I didn’t approach the year 2024 with the expectation that I would devote multiple articles to the sorry state of urban public land, but here it is: the second feature already on the topic for January, and it most certainly isn’t going to be the last. Incidentally, that previous article was a bit of a bust: I was expecting to show what an exit ramp in Washington DC looks like after twelve months without sweeping. And then—lo and behold—right at the one-year mark, the City finally picked up the trash after the pile-up just got too disgusting. Good for the City, but the residual effects of such extensive neglect were long-standing and noticeable everywhere nearby, mostly in the form of increasingly brazen graffiti. And that “everywhere nearby” extends to the subject at hand for this article, which is only a block away from that exit ramp. And that subject is derelict vehicles. 7th Street SE stretches under the elevated Interstate 695, resulting in an expansive array of land canopied by the overpass, consisting mostly of access streets and fenced storage for, I presume, the US Marine Corps, who owns and operates multiple properties on both sides of the I-695.
If I were to pivot to the left of that first photo, the US Marine Band building would be visible. And, pivoting to the left of the second photo would reveal the historic Marine Barracks and a 1970s-era annex to the barracks. And in the far distance of this second photo, through gaps between the massive concrete pillars, the defaced art installations that I featured in my previous January article are barely discernible. Everything covered in this article is within a block of that trashy exit ramp. Aside from the rights-of-way, the remaining space under this I-695 overpass offers high quantities of storage space, peppered lightly with additional parking, presumably all belonging to the Marine Corps.
In most respects, this is a standard underside to an urban overpass. But it receives a greater-than-average amount of pedestrian traffic, beyond even the usual for a densely populated area. This street segment links the US Marine Corps residential “campus” (flanked by those buildings), and rarely do more than a few minutes pass before a group of Marines strolls by, usually not in formation. Yet this simple block and its respective on-street parking seem to host persistent low-grade crime.
At first blush, this Dodge Charger—the quintessential hot-rodder vehicle of the 2020s—looks fair enough. But that dangling, temporary, paper license plate expired the day before I took this photo. Probably not quite yet a significant infraction, but the car can no longer legally operate on the road. Sure, it’s parked at the moment, but is there a common theme among all these cars parked under the overpass?
Well, it’s noticeable that only one of them had Washington DC plates. Granted, DC is a tiny jurisdiction—probably the smallest that gets its own customized plate; it’s about 1/17th the size of Rhode Island. The metropolitan area is a better standard of measurement for what kind of license plates one typically encounters, meaning the cars usually come from the District, Maryland, or Virginia (DMV). But only one car from each of these jurisdictions sat parked at the time of this visit. Most cars are from far away.
This bedraggled Acura (with Mississippi tags) seems to have sustained enough damage to its front bumper that the headlights are potentially not up to vehicle inspection standards. I’ll confess that I can’t verify this, but they certainly seem citation-worthy. And its neighboring cars are similarly suspicious.
This GMC Sierra with Indiana tags is among the least controversial: good condition, an Alabama Crimson Tide logo (not uncommon in the area), though the dust accumulation on the black shield to the truck bed suggests that it has sat there a little while. Of greater interest is that early-1980s VW Eurovan on the opposite side of the street.
The Eurovan is in good shape considering its age, but the California tag doesn’t have a sticker indicating its expiration date in the upper-right corner. Maybe not an immediate red flag, but it’s a very unusual vehicle to see on the road under any circumstances, let alone a city with a notorious reputation for carjackings and thefts from within cars…which is exactly what characterizes the derelict vehicles behind it.
Below is the only car parked at this 7th Street SE underpass that features DC tags:
Some kind of novelty car with “historic motor vehicle” plates. Supposedly a Nissan. I’m not a good judge, but apparently it’s vintage. Still, with all the plastic wrap duct-taped where the windows should be, it’s hard to say if it’s road-worthy.
Sure seems to me like one of the derelict vehicles. And