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December 24, 2008

Whistling in Washington

Dear Advanced Primates:

A prominent Washington resident has received widespread international attention recently. Bonnie lives at the National Zoo, and she is the first orangutan known to whistle. Primatologists are excited by this because orangutans were not known to be physically able to whistle, because Bonnie picked up whistling spontaneously without being trained, and because her whistling has now been imitated by another orangutan at the zoo. Bonnie is proof that animals can pick up sounds from other species and spread them, and primatologists believe that this may provide clues about the development of human language. According to Google, her story has been told in the National Geographic, Science Daily, Discover Magazine, the Des Moines Register, the London Sun, and the Hindu of India (through the Guardian news service) (,, among others).

At least according to Google, Bonnie’s story has not been reported by The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The Washington Examiner, or by any Washington television or radio stations. Why? It’s a crackerjack human interest (or at least higher primate) story, it’s highly local, and for television and radio stations there is irresistible video and sound tape of a whistling ape. What more could you want? I suspect it’s part of the general trend among Washington media to cover national and international news at the expense of local stories; the Post has cut back its local coverage and the Times, which a few years ago rivaled and often beat the Post to local stories, has eviscerated its Metro section. But in a time of widespread media cutbacks, it is local news that could be the salvation of local media outlets. With the Internet and cable news networks, news consumers can get stories about federal Washington anywhere. We won’t see stories about our neighbors and our neighborhoods anywhere else except in local newspapers and local broadcast stations; if they don’t cover Bonnie and our other neighbors, they’re abandoning the field to their lowly competitors, blogs and bloggers. Thanks, guys.

In the last issue, I asked for your year-end summaries of 2008 in Washington. This issue contains a couple personal versions of what happened in our city last year; please continue to send them in.

And, of course, Merry Christmas to us all.

Gary Imhoff


Meter Plays the Blues
Paul Penniman,

I recently parked at a broken meter for ten minutes, one of those clearly broken-for-weeks meters that is a prized spot. The ticket writer not only gave me a ticket but parked in a bus stop for a half hour while shopping for personal stuff. I had called in the broken meter, and so I appealed the ticket to adjudication services. They sent me a letter with some mumbo jumbo about “special software that monitors the meter status at all times. Outags (sic) and repair times are recorded by the software, which is then used to confirm whether there was an outage during the time period your ticket was issued. . . . the internal meter mechanism was tested, the meter status report was reviewed for the date and time of your violation . . . no outages were found on the date the violation occurred . . . the meter’s internal mechanism was functioning properly.” I walk past the meter several times a week, and it is still clearly broken. Should I take a picture and send it in? I have until the thirtieth to pay up, apparently. No in-person appeals are possible.


Dodged the Bullet
Ed T. Barron, edtb1@macdotcom

Whew! That was close. The Nationals nearly dumped $180 million on one ball player. How stupid can the Lerners be? One ball player would not have made the Nationals a contending team. They would still wind up in last place next season. Much better to spend that money on ten young ballplayers who show potential. Even if only half of them succeed, you will have a much better team over the long haul. Mark Teixiera may well turn out to be a super star with the Yankees, but they can afford to buy him and have a relatively strong team to fit him into. He would have died on the vine here in DC and been very unhappy with a non-contender.


Historic District Designation
Matt Forman,

A couple of points in response to Jack McKay’s posting [themail, December 21]. First, as to the opinion of the residents of a particular neighborhood, the point of historic preservation is to preserve the buildings for the future. It’s like the wristwatch advertisement — you never really own a Patek Philippe, you merely look after it for the next generation. So if the policy goal is to maintain the city’s character and charm over the long term, the wishes of current residents wouldn’t be the most critical factor. Often, with historic preservation, the point is that the current population is unable to foresee the value future generations will place on existing buildings. Also, historic preservation is for the collective good of the city, not just that of a particular neighborhood — it increases the tax base, attracts tourism, etc.

Second, as to his claim about the “steep costs” to “meet historic preservation demands,” I think the claim is exaggerated. With forty-five existing historic districts, hardship complaints are not widespread, to my knowledge, and Mr. McKay frequently cites to only a few non-persuasive examples. For instance, he previously mentioned a woman who had to take out the non-compliant windows she put in without a permit, because she didn’t purportedly didn’t know she was in a historic district. But that was the fault of her ignorance of the law, not historic preservation per se. (All sellers are now required to disclose to purchasers whether the property is in a historic district.) And what exactly are the “demands” he refers to? The historic preservation office doesn’t demand anything other than that the homeowner not let his property go to rot and ruin. On the other hand, if the homeowner can afford to voluntarily spend thousands of dollars replacing windows, putting on an addition, or whatever, then they do require certain standards, just as the city’s zoning and building code offices might also impose. But are we seriously debating whether the owners of million dollar homes in Chevy Chase and Lanier Heights might have to spend a little more or less on renovation projects that they didn’t have to undertake in the first place?


Dino’s Holiday Newsletter
Dino Drudi,

My Michigan Park neighbors and I, for all living memory, have enjoyed an idyllic existence — affordable housing (thanks, ironically, to how badly misgoverned the city is, which makes DC less desirable, decreasing housing demand and therefore price) in a safe, attractive neighborhood. But seemingly out of nowhere, our idyll is no more, so I bought a townhouse in Old Town Alexandria and hope to sell mine in DC before the housing market tanks.

