Cleaning up with Brother Brian and Father Watkins

Since this blog is going to end soon I decided to do something a little different. This is a much longer post than normal, regardless I hope you enjoy it.

Brian Bakke and Monsignor James Watkins have much in common. They both are men of faith, similar in ages, who moved to Shaw 12 years ago. Both have taken to cleaning up their part of Shaw and have observed the changes in the neighborhood while regularly picking up trash from the sidewalks and the streets.

The reasons why they began picking up trash differ.

When Father Watkins came to Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Shaw from St. Matthew’s Cathedral in 2001 he noticed, “a tremendous amount of trash. All over the sidewalks and curbs and properties.” The building for Center City Charter School, adjacent to the church, used to house Immaculate’s Catholic school back then and the children had to walk through the trash to get to school. The trash the children and their parents had to step in and over were used needles and condoms and broken glass. Watkins said, “I just thought, for the safety of the children and their sense of pride in their church and school,” and thus he began removing trash from their path, for their safety. Using parish funds, he had eight trash canisters placed along the 1300 block of 8th St. and on N Street NW, near the church. These aid in his campaign against trash.

Brian began cleaning up his neighborhood streets long before coming to Washington. He and his wife moved to a street in Chicago that was the dividing line between two opposing street gangs. The gang members would throw bricks and bottles at cars to draw out rival members to try to kill them. Brian wanted to stop it, so he went hunting for the projectiles used to start fights: the rocks and the bottles, and found them on tires of parked cars, near trees on the sidewalk, and began picking and throwing them away. He recalled the gang members’ reaction, “I overheard them saying, ‘He’s picking up our stuff!'” It should be noted that Brian is 6’6″, over 200 lbs, a former college football player and he can only recall being challenged by women who question his efforts. With a broom and wearing dark clothing as he does, he is a fairly intimidating looking character.

Brian 1

In 2001 Brian and his wife moved to DC, as renters.  Compared to where they used to live in Chicago, Shaw, even with its problems “was nothing.” Arriving, he “asked God about this. How does a white man enter an all black neighborhood, or predominately black neighborhood?” His prayers were answered with a phrase, “Go get a broom, use it,” followed later by, “And be silent until someone speaks to you.” Quietly Brian began picking up trash and throwing it into black contractor bags on the 1600 block of 4th St. NW. Slowly he has expanded his area to include the 400 block of R St up to 5th St and around Florida Ave NW. Despite Shaw being less dangerous than Chicago, he still found weapons, “I’ve collected a number of knives, scary ones,” along with other objects.

Both men make prayer a part of their trash removal efforts. Fr. Watkins prays the rosary while sweeping and Brian prays for the drug dealers, the people in the houses and for himself. “I love to pray the rosary*,” Watkins admits with some enthusiasm. When he picks up and sweeps the sidewalks, which he does at least once a day, he can pray 3 rosaries at 15 minutes each, reflecting and praying for intercessions for the parish and himself. He said he’s not big on praying the rosary while sitting in a quiet space, but rather while he’s doing other things so that his prayers are infused with his work. For Brian, a Protestant, prayer pervades his cleaning activities, as well. “When I’m out sweeping, ” Brian said, “I’m usually talking with God or arguing with God, or shouting at God,” quietly, as to not to scare the pedestrians. “I try to be in prayer the whole time, and I’m not always successful. Actually a lot of time, I’m really struggling with my own dirtiness. My own brokenness. The Bible would call it sin. I’m a mess just like everyone else.” Intertwined in these prayers, conversations and internal struggles is that bit of neighborhood activism that sent Brian out to the streets in Chicago. Here, drug dealing is the problem, so here he sweeps up the dime bags. He takes up the humble position of servant and cleans under the drug dealer’s car and sweeps quietly around the dealer, as it is, “just a cheap excuse to just keep praying and praying and praying until he [the drug dealer] leaves. That’s been wonderful to see that happen. Of course, they keep coming back. So…. ” Then he reflects, “the Bible reminds me that I need to be relentless and paints the beautiful picture of the old woman who flies at the judge ’cause she’s been denied justice.** And that’s [how] God wants us to approach this.”

