Appreciating What’s Special About The Wallach Neighborhood

After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.” – Oscar Wilde.

There’s great truth in that, and great wisdom in the entire concept of the Thanksgiving holiday. In our house, it’s rivaled perhaps only by Derby Day…and even at that it’s not much of a contest. We had big ones, where we had to string together multiple tables to get everyone seated together, and small ones with no-one more than Craig and I. We’ve cooked in the old barely-to-code kitchen with little more than a roll-around oven and two heating elements, and now in the new stainless steel dream where practically anything is possible.

Some of the guests were ours, some where friends of friends, and I can recall a few who literally seemed to just wander in off the street. To be fair, I’m sure a few of the people who came over the years I didn’t particularly like the rest of the year. But in the Thanksgiving holiday bubble, all that falls away. It’s just a brilliant little holiday, and calls to mind just some of the things I’m thankful about my neighborhood:

  • My crazy good neighbors. Wallach is a little one-block, one-way street. The houses are shorter and smaller than its neighbors and the street more narrow. The DC Historical Society notes that Wallach was the place where the domestic help lived, when they weren’t working in the larger 3 or 4 level houses on T, S or R. As such there’s always been a sort of Sesame Street vibe to the street. A place where you know all your neighbors – even the crack dealers (which were many.) A lot of our life together is actually on the street: neighboring kids playing, neighbors shooting the breeze about this or that, street mates pitching in to shovel cold snowy walks or sharing food at Guy and Dan’s in the summer. It’s a special place, largely because of the people.
  • Holiday parking. Especially for the big days – Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter – Washington DC in general empties out. And with it go a lot of cars. As a rule it doesn’t seem our neighbors leave town much on the holidays, but with everyone else gone, the streets are empty and quiet. And let’s face it: not having to battle to park, or constantly dodging dump trucks on the street and delivery trucks in the alley, is a little pleasure. Like finding a dollar bill waded in you pocket; a small and unexpected gift.
  • The just about everything. Even with the most recent trend toward mono-culture, the neighborhood still has lots of little things that make a place rich. When the dog is ill, we walk to Doc Wendy & Doc Sarah. If I suddenly run out of Madagascar nutmeg or Vietnamese fish sauce in the middle of a storm, it’s a good bet Yes! Market will have it. There’s a post office and a dry cleaner and a check-cashing place all in one block. Edge’s and Mitoni’s both offer great razor cuts without the fuss, The Saloon and Pica Taco never disappoint, and the best venue for music in the nation, 9:30 Club, is a short stumble from home.  Of course, we have lost some good friends lately – Raven Arts, Coppi’s, the U Street sandwich shop (which made THE best tuna melts ever!) Pollys, and Ruff N’ Ready are but a few. Even the dingy liquor store run by the Koreans who spent their day shouting at people behind plexiglass – it somehow made the neighborhood richer. I know that change happens; I just hope that future change keeps the neighborhood as diverse as it historically was, rather than becoming little more than bars and restaurants I can’t afford.
  • The green. All around this area, just as on Wallach, people often have tiny gardens. Wee little plots of land in the front – and that’s if your lucky. Some neighbors on the South side of Wallach just have sidewalk and stairs. Yet almost without exception, people really try to make what little space they have green and bright and lush. Some are neat and some are a higgle-piggle, but they all add color and beauty and smells in the Spring, Summer and Fall.  Growing up in rural Michigan, land was something you had so much of you really didn’t think about it. It was there to be used. Here, space and land is so precious that people squeeze every little drop out of it…and the result is a riot of greenery.
  • My partner. I think even if I were a single guy living in a basement on Wallach I’d find it a fun and special neighborhood. But getting the chance to live together with my partner Craig is the capstone. No matter how exhausted from work or toil, there’s never a time I don’t want to go out on a walk with Craig and the dog. I’ve strung holiday lights at other places, but it’s never as much fun as doing it with Craig. Kitchen aromas somehow smell better with Craig there to enjoy them.

