“We must live together as brothers,” read the words that workers packed onto a dolly and rolled away. They returned with ladders and power tools for the second half: “Or perish as fools.”
Acting D.C. police chief Robert J. Contee and John Falcicchio, the District’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, were on hand Wednesday to watch the first boards come down — a sign, officials said, that downtown D.C. was stirring back to life. It comes after months of demonstrations, unrest, a still-raging pandemic, a suffering economy and, most recently, a heavily patrolled militarized zone in downtown Washington that followed a siege at the U.S. Capitol.
“I’m still not 100 percent comfortable with taking these down, but it’s at the point now where you’re always going to have some kind of risk on the horizon,” Oxford Properties General Manager Josh Turnbull said, noting upcoming events, including President Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress, planned protests and the possible return of extremists to the city. “So either we’re going to hide like this forever, or we’re going to take steps to reopen now.”
D.C. officials posed with property managers and representatives from several business districts, holding up a 3-D hashtag: #DCisOpen.
But high-end restaurants such as Mirabelle and Blackfinn Ameripub remain closed. Other businesses, Falcicchio said, have been hurt by diminished foot traffic and empty office buildings.
Turnbull said he expects businesses to begin opening in the coming weeks, noting that bringing down plywood that has covered glass since June was an important first step.
“We’re happy to be at the point where we are feeling like it’s time to take the wood down, it’s time to reopen the city, time to reopen the businesses and get the energy back,” said Turnbull, who wore a black face mask over his nose and mouth that read, “DC needs more vaccine.”
The city has yet to announce official plans for the future of Black Lives Matter Plaza, an area that has become a de facto pedestrian plaza and gathering place for protesters, artists and tourists, but Falcicchio said the mayor’s office is conducting a study to determine whether or when vehicle traffic may be allowed to reenter the area.
Fencing along Lafayette Square and around the Capitol will remain until federal agencies determine they are safe to remove, officials said, noting there is no immediate timeline for the removal of the Lafayette Square fence — which also has been transformed by protest art and memorials to Black people killed by law enforcement.
The city has approached the Smithsonian about preserving some of the artwork from along the fence line, Falcicchio said.
The wood panels, put up by downtown businesses after nights of protest that in early June ended in looting and vandalism, also were transformed by activists as unrest grew into weeks and months of demonstrations.
They became gathering places and canvases, where artists painted murals depicting demonstrators, medics and a large rendering of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her lace-gloved hand pressed against her furrowed brow.
Not wanting to trash the art, Oxford Properties reached an agreement with artists to preserve and move the pieces to an open retail space, where, Turnbull said, the murals and other work will continue to be displayed, rent-free.