Being out on the streets, cleaning up as often as they do, they have found it to be a great way to meet and really get to know their neighbors. “I meet people,” Fr. Watkins put it, ” I could stay inside my house all day, or inside the church or I could go off in the car.. But to be on the streets, you bump into the parents dropping of the kids at the school.” He adds, “It gives me a chance to chat with people along the way. I get to know them by name, otherwise I would never know some of the neighbors around us. So it [the street cleaning] serves a lot of other purposes which benefit me personally, and the parish.”

The way of the broom was Brian’s method for first getting to know his then black neighbors. As the demographics in the neighborhood have changed he now sees his role changed from ‘new comer’ to ‘connector’, linking the now new people to the older neighbors or groups or whatever in the neighborhood that would help the newer, and typically younger residents find that desired connection where they live. Brian is typically out on Sunday mornings, so regularly that it has become like office hours. People have said to him, “I know that I could find you out here on Sunday. I just had to walk around until I saw you. So anyway, can I talk to you…” The conversations are not forced and they flow freely. From my own experience and talking with neighbors, there have been some deep thought provoking conversations out there on the sidewalks, the kind of talks that you used to have in college at 2AM. Brian has also been good company for sharing a joke or passing along general information.

Besides seeing demographic changes, they’ve seen changes in what gets dumped on the sidewalk and in the streets. Watkins notes that 2005 was the year the needles disappeared. When Brian started, there were more used diapers. He finds fewer hair extensions, which he considers a creepy kind of litter in the way it clings to the sidewalk like a starfish, and then hops on to his broom as if it had a life of its own. As the neighborhood changed, not just in who moved in and who moved out, but in how people used the spaces in the neighborhood, the men have made progress in the war on trash. With the construction of the City Market at O project, some groups no longer hang out or ‘party’ as frequently as they did before on 8th St., leaving empty Patron bottles or other evidence of the night’s activities, that become the morning’s trash.

Please clean up after your dog

Though changes in the neighborhood reduced most trash, it introduced another kind of refuse, poop. Canine fecal matter arrived about 6 years ago. Brian mentioned how the presence of dog walkers helps reduce crime, but yes, there are a lot more droppings. Fr. Watkins responded to the problem by placing reminders along 8th for dog walkers to pick up after their pets. He’s gotten positive feedback from owners as the signs communicate a tasteful and positive message.

At some level the men would like others to take ownership of their own patch of sidewalk or block.  Watkins wishes people would take responsibility for their property, take care about the way it is presented and develop a sense of community pride. “DC would be a different place if people took on a greater ownership of the spaces where they live, work and play,” says Brian. He later added, “There is an appalling lack of public ownership. Some theologians and philosophers call it the ‘public good,’ or the ‘greater good’.”

There is no guarantee that if you began cleaning up your street or block tomorrow that you will meet and really get to know your neighbors. Nor is it recommended that you go out and directly confront drug dealers with a broom and dustpan. But if everyone were to lay claim to their yard and the sidewalks in front, eliminating the signs of chaos, DC would definitely be a different place, a better place.

*A rosary is a form of devotion in which five, or fifteen, decades (set of ten) of Hail Marys are repeated, each decade preceded by an Our Father and followed by a Glory Be. Typically practiced by Roman Catholics.
**Luke 18:1-8. See the parable of the persistent widow.