So I’m once again giving thanks for those things we should gladly give thanks for: dear friends near and far, hopeful good (or better) health, enough money to live modestly and put a little aside. But this year I’m making special note of all the things that my life on Wallach Place so fortunate. Here’s hoping that all can feel so blessed in their lives.


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“We’re Sinking”

Erecting the Wallach Street Crane Doesn’t Go Too Well

Saturday was the day that Grunley was to erect their construction crane for the L2 Development at 14th and Wallach. Residents had previously written Councilman Jim Graham’s office asking whether the street could support the crane (in addition to the traffic problems) and suggested that 14th Street instead be used. After all, it’s already demonstrated it can support and handle the weight and size of such a crane…twice.

Wallach after the bug-out of construction trucks. They left in a hurry

But no, apparently the order had been handed down by DDOT – whenever the public had any input into that is a question – and so Saturday Wallach was shut down, cars were towed and in came the trucks.

Little problem. The street started to crack.

“We’re sinking here,” one of the construction engineers told me after the street full of trucks, crane parts at 12.5 ton weights bugged out. He went on:

“We really don’t know what’s down there. It’s soft. It could be bad backfill, we just don’t know.”

So what was the next step? “We don’t know. Maybe we build a ramp from Wallach to the pit so we can build it. We just don’t know what’s under there.”

So this happened on 13th Street how exactly?

Hearing that – twice – from one of the crane engineers is not encouraging. In addition to the damage to several people’s houses, including this from a house on Wallach facing 13th Street. Just how a construction truck ended up doing this on 13th Street is, again, another mystery.

So once more we ask: why not set the crane on 14th Street – where we already know it can be supported? And beyond that, just how much is there that we just don’t know about under our feet? We’ve written several times before here of neighbors who dug their basement’s down just a little too much, and now had constant flooding problems. The water table is obviously very high here…if a little basement floods, is it any surprise so many developers are asking for such large variances to not dig down for the required amount of parking?

To be continued.


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What Infrastructure?

Thoughts Post Sandy

First, for all those who are or with loved ones (as we pray for our friend Pierre in Hoboken) still suffering in SuperStorm Sandy’s aftermath, we wish you strength and health. If there’s anything we can do, please contact us directly.

A tree downed by the storm. The neighbors say this was a healthy tree, until a rogue construction truck struck it and shattered the trunk.

One thing certain after an event like this is that pundits/blowhards will shove each other into the gutter to be the first to bloviate on what happened, how this is bad (duh) and why thus-and-such political haircut was right/wrong on Sandy. From our little perspective in a tiny corner that suffered only minor cable outages and a few (sad) fallen trees on U Street we say SHUT UP. If anyone was seriously concerned about all this, we would have heard discussions over the last few years about infrastructure, global climate change, economic investment and a host of other issues. We haven’t, so please just shut your pie holes now and just help your fellow citizens.

While I’m snug and warm writing this, a good friend is trapped in a building in Hoboken, surrounded by water and disaster. I don’t know how he is, as his last text was a request to stop texting as he needs to preserve what batteries his phone has for the disaster crews.  Ugh.

We’re reminded how fortunate we are to live in this little corner of the District, once more. In 2003, I was living in a basement apartment when Isabel hit. We had sandbagged the entrances, and at the height of the storm the doors blew open and wouldn’t shut. Power never went out. Now living in a modest house on Wallach (where we just learned the skylight isn’t sealed but just resting on the roof by its weight) we again experienced a few hours of ominous winds and cable outages. But our drilling in the “back yard” and our block’s scrupulous cleaning of the gutters prevented any flooding. Like I said: lucky.

We clearly do not live in a Cadillac neighborhood, and increasingly the rest of our nation doesn’t, either. We float on a belief that everything will always work, but fail to invest in the tangible things that actually make it work…and ignore these questions as we pursue greater development at any cost.

