terrorist days). Turkish chancery personnel never parked in our driveway.
South Korea, on the other hand, had a good-size parking lot right next door but often parked in our driveway. The chancery workers who condescended to move the embassy car or limousine appeared contemptuous of our cajoling entreaties and pleas for neighborliness. The police refused to ticket, but even if they had, Korea could have simply ignored them, as many chanceries still do.
Life along Embassy Row isn't much different today. Our frustrations are shared by many residents of the Dupont/Kalorama area, because we really have no legal recourse to make chanceries observe the city's laws.
Chancery practices are frequently at variance with local land-use laws and historic district laws. Chanceries routinely pave their front yards, converting them into parking lots. Iraq, for instance, has built a high cyclone fence on public space and parks there, despite repeated protests over many years by Dupont Circle residents.
Why do chanceries get by with these violations? Because the State Department is the only authority empowered to enforce the land-use laws when foreign governments are involved, and State evidently feels it would be unladylike to engage in such enforcement. We might offend, heaven forbid.
Responding to the complaints of citizens about the incompatibility of office chanceries in small-scale neighborhoods, increased traffic, parking problems and other nuisances, the D.C. Council in 1979 passed a bill that would have restricted the proliferation of foreign offices in residential areas and channeled them into commercial zones where they belong. But State succeeded in persuading Congress to overturn the bill.
What State didn't tell Congress was that the United States is severely restricted in other countries, and frequently with reason. For instance, in Paris, where we occupy a magnificent historic building, we cannot even alter a balustrade in an inner courtyard without the permission of the French government.
By contrast, Nigeria is permitted to abandon its gothic mansion at 16th and O Streets NW. When that country moved out of the mansion, also designed by George Oakley Totten, it didn't even bother to secure the building. Vandals stole its woodwork and mantel pieces. After years of pleading, Dupont Circle residents persuaded State to board up the building. But now the roof is going. Nigeria has refused offers to restore the mansion.
In refusing to act in its role as an enforcer of U.S. laws when foreign governments ignore them, the State Department is working against the quality of life for D.C.- area residents. Should this one federal department be given such leeway in making it legal and/or easy for foreign governments and their employees to be exempt from the laws that American citizens must obey?