Monday walkabout

Greetings from the free and liberating part of Shaw, Truxton Circle. Pretty much a block or two away from the Convention Center nothing looks different. Well except for police loitering over at Dunbar or in the park across from the Safeway.
I walked around. Ran some errands. The register was down at the 5th St Hardware and I think I saw Michelle Rhee walking out the Safeway with her assistant/ aide/ some random guy pushing her cart. 5th Street is normal. 6th Street appears to have the 70 bus running down it. Military vehicles block 7th and 9th and a tiny portion of 8th for one level of security. The G2 seems to be running normal on P, and taxis were running up and down O. I was able to walk by the Humvees and military personnel towards the checkpoints without showing any ID. The sidewalk is blocked off at 7th and O on both sides and I didn’t test whether ID required to walk to the front door of 1330 7th St. Little matter as you can get to their parking lot from the rear.
I spoke with one resident living in the militarized zone and he pretty much had a good spirit about it all. Of course he complained about the set up noise and the helicopters flying overhead kept him up at night. Also he’s happy he’s parked in just the right space where it is close enough, but doesn’t require the military to unblock his way.
Also I noticed on my walk, some hangerouters moved to sitting in cars and throwing chicken bones out of open windows. I nearly got hit by a bone. The grocery stores were busy. Azi’s didn’t look busy. But it was 11 something and one guy in there. I don’t know how busy they are normally.
Some others have reported on the security around the area. Such as Economic Policy Journal looking more at the south end. The BAANC blog editor worries about fire safety. CCCA has a clever SHAW MASH post but I’m guessing the military medical vehicle wasn’t sitting in front of Kennedy when the Prez was out there. Cause that would have been a good picture. Maybe I should walk out again (I forgot something at the store) and take a picture of it.

From- Subject: [MPD-5D] Neighbors Who Are Unable to Get Around

Because me knocking on some strangers door while I’m angry is not a good idea. My neighbors and I have shoveled our street, but the routes to the Giant, the Metro and most bus stops are ice covered danger zones for the elderly who walk with canes and have basically shut in the wheelchair bound.

Haven’t you noticed fewer or almost no motorized wheelchairs around lately? So my sympathy is for the people who have been trapped in their homes because others are too lazy or too cheap (there are 10 yr olds w/ shovels looking to make money) to shovel their sidewalks.

Look around at who is getting around and notice who is missing.
This morning mothers are having to lead their small children through small icy trails of yellow lined paths to get to school.
The wrongness of it angers me because pedestrians deserve better and they deserve justice.

The preceeding was in response to this regarding ticketing for lack of snow removal on the MPD 5th District listserv:

Yes, businesses should be ticketed, but have you knocked on the door of your neighbors and asked why they have not shoveled?
> Maybe there is a sick and shut in person or someone not physically able to move the amount of snow that is out there. I have lived in my neighborhood for eight years and my husband and son are very vigilant about keeping our space shoveled. However, during this last storm, our shovel broke and although our area was shoveled for the first storm, he could not shovel with his hands and he could not even get out of the parking space to look for one. My neighbor came to the rescue and let us borrow one until we were able to purchase a new one.
> I am tired of the snow more than the next person, but be neighborly and see what the circumstance is before begging to give someone a ticket. This is an unusual storm and unless you are young and very able, the ice is very difficult to move even for the strongest man right now.
> Calm down people and have a little patience.

New Eyes

My 25 year old cousin is enjoying her stay with me, not so much for my company (I’m sure the familial bonds play a part) but because so much is happening outside. My cousin had been holed up in what she calls a ‘housing farm’ up in northern PG County, car-less. The house farm has single family home crops, townhome crops, and condo/apartment crops where she could go days without seeing another human, with her parents as the exceptions. Even on days where she doesn’t leave my house, she sees people walking, drunk guys screaming, homeless guys pushing things, kids screaming, a whole show of humanity all from her window. Maybe I’ve been here too long but the screaming people have lost their charm.
For her the neighborhood is wonderful and exciting, for slightly different reasons I find the neighborhood wonderful and exciting. For her a 2 mile walk in any direction is an enjoyable excursion, and the centrality of the neighborhood is an added bonus. For me centrality good, mixed in with several transportation options, but a >2 mile trek better not include huge highways (New York Avenue) and should have places of interest along the way. Also for me the wonderfulness rests on knowing my neighbors, something she’s cluing into. A couple of neighbor ladies stopped her on the sidewalk to interview/ interrogate/ check her out and another instance (in the middle of the day while I was at work) where she needed a tool, I told her if she didn’t find it, which neighbors were home who might lend her a plunger.
It’s been interesting getting her perspective of the neighborhood.