As we’ve said (h8trs go look at this post or just go away, you bore us) smart development is more than just planning for increased density – it’s looking at, planning for and working with the basic infrastructure and service delivery options of any community. Questions: is our cabling in the district – much of it underground – in good repair, and able to deliver the ever-increasing amount of juice needed by an expanding population? Are our sewers and pipes capable of delivering what’s necessary to ensure sanitary conditions? Can our streets handle the necessary traffic a modern population demands? How many new laptops can we add to an area before the electrical grid groans and flickers off?

We blithely carry on with our lives – new development or not – without ever giving a moment’s thoughts to all the stuff that allows us to live as well as we do. That infrastructure doesn’t just happen, and isn’t just magically maintained. Without even a single new resident, it demands attention to shore up and improve.

I’m disappointed nationally, and locally, how little attention anyone pays to this. Media, advocates, candidates – mostly what we’re hearing is zippo, as we whistle past the graveyard.

So New Rule: from now on, anytime anyone proposes how wonderful it is to add thousands of new residents within a small spot in the District, they’ll also have to address how – specifically – our infrastructure can absorb it all, or what measures they would propose to make sure that it does. Because it matters.

Again, anyone in need, please contact us and we’ll do what we can.


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Prepping for Sandy

What You Can Do To Get Ready

So here we go…again. Everyone who remembers Snowpocalypse, and then Snowmageddon, knows what havoc a bad storm can do to our neighborhood. And for those who weren’t around in 2003, Hurricane Isabel brought nearly as much headache in mid-September, pelting the District with big gusts and soaking rain.

Coming soon to a neighborhood near you

No one can really say right now what Hurricane/Frankenstorm Sandy (should a hurricane really be named “Sandy”?) might mean for the District, so there’s no use worrying. But there’s plenty of good that can come from preparing, so we’re sharing a few ideas right now:

  1. Gutters: Our street gutters are often clogged, or worse, with a lot of crud. Newspapers, burger wrappers, plastic this and glass that…but it all slows run-off from getting to the storm drains. We’re likely to have it bad enough: urban flooding can happen remarkably quickly. Just ask the guy who spent a day bagging sandbags for Isabel, and was glad he did. What you can do: take some time Saturday, as we will, and just bag up all the junk in your street gutters. It’s nasty, and you’ll want gloves, but you’ll be glad you did. Water that flows into the drains won’t flow into your house or condo. We’ll be out tomorrow morning – I recommend everyone do the same.
  2. Yards: Who really knows, but the brainiacs at the National Weather Service are forecasting prolonged high winds. That means lots of shit is going to be flying all over the place. Trust us: Isabel was a wimp, tropically speaking, the time she rolled over DC – but she still made doors vibrate, furniture fly and all sorts of nastiness in the night. What you can do: Take time Saturday to store anything remotely mobile outside. Garbage bins, furniture, toys, and yes, even garbage: it’s all likely to fly just about everywhere, and that will only make things worse.
  3. Inside Prep: OK, you’ve heard enough from Janet Napolitano to know that you should have a few days supply of water and food if things get nasty. That isn’t frozen pizzas, either, as if your power goes out everything in your fridge will suddenly become very smelly. What you can do: It’s not a big deal. Have maybe up to 10 gallons of water on hand – it’s really not that much – just in case the water/sewer system goes kerflooey. Have food you can eat with minimal cooking: if it can be done without a microwave, that’s a great start.
  4. Neighbors: Every street has some neighbors who are at higher risk. Maybe they’re older, or sick, or just not very engaged. Doesn’t really matter: you should think about what you all can do to help your street-mates if things go bad. Say someone’s roof blows off, or 10 houses in a row are flooded: is everyone taken care of What you can do: Gosh this is pretty easy. You know who your vulnerable neighbors are. Knock on their door, talk to them about the storm, and learn about what they may need in the coming days. It’s not a big lift.
  5. Communications: During the two snow storms we were fairly lucky: we never lost power or cable/Internet access. The same may not be so for any of us next week. Ugh yes, you’ve heard it, but for Heaven’s sake, have a battery or crank radio. Charge, super-charge, your cell phones. Think about how you keep warm for two or three days without power. What you can do: Like we said: get a radio. If you’re counting on electricity or cable connection, don’t. Plan for what happens if it goes out.

