Housing Complex

“Livable and Walkable for Whom?” The Case for Going Negative.

Picture 1Mike DeBonis has an illuminating piece out today about the Ward 6 Council race between incumbent Tommy Wells, who has gone all in for the walkable urban agenda, and Kelvin Robinson, who wants to cast that choice as deliberate neglect of more pressing priorities, like crime.

"The question is always asked, 'Livable and walkable' for whom?" Robinson tells DeBonis. "That's how it has played out."

And, while canvassing the Capitol Park Condominiums, Robinson told a resident: "We've had a different kind of focus here. It's been bag tax and bike lanes and that sort of thing."

"That sort of thing." Code for: Things that upper-middle-class, federal-government-working, white people like. Colbert King got some buzz recently for a similar analysis of the mayoral race: Adrian Fenty has championed dog parks and bike lanes, but what has he done for black people lately?

Wells has an unshakeable faith that streetcars, bike lanes, a cleaned-up Anacostia River, and "five-minute living"–communities that allow residents to get anything they need in a five-minute trip–are good for everyone, not just Capitol Hill rowhouse owners. But for long-time residents, it's hard to see the potential good of these new things, and much easier to be concerned about muggings on the corner. The streetcar, for example, is a massive test of citizens' ability to suspend their disbelief–until those cars are rolling down the tracks, people just have to trust Wells that all the money and all the disruption will pay off. It's also fair to say that progressive projects like the streetcar will attract future residents and drive investment, meaning that much of the good accrues to people who don't even live here yet.

"When I first ran for council, I thought a lot about why do we like where we live–Why do we like it so much, and why are people moving back to the city?" Wells told me recently.

Wells says he learned about all these forward-thinking ideas from publications like Dwell magazine, events like Railvolution and the Solar Decathlon, and traveling to Europe (not to mention the locally-focused Greater Greater Washington, which will be the subject of an upcoming Housing Complex profile!). The Councilmember himself lives near Barracks Row, which comes as close as most neighborhoods in Washington to the walkable urban ideal. For those who already believe in the gospel of walkable urbanism–as I do–it's easy to say, "streetcars and bike lanes are good for everybody!" But DeBonis' piece also gets at a big fissure facing the urbanist movement: Adherents have to be conscious of how they come off to those who aren't reading Streetsblog and going to transit conferences. Outside those places, the goods are not so self-evident.

Instead of painting a picture of a rosy future, Wells might be better advised to depict the absence of excellent transit and walkable communities as a current ill that must be rectified, putting those deficiencies on the level of crime as a pressing issue. Solving problems is an easier sell than bringing in new toys. The bag tax, at almost no cost to the individual, solves the problem of a dirty and polluted river, which alleviates the harmful fact that nearby residents can't enjoy their waterfront.

Positive visions are great and all, but sometimes going negative is what changes minds.

  • Skipper

    Streetcars are nice. But for neighborhoods where there's regular shootings, they're not all that relevant.

  • Rick Mangus


  • Mrs. D

    I disagree, Skipper. Crime-fighting is not limited to the traditional "boots on the ground" approaches (of which DC has plenty). Things you might not think are remotely related to crime can actually improve crime rates.

    Transit, as an example, has numerous benefits. A transit-accessable neighborhood is more alluring to new residents, which can bring fresh, decent, law-abiding blood into a neighborhood. Despite cries of gentrification running natives out of town, many of the new residents of areas where transit is being developed are moving into previously-vacant homes. While this may increase existing residents' property taxes slightly, DC already has laws in place that cap property tax increases, among other programs to keep people in their homes. However, people moving into previously-vacant homes not only bring new people to a neighborhood, it removes an alluring target for criminal activity (the vacant building, excellent for crackhouses, prostitution flophouses, vandalism, etc.).

    Then there's the greater opportunities for existing residents of the neighborhood, on two fronts. They now can get other places in the city faster and easier, which greatly expands their job opportunities. Additionally, the aforementioned new residents bring new business investment, and the new transit brings patrons from elsewhere in the city. Those businesses need employees.

    And those new businesses and new residents and new patrons are "boots on the ground." They are people out and about in the community making it harder for criminals to find cover for their activities.

    But, I think DC currently has a price ceiling so I don't see as much harm in gentrification. You don't see property values rise above a certain level in most neighborhoods, because DC has so many yet-to-be-developed areas where people can move when they get priced out of a desirable area, thus "cooling" those previously white-hot real estate markets just a touch (not talking about existing residents, exclusively new residents). Combine that with limits on property tax increases, and I'm not sold on people being forced out, except criminals and miscreants, and if you WANT those people in your neighborhood, then you SERIOUSLY deserve to be forced out. I say this as someone who's recently shopped for real estate, and noticed an interesting ability to find similar residences in diverse neighborhoods for about the same price.

  • Been Around Too Long

    The wonderful $.05 cent bag tax for the Anacostia. A great legislative accomplishment for Wells except he forgot to insure that the Mayor can't move the funds into the general account for daily operating programs as Fenty has done. So much for inept Wells and his legislative accomplishments. Even less for the Anacostia River.

    Wells, a lot fluff and nothing of substance. So this is also the person we should suspend belief and await a 37 mile trolley system at a $1.5 billion dollar price tag? Sorry but I haven't graduated to using that particular drug yet.

  • Rick Mangus


  • Sally

    If Tommy spend more time focusing on DYRS and less time on idiotic European ideas, the city would be better off.

  • Reid

    If by "long term" resident you mean poor and Black, why don't you just say that? In a neighborhood like Capitol Hill, a lot of those residents clamoring for Wells's walkable city have lived there a long time. Perhaps in neighborhoods like Shaw or Logan you can use the casual shorthand of long term and short term to avoid being explicit about race and class, but on Capitol Hill that euphemism isn't accurate.

  • http://strassgefuhl.wordpress.com J.D. Hammond

    I'd just like to say that, while there might not be a foolproof connection between pedestrian orientation and public safety - which is a big part of that "livability" metric anyway - the idea that something less pedestrian-oriented is going to reduce crime is pretty much cargo-cultic. All you're doing is replacing crime on foot (a la Bed-Stuy) with drive-by crime (a la Compton).

  • http://strassgefuhl.wordpress.com J.D. Hammond

    Oh, Sally, what "European" ideas are those? The ones that appeal to the "European" people you want to leave?

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  • Trulee Pist

    The blue-haired ladies political machine that has brought us Ward 6 Councilmembers like Betty Ann Kane, Sharon Ambrose and Tommy Wells have opinions about what kind of people they want walking around their liveable, walkable neighborhood.

    They most definitely do NOT want black junior high kids in the neighborhood, so they shut down Hine. Before you scream and shout about how happy you are they closed Hine, ponder this. A public school was built at that site during the Civil War, by the same architect (Adolph Kluss) who designed Eastern Market, in order to promote a socially integrated public school in DC. That site has been used for a public school since 1863. This generation of snooty Capitol Hill white people can take the blame for ending almost 150 years of public education at that site, and they did it because they did not like seeing all those poor black kids running out of Hine at 3:15 pm.

    Across Pennsylvania Avenue from Eastern Market Metro is a triangle park. The Kane-Ambrose-Wells crew's financial supporters don't like the fashion sense of some people who sit on the lovely benches in that park, so TWICE now, the city has fixed the benches in that park, and twice the Kane-Ambrose-Wells crew has sent out a crew in the dark with a Skil saw and removed the benches.

    Liveable and walkable for whom? Not for youm. Who is the city for?