The Life You Plan to Lead & the City

On another blog, long, long ago, like a couple of weeks, on the topic of crime and neighborhood safety someone had mentioned safety relative to lifestyle. That got me thinking about how some of my neighbors live and how certain aspects of crime doesn’t really apply to them. They don’t use metro, the most they walk is a block or two in the daytime, like most of us they have window bars, and they don’t leave stuff in their cars. Yet the central location of the neighborhood works for them in their careers. Living in a transitional neighborhood comes with a load of negatives but the positives that tend to outweigh those, and there are the parts that strengthen and promote the type of life we plan to live, and the people we want to be.
For myself, I wanted to be a homeowner who lived close to work and someone who wouldn’t need a car. I looked for an affordable, walkable (because I have no car) community along the green line. Being aware of the financial limitations of my profession, affordable was key. And in 2000-2001 when I bought, there were houses going from $80-150K that needed a little or a lot of fixing, it was affordable for the expensive walkability that I needed. Expensive, emotionally because I have to be aware of my surroundings and I walk by depressing situations. It is a price on my mental health I am willing to pay as the dividends of running into neighbors and discovering neighborhood gems compensate. The green line is important to me so I can go to Archives/Navy or West Hyattsville or College Park or PG Plaza or Greenbelt and I can see the people I want to see and do the work I love to do.
But enough about me, who do you want to be and the life you want to live.

Pondering the Commute

I remember one of my first arguments on commutes. It was with my college roommate when we decided to move out of the dorms and off campus. She wanted to be closer to her boyfriend (later husband but no matter) over in one of the big student dominated apartment complexes on the butt end of the undeveloped part of campus. I wanted to be close enough to campus to roll out of bed 15-20 minutes before class. I won and we got a 2 bedroom across the street from the active part of campus.
I believe then as I do now in living as close as you can to the place you have to drag yourself to most often. But in the 8 years I’ve lived at my house in Shaw, I’ve had three different duty stations, and I think I live as reasonably close to them. The commutes have ranged from 1 hour to 20 minutes, Old Town Alexandria to College Park, MD. I picked my neighborhood based on the idea that I would seek employment at certain agencies or places based on my profession. Nearby bus lines could directly take me to the Library of Congress, or Catholic U or Georgetown should any of those places have openings, and for a while a friend was strongly encouraging me to apply at the LC. My current employer the Bureau of Fight Club has locations along the green and yellow line so my current location really works for me, particularly when given cross department assignments. And my boyfriend who works up in College Park has been pondering some “what ifs”, including his commute should it come to his relocating to the house. I sort of win in this scenario because he’s a renter.
However when chatting with others, I’ve been lucky. Job changes or conditions may create a need for a car when the job moves or you’re reassigned to say Dulles from Alexandria. In two income households I’ve known one partner who may work in the outer regions may start looking for something closer in. Of course there are people who hate the city and won’t move in for love or money or even a better commute.

I ‘heart’ the Nextbus App

I’ve been using the NextBus iPhone app for little over a week now and I just love it, love it, love it, LOVE IT. Mainly because it saves me that precious thing called time.
Here’s the thing, I don’t have a car. So I depend on public transit, walking, friends with cars, or biking to get around. Most of the time I use the bus, especially when I think there is a possibility of rain. The problem with the bus is for some routes the posted timetable is a work of fiction or wish list. I’ve encountered buses that showed up early, late or not at all.
Anyway, I’ve been using the NextBus app to figure out how fast I need to walk to the bus stop. It takes me 7 to 10 minutes to get to the Shaw metro station to pick up the 79, if I see the bus is going to show up in 9 minutes I keep my walk brisk, any more than 13 I take the train to the mess a station that has no stairs and only one stationary escalator. This weekend I used the NextBus app to run errands in upper NW, get back home, go to the Florida Ave/ Capital City Market and so on.
Knowing when or if a bus is going to show helps me decide if I should hoof it, take a cab, take another bus to get me closer to a metro station or wait. It also helps me decide if it is time to go or if I should stick around somewhere a little longer for shopping, watching, etc.
Another great feature is the “Nearby Stops” which uses the phone’s GPS to tell me where the nearest stop is and what buses stop there and then when those buses are going to show up. I have my favorite stops bookmarked but when I’m running around other parts of the area, I have no clue of where the nearest stops are. Luckily the phone figures that out for me.
It isn’t perfect. This weekend I was up near the Washington Cathedral waiting for the 96, trying to decide if I should find lunch, catch a 30 bus to connect with the G2 or wait 50 minutes according to NextBus. The posted schedule said the next 96 was coming in 10 minutes, so I waited. Lo, the NextBus was wrong. Apparently the bus I caught didn’t have NextBus.