Tomorrow we’ll be ambling on the roof checking gutters (I do NOT recommend this!) and cutting some water runoff lines in the back yard to prevent flooding. And cleaning gutters, and just knocking on a few doors. I recommend you do the same. Chances are it will all be just a big nothing…but the whiz-kids at NOAA disagree.

Like we always say: Hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

Good luck, U Street!

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Got Construction?

 Because It Only Gets Worse From Here

Anyone living in, visiting or traveling through the U Street area already knows what a snarl it is. Even more than usual, that is.

Kinda says it all.

Take Tuesday, just this week. Starting around 6am, a ceaseless parade of dump trucks began rumbling down Wallach Place – something L2 developer David Franco promised publicly would never, never happen – to haul the day’s dirt away from Wallach and 14th. 14th Street itself now routinely stops traffic heading north/south, and something U Street east/west, to make things easier for the Louis development (which I think we’ll just calling the Coppi’s killer.)  One lane traffic is the norm, and will be for a while.

Then at 14 and T, a plethora of contractors have taken to just parking somewhere along 14, or T, or who knows where, as they fumble with ladders or lunch or something. And then this Tuesday a large trailer, carrying a large Cat earth mover, just decided to stop in the intersection, blocking the entire 14 and T intersection.

MEMO to DC parking cops: if contractors can park illegally, if dump trucks can take routes they promised not to use, if builders can just stop their rigs anywhere they want, we get to park anywhere we want and ignore the street sweeping restrictions.

Oh, haha, that’s right. Residents don’t matter. Only those building more buildings really matter.

If this is your idea of fun, look forward to a year+ full of entertainment. A few notes on what’s coming:

  1. 13th and U PUD: Our friends at JBG have slated a meeting at the Marshall Center (the old Y on 12th between T and S) this Monday evening, October 22, to present their PUD community proposal. Smarter folk than me (and that’s a lot) have pointed out that many of their “benefits” are actually things they’re already to provide as part of the variance, so there’s that. Hmmm…let’s see…anything else happening Monday night that might compete for attendence? Oh, I’m sure there’s not.
  2. L2: Currently, project manager Shawn Link from Grunley informs us that they’re in the “excavation, underpinning and installation of aggragate piers phase.” Which means they’re a LOOONG way from being near actually laying foundation, let alone getting cranes. Which also means that the dump trucks may soon lessen, only for things to get worse when actual construction begins.
  3. Louis: JBG helpfully tells us (well, grudgingly in a newsletter) about their auger casting and piering and…oh, sorta forgot to say anything about that whole “whoops” thing with the crane. You know: where they actually had to tear down the old skycrane and put up a new one because, oops, they put the first one up in the wrong spot. A friend in town recently who does serious development elsewhere says “that’s probably about a $100,000 mistake right there.”
  4. U Street: Oh remember that? Plans to start tearing up all of U Street for redevelopment? Because, you know, the roads surely aren’t in terrible condition from all the heavy construction equipment in the area for the last eight years or so. Yeah, look for that soonish, with even more cones, more lane squeezes, more traffic snarls.

Yeah, I can hear all the teeny tiny violins playing right now. But just remember: swords tend to have two bladed sides. The same development some hail now may become the cause of much grief in the future.

But then, it will be too late. And anyone who complains will just be called names.


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Open House(s)

Mid-City Artists Open Studios This Weekend

One of the more valued aspects (at least for me) about living in an area officially designated as an “Arts Overlay” is the high concentration of creative types – and room for them to do their thing.

Work by Mid City artist Peter Romero.

Of course, the Arts Overlay has now morphed into something decidedly different. There are less spaces for artists to do their thing here, and what does exist is significantly pricier. (Several of our favorite studios have been pushed out of neighborhood, adding their talents to other less high-pressure development areas.)

Still, we’re lucky that many artists remain committed to working here as long as they can. And we’re all lucky that this weekend is one of two biannual weekends they fling open their studio doors to let everyone come and see what they do. And, you know, maybe even pick up a new treasure or two.