DC’s Office of Planning is absolutely determined to cram “‘smart’ growth, transit-oriented megadevelopment” down our throats — a half-mile arc of a dozen six-story buildings in a neighborhood of single-family homes and garden apartments with only a handful low-rise apartment buildings scattered around, all as PUDs because the underlying zoning would not allow such development. OP’s plan would so savagely alter our low-density residential neighborhood’s character it would no longer be recognizable as what it had been. OP has done similar things in other neighborhoods, sweeping aside lawsuits (Takoma) and allowing buildings so close to the tracks that a derailment would take out them and everyone in them (Takoma and Fort Totten). In the past, the neighborhood turned out en masse to roundly condemn and ultimately nix less dense development, but is, in the face of OP’s fait accompli, it has been strangely silent.

In the past five years there were eleven homicides within five blocks of my house, whereas the previous five years saw only one or two, and the time before that, even when DC’s homicide rate was making headlines, hardly any. The decline in homicides citywide has reversed in the past two years and no one in city hall seems to know why. But in 1993 I warned the city council to reinstate publicly funded abortions, which Congress had discontinued under the Reagan administration, anticipating crime would spike when the youths who otherwise would have been aborted reached their late teens. But, as usual, the city council ignored my advice.

Mayor Fenty, who understands that running things like a dictatorship is the only way to turn the city around, is the sole relative bright spot, but don’t be too surprised if some “business-as-usual” challenger takes him out in two years. But never have we had so atrocious a city council: The council contorted the committee structure to put the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration with the Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Works so our transit system would be at the beck and call of the hospitality industry (e.g., extended weekend Metrorail hours are a huge money loser, but benefit the hospitality industry). Then the hospitality industry shows up, makes a pitch for allowing nonstop alcohol sales during the inauguration, and bingo — done, almost before the rest of us find out about it! Fenty and Graham balked at including nightclubs so that when the hospitality industry’s other lackeys voted to include nightclubs Graham had to vote against his own bill! Only when there was enormous pushback from everyone else affected — police, Congress, neighborhood residents, Metro (which isn’t planning to run ’round-the-clock service) — did the city council have to back off a little bit, but the point is they acted initially without consulting the public based on a request from one of their most favored interests. Nor is this the first time they have done so for the benefit of favored industries. Look at the TIFs for commercial development, or the West End Library giveaway (later reversed), or the southwest waterfront giveaway where city council offices couldn’t even tell the public what was in the deal they were voting for. Would the council give such unquestioning deference to anything any of us were to propose? The city council has saddled the people of the District of Columbia with enormous debt for a nonperforming baseball stadium; TIFs galore; profligate spending, where for every $3 collected, $1 goes to fraud, $1 to waste, and $1 to its intended purpose.

At the last Federation of Citizens Association luncheon I paraphrased Twain’s “Americans enjoy the best government money can buy,” with the rhetorical reply, “So why then is it that DC ends up with the worst government money has bought?” The dies irae is not far off; the bills are coming due, and I don’t want to be around holding the bag when that happens. Thoreau’s response to Emerson applies here. “What are you doing in there,” asked Emerson when he visited Thoreau, who was in jail for refusing to pay his Mexican war tax. Thoreau replied, “Emerson, what are you doing out there,” questioning why any moral person would pay the tax for a war he believed immoral to forego jail. Why am I leaving DC? Why are you not?


Reflections on 2008
Ed T. Barron, edtb1@macdotcom

Much has transpired here in DC this year. The city is now in the throes of an economic downturn. We’ll survive that. We have seen more corruption, more murders, struggles to improve the schools by the mayor and School Chancellor Rhee. We have seen a venerable councilmember, Carol Schwartz, lose her election bid. Public schools are losing students every day as the charter schools seem to be proving they can do a better job of educating our students. Many DC agencies seem to be doing what they always do, making do. There seems to be a lack of enthusiasm, vigor, and creativity in most of the DC organizational elements. There is still much malaise in the public school system. The teachers’ union and the custodians’ union bear much of the responsibility for this malaise.

The mayor’s office is an exception to this malaise. One could not just sit still with Mayor Fenty charging around in the office. I can only hope that the mayor, in this new year, will charge into the offices of all of the organizational elements of the city to shake them out of their stupor. Make these agencies put forth some real goals to make things happen that will make the city better for 2009.

There’s lots of criticism of the city’s leader, Mayor Fenty, and of Chancellor Rhee, as well. But they are doing what they truly believe is right for the city and the taxpayers. Over the long term the most important thing that can be done for the District is to provide a good education for our kids. That will solve many of the problems we have today. These folks who are trying to make the right things happen deserve our thanks and our support for their efforts in 2008.


Touch Typing
Richard Layman,

[Re: Phil Shapiro’s post, themail, December 21] My joke for decades has been that the most important class I ever took in high school was typing because, unbeknownst to me, microcomputers would become useful and ubiquitous five years later. Typing and speech and learning how to write are likely the most important achievements that should result from the high school experience. These days computer programming, graphic design, and math (I am not that good at it) are equally important.



Arts Eve DC, December 31
Masresha Tadesse,

This New Years Eve, celebrate with friends and family for an unforgettable artistic journey that’s free and open to the public. Embark on a global adventure through Arts Eve DC. Explore the arts and cultural traditions of Italy, Mexico, Korea, and Ethiopia. Live international performances, arts and crafts, dance instruction, short film screenings, poetry, and much more! Wednesday, December 31, 1:00 p.m.-5:00 p.m., at The Historical Society of Washington, 801 K Street, NW, at Mount Vernon Square. Perfect for youth ages three through sixteen. For more information, call 724-5613 or go to


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