At the corner of P and 4th or New Jersey (4th Street starts up again at that intersection), you may have noticed there are billboards there. BACA, I know has been working to do something about the billboards and the space that it sits on for several years, with limited success. There is another group trying there hand at eliminating the billboards called End Shaw Billboard blight. They’ve got a petition going, but I think their biggest coup is discovering that the billboards are not grandfathered in, which had been a stumbling block for BACA.

Random Lunchtime babbling on Bundy Park

A couple of weeks ago I signed a petition in favor for a dog park at Bundy. I don’t own a dog and have no plans to own one in the immediate future. However I do benefit from having a neighborhood with responsible owners with well trained dogs, like I benefit from living on a block dominated by homeowners. It’s not my house or my dog, but the actions that the homeowners and dog owners take, or have incentives to do, that improve the neighborhood and improve my quality of life here.
I will also note that I don’t live in Ward 2 where the proposed parking lot/field is. I’m over in Ward 5, so my opinion doesn’t matter or count. But I have an opinion and Ward 5 owners over in the Truxton area would more than likely use it, and it is very unfortunate that our voices won’t count.
One could say it is a children vs dogs, white vs black, adults vs children, greenspace vs pave the world, or a slew of other A vs B. For me ‘A’ is comprised of those residents who wake up within comfortable walking distance (everyone has a different comfort level) from the parcel of land in question. This includes white residents, black residents, Latino residents, Asian residents, multi-racial residents, grandmas on fixed incomes whose companions are little yippie dogs, single women who got dogs for security, kids that pestered their parents to get a dog, other people with dogs and their friends who may not have dogs, but like dogs. What I have noticed with the increase of having neighbors with dogs is there are people walking around in the morning when I go to work. Those people are more eyes on the street adding to my personal safety. There are people walking around in the evening when I run errands. There are neighbors, people I’ve met at BACA meetings or other gatherings, who are out, available for a quick word, a wave hello because they have to walk the dog. More people on the street encourage more people to get out and walk, dog or no, which improves the health of the resident community.
For a while my dog owning neighbors would walk their dogs in the alley, which in turn, discouraged drug stashing and other negatives that were problems.
I consider a convenient location as something that you can walk to at a regular pace in 10 minutes, 15 maybe. The Shaw dog park is past my 10 minute range and I walk fast, so a convenient location is Bundy.
Another point, Shaw as a whole has a lot, a lot of social service organizations of various sizes that do a lot of great work from providing day care for children of families with AID/HIV, homeless services, counseling, food distribution, poverty advocacy, you name it, it comes with the diversity of the neighborhood. One would hope that new social services moving to the area would become good neighbors. Unfortunately with the sensitivity of the function of Safe Shores, I can see how it could develop into a fortress to keep out the community in order to maintain privacy and security. That sort of thing would not make the surrounding area safer or secure. Besides asking for variances and other permissions, I don’t foresee much future interaction with the surrounding community. I can foresee walking by a darkened parking lot at night, making that corridor of P Street scary and dangerous.
The other thing is does Safe Shores really need 100 parking spaces? Since the organization’s parking space would come from government owned land that we believed slated for community (and one hope ‘community’ in this sense means nearby residents) use, the community should question the need for the number of spaces. Does it need 25 spaces? 30? and why. This isn’t Largo, MD or other parts of suburban Maryland where parking is a given. This is central, Old City DC, and free parking isn’t a guaranteed right. Nor should it be automatically given no questions asked to non-profits and other organizations no matter how nobel the mission. Safe Shores will not be the last social service locating to the area if history is a guage. I understand counsellors and parents coming from other wards will need parking, but how much?