DC Mid City artist Brian Petro, hard at work.

This weekend is sponsored by Mid City Artists, a great group that connects those who create with those who wish to acquire. It’s a really great opportunity to meet over two dozen artists in the places they work, and explore their range of work.

It’s a beautiful weekend. Come on out and see some beautiful work. Click on this link for the map of where you can meet with your next favorite artist.

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Getting To Yes

A Positive Vision For The Neighborhood

Generally speaking, we’re inclined to say “yes.” Yes to the Ellington. Yes to L2. Yes to Black and Orange and the Louis and Blackbyrd and Langston Lofts and…well, the record’s pretty clear. With very few exceptions, we’re much more about Yes than No.

See that? It’s all that remains of the once grand Republic theater.

Of course, just like a relationship, yes isn’t unconditional. The Ellington had several rescalings, making it a superior building. L2 and its designer, Eric Colbert, were rapped on the knuckles by HPRB for an uninspired design, and returned with something demonstrably better. We always liked B&O, but wondered whether there isn’t a median between hosting a great burger joint and serving inebriates at 4am.

Let’s face it: yes is fun. No can be a downer. Saying yes generally means making others happy, while saying no means pissing off at least a few. Nothing new here.

Occasionally – as in every day – we get notes here from a few rather angry anonymous commentors. They’re often filled with poor spelling and pointless accusations, and judging by the clock, they’re frequently composed in the wee hours, which is rarely a good time to frame a serious argument. From now on, anyone sending a comment with the blanket condemnation that we’re just “N—-S” is simply getting this emailed back to them.

Still, we like being about yes, and generally agree that it’s as important to spell out what you’re for as much as what you’re against. So here goes.

Here’s what we’re about. What we want to say yes to. A positive vision for the neighborhood, which we can then share with others:

  1. Daytime As Well As Nighttime. A tremendous amount of the neighborhood development recently has been focused on entertainment, food and drink. It’s made the hood a real draw. We like restaurants of all sorts – fancy (Eatonville) to divey (Pica Taco) and everything in between. We also like bars and music and all that. However, we want to see more daytime traffic. An office building, instead of yet another apartment bloc. A little more retail and a little less cocktail. It’s not asking too much.
  2. Cooperation. Bar owners are making a killing in the neighborhood, and they’ve opened in some formerly empty buildings. But liquor means more fighting, more trash, more congestion. Those who are profiting from all that merriment should find it in their best business interests to help the neighborhood keep itself safe and clean. If you fill someone with booze, your responsibility for that person does not stop when they walk out the door.
  3. Traffic. Our little streets are carrying more traffic than they can manage. Parking is beyond impossible, congestion ties up the streets. It’s a complaint as old as cities, but in this case it’s also true. Some of the new parking restriction initiatives are positive, but we just want a little honest. “New urbanist” types like to say that buildings now don’t need parking, because we’ve got Metro and bikes and Carshare. Hogwash. This is a fantasy like supply-side economics. You increase residents, with more people living on top of of one another than at any time before in this neighborhood, you increase cars. Just open the window and look. There may be no brilliant solutions to traffic, but everyone needs to be honest about the problem – and that includes developers who can’t be bothered with the expense (or the water table) to put in the required parking.
  4. Respect. We can disagree and debate on what is good design, or smart development, or sustainable planning. In fact, we should. That’s not what those who hurl the NIMBY label, or make other accusations, are doing. They are just plain being bad citizens. Nobody respectable in the same-sex marriage debate uses the word “faggot.” Nobody respectable uses the brick of “Nimby” in the development debate. Period.

So: yes to buildings – those that house office workers as well as those who work in them. Yes to entertainment – and a cooperative relationship to keep everyone safe and sound. Yes to honesty when talking about traffic problems. And yes to everyone being a good neighbor, and respecting all those around you – along with their right to hold differing opinions.

See? Getting to yes really isn’t that hard.


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