The litter on Ogden Street NW makes him stop. Then it’s the seatless bicycle locked to a lamppost, the tree with dead branches, then a graffiti-splattered mailbox. He sighs when he comes to the sidewalk dotted with a measles-like outbreak of blackened, flattened chewing gum.
Each discovery makes Terry Lynch press the redial button on his cellphone. He calls himself. Into his voice mail he recites the location (“1500 block of Ogden Street Northwest”) and the problem (“Possible abandoned bike, missing seat, missing tires”).
At his office the next day, he listens to each of his 48 messages. He scribbles down the details he then reports on the District’s non-emergency Web site or in e-mails to bureaucrats, most ending with “Respectfully” or “Respectfully yours” or “Just wanted to bring these to your attention.”
He repeats this ritual several times a week, not because it’s his job, per se, but because he cannot help himself.
Washington is a city of professional nags, many of them migrating from across the country to agitate, lobby, champion and nudge on such high-minded issues as health care and Social Security. Lynch, 52, the head of a coalition of religious organizations, is perfectly capable of opining about the state of District school reform (“Stalled,” he says.) or the spate of scandals laying waste to the city’s elected leaders (“Tragic.”). He can see the proverbial forest through the trees.
But that dead maple at 15th and Irving?
Or those missing crosswalk stripes at 11th and Columbia?
Or the streetlight on New York Avenue that’s on during the day?
“Look at this!” he says with each new discovery, his small frame stiffening as if he hadn’t just seen something very similar moments before.
After one of Lynch’s many notes, his D.C. Council member wrote back and dismissed his reports as “armchair emails.” His wife, far more charitable, rejects the suggestion that she might be married to Washington’s Most Annoying Man. But she acknowledges that she will not join him for a stroll from their Mount Pleasant rowhouse to Dupont Circle because he will stop every 10 feet to record another outbreak of urban blight.
Her husband is undeterred.
“The town should be green, clean and safe,” he says. “First class. Why not?”
Every community seems to have at least one: the citizen activist, the gadfly, someone like Robert Atkins, 67, a retiree who considers it his civic duty to attend every meeting of the Arlington County Board and pronounce its members thoroughly incompetent. Or Montgomery County’s Robin Ficker, a lawyer who for years has given county officials fits in forcing anti-tax and term-limit referendums.
What distinguishes Lynch is that he doesn’t stick to his block or even his neighborhood. Anywhere he happens to be in the District — the streets around RFK Stadium, Tenleytown, Anacostia — is fair game.
As executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, Lynch considers it part of his mission to ensure that public streetscapes are well maintained. But his passion for perfectly appointed tree boxes and graffiti-free mailboxes extends well beyond his job. Nights, weekends, holidays — Lynch won’t let it go. He registers his complaints whether he agrees with the policies of the mayor in power (Adrian Fenty) or disagrees with them (Vincent Gray).
“Terry is uber,” says Ed Grandis, a lawyer and Dupont Circle civic leader. Lynch is one of the few people with whom he can decry the seeming tyranny of newspaper vending machines and abandoned bicycles.
“He is fulfilling a very essential civic duty,” Grandis says.
No, Lynch says, he does not pine to live in Singapore, where chewing gum can get you fined. But he waves off the suggestion that a great Gotham requires a bit of grit, a stray page of a newspaper blowing down an alley, a splash of graffiti here and there, a rat lingering in the road before disappearing into a sewer.
“Is Paris messy?” he demands.
The trash, the dead trees, the spray-painted scrawl — all of it conveys a less-than-life-affirming message, he says: “This is how we take care of our public space? What are we telling our children?”
His self-assigned walking tours started a decade ago because he wanted exercise. Stray beer bottles caught his notice. Then maybe a malfunctioning streetlight. He started writing to city agencies. And kept on walking.
As a rule, Lynch believes in civil discourse, though he acknowledges that he has slipped. He berated a city official he ran into at a party once for not moving quickly enough on remaking a traffic median. When he noticed that the official was with his young daughter, Lynch blanched and apologized.
Still, he manages to rankle.
D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) cackles, recalling how he gave Lynch the Lynch Treatment at a council hearing five years ago. The subject was churches allowing their properties to deteriorate, and Evans wanted to know what Lynch’s organization would do about it.
“He couldn’t answer,” Evans says. “I got him. I got him good. It was great.”
Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), after being inundated with Lynch’s reports of “bent, broken” tree guards and “damaged, empty or graffiti tagged” vending boxes, fired back:
“Did you create and fund graffiti removal teams for Ward 1? Have you fought for the re-establishment of the green teams for Ward 1? I did all of that, it will make far, far more difference than your occasional armchair emails. What you say is c--- and you know it.”
Asked about the e-mail, Graham says he considers Lynch to be a “very good friend” and calls him “one of my earliest and most consistent supporters.”
Lynch shrugs off the scathing e-mail. “Things could be much better in Ward 1,” he explains.
And in wards 2, 3, 4 . . .
And at home, for that matter.
“Rose — can’t you hear the toilet running?” is a semi-recurring refrain, according to his wife, a government lawyer. “ ‘Can you please go jiggle the handle?’ Leaking faucets drive him crazy.”
Lest anyone think otherwise, she is quick to say, “I respect that Terry is a real advocate for the city.”
There are even nonrelatives who express their gratitude for Lynch’s exacting eye.
“Thanks Terry! . . . We appreciate this information,” Blake Holub of the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District wrote after Lynch sent him a list of 25 issues requiring attention, including a light pole missing its “bottom plate” at 1317 G St. NW and a “grate eating into tree trunk” at 400 Seventh St. NW. The next day, Holub responded: “I’ll go out and survey these areas to ensure we have a grasp of the problem.”
For the most part, Lynch says, the bureaucracy responds.
“Eighty-five percent,” he says. “Some could take years. You cannot let up.”
Lynch, the son of a forensic psychiatrist, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., moved to the District in 1977 to attend Georgetown University and stayed. He worked as a homeless advocate before taking over the Downtown Cluster. In 1990, he ran for the D.C. Council and lost, but he has remained active in city politics, serving as an unpaid adviser to Fenty during his losing reelection bid.
Lynch acknowledges that he has not cornered the market on normality. His first meal of the day is often an oatmeal cookie for lunch. He prefers to wash dishes by hand even though he owns a dishwasher. He refuses to eat in any restaurant that’s not located within the District, figuring his money shouldn’t go to supporting businesses elsewhere. He dislikes the idea of taking a vacation.
“I don’t find them relaxing,” he says, sitting in his office in New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. His wooden desk is scuffed. A misshapen sweater drips from a hanger.
“Leave town at your own peril,” he says. “Something could happen you need to respond to.”
In the meantime, he makes his rounds.
“Great to be out,” he says, walking down F Street NW. “Great to feel the city. Great to feel the ground.”
He stops. An empty tree box. He stops again. A buckling sidewalk.
“Look at this!” he says.
Pedestrians come and go. He dials his cellphone.