He kept on repeating: “Them rats! Them damned rats!”
— “The Plague,” by Albert Camus
Rats have power. They gnaw with 24,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. They perpetuate famine by eating or contaminating 20 percent of the world’s food supply. They even summon gentrifiers away from prix-fixe dinners at buzzy new restaurants to pro-forma community meetings about the power of rats.
The District’s latest rat summit convenes Thursday evening with a showing of a National Geographic Channel video about the creature in question.
“Thousands of rats live here” in Washington, the narrator intones as a shot of the Capitol flashes by, “and not just the two-legged kind.”
Fifty concerned citizens chuckle in a room off the lobby of the Washington Plaza Hotel on Thomas Circle. The four-legged kind may be the only entities in Washington with lower approval ratings than the two-legged kind. While Washingtonians have no electoral sway over the latter, they can exert some control over the former.
“You need to have rats to have a rat meeting,” says Gerard Brown, who manages rodent and vector control for the city’s Department of Health. “Rats aren’t the problem. They are an indication of something wrong with the area.”
Ah yes, the area. The Logan Circle neighborhood. Or, more specifically, 14th Street NW, where 24 new restaurants have opened in the past nine months, where giant holes have been dug to build new condos, where growing numbers of people come to eat and drink and, possibly, litter. What is wrong with the area?
Some answers have been recently posted by people on SeeClickFix, a Web reporting tool (and Washington Post partner) that is linked to government agencies:
“My building started having serious rat problems after Le Diplomate opened this Summer.”
“Trash & food from 7-Eleven waste is causing rats on Rhode Island Avenue.”
“The rats in the alley behind the James apartments [at 1425 N St. NW] are out of control. I see residents throwing loaves of bread in front of the building and out their windows into the back.”
Setting aside this oddity of loaf-hurling, what can a law-abiding resident really expect of his or her urban reality? The thing about living in a vibrant area where everything’s at your feet when you walk out your front door is that everything’s at your feet when you walk out your front door, rodents included.
The concerned citizens at the rat summit know this and accept it. But there comes a tipping point. For the residents at the front table here, the tipping point was “the River of Sludge.”
“The what?” say the employees from the departments of Public Works and Health.
“The sludge river that runs into Rhode Island Avenue constantly,” says Rob Schneider, a librarian who lives near 14th and Rhode Island.
We will ford that river in a moment.
Before that, some context: The capital of the free world has battled rats for decades, just as Homo sapiens has battled Rattus norvegicus for eons. Rat-borne diseases have killed more people in the past 1,000 years than all the wars and revolutions in that same time period, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1968, the District estimated that half its blocks were infested. The ensuing “War on Rats” initially had 140 dedicated employees, but that number dropped to 22 by the late 1980s. When the District budget hit the rocks in the mid-’90s, more cutbacks were made across several agencies.
The mother of all rat summits was held in 1999 at the Washington Court Hotel. About 250 people showed up. Over lunch, attendees watched a video of rats navigating the New York sewer system. Then-Mayor Anthony Williams talked about his Rid-a-Rat program, which targeted eight small areas of the District for rat abatement.
Then, as now, the rhetoric was “we must all do our part.” One of the trade-offs of community living, though, is that not everyone pulls their weight. Especially on a problem that’s as intractable as rodents. But that’s no reason for giving up the struggle, say the people at the rat summit.
Another abiding truth: No one who goes to a rat summit is part of the problem.
This summit is heavy on pamphlets and bureaucratese, low on solutions and revelations, and ends with the promise of another meeting. Perhaps merely hosting these meetings, though, is a way to assert dominance over something that will never really be dominated. Citizens attend, express their concern and feel they have some authority over the filthy, squirming underworld that mankind lives atop. Meanwhile, the rats are outside, feeding, the noises of the town beating like waves.
Now, the River of Sludge.
It’s more of a stream, and it runs in the alley parallel to 14th Street, starting at the back of Birch & Barley, then draining past Barrel House Liquor, then trickling over the warped asphalt, through cracked concrete and into the cobblestone gutters of Rhode Island Avenue.
On their way home from the summit, four residents walk through the alley and point out the river’s source: the dank undercarriages of several dumpsters. The river is slick and clear on this pleasant autumn night, but sometimes it is milky and sticky. It smells like kitchen grease cut with corn syrup and mop water. Over the summer, it was “foul.”
“Private business are using a public alley as indoor plumbing,” says Schneider, who has lived in the neighborhood for 10 years.
“There’s a little guy!” says his neighbor, Gillette Conner, as a rat zips out from under a dumpster and doubles back when it sees the impromptu community meeting.
Activism and education are key to animating a complacent populace, says Dave Feinstein, a design consultant.
“There goes one!” Schneider says.
“You want to be able to sit in your backyard and leave your door open,” says Sue Pitman, a food nutrition policy consultant.
“There!” Feinstein says, pointing at another scampering rodent.
The neighbors walk downriver to Rhode Island Avenue, headed to Conner’s place for a glass of wine. A rat peeking out of a cinder block watches them go, then disappears, though not for good.