Penn Quarter is one strange neighborhood these days. In the heart of downtown, you get the feeling the streets don’t know which way is up anymore. The neighborhood isn’t home to the most political power, or business, or social. Uneasy scruffiness has persisted for decades. But after Williams, after Pollin, amid Fenty, the scruff makes less sense.
Gallery Place gets credit for doing the mammoth work of revitalization, and points in Penn Quarter offer sparks of a renewed downtown day. Just the name “Metro Center” ups expectations. Here we have a place close to the power but enough blocks away to provide a more human orientation. In a sense, the area is where a wave of metropolitan life begins. Consider the other directions. Capitol Hill jumps quickly into residential. South Capitol is support staff and barely post-industrial. North Capitol remains undefined. Penn Quarter, though, is the city rising from a swamp — more Peter Stuyvesant than Pierre L’Enfant.
So, when dysfunction persists through the sparks, you wonder where things are going wrong. If you can win on part of a block, why not the whole block? If you can win on that whole block, why not around the corner? And if you can win those multiple blocks, why not… Come on, Washington. My city. You’ve let a budget bus depot and a teen lock-in take over downtown’s best hopes since the arrival of Metro? I doubt New York and Chicago would put up with as much. There’s no coding here, just summertime exhaust and a kid yelling “Fuck” in your ear.
Good for the Post‘s Story Lab for a long, textured look at Gallery Place this week. (A photo gallery and videos would have helped, but maybe cupcake disorder is a narrative stepping stone to municipal disorder.) The storytelling finds chaos and minimal authority. Good for the Post ombud for calling out the paper’s otherwise weak coverage of the big Metro brawl. Anyone who’s spent time in the neighborhood in recent years could tell you Broken Windows have been escalating, putting unneeded edge on rare, diverse, professional opportunity. When the fancy bowling alley bans gang wear, you know you have a problem.
The Post ombud should go further along those lines. TBD needs to do the same. (This interview is a start.) Story Lab’s work last week tells the city as it is, between the headlines. Those stories matter, and we have rarely heard them. All signs in the fall’s mayoral race point to an electorate ready to vote their experiences, instead of any politician’s events. The city is going through a stretch without big wins or losses, and the quietly stuttering middle is an uneasy, impulsive street.
Voters, standing with more feelings than facts, know there are causes. Courtland Milloy writes: “Forget about the feasibility of putting a police officer on every train, let alone every car. Would it really help — or hurt — to put the squeeze on these teenagers without bothering to find out where all that pent-up rage is coming from?” Milloy puts his finger on Penn Quarter’s central issue, I think. The neighborhood has begun to feel like a flip in a shell game. The bomb scares and corner shouters are nothing when you know unresolved civic forces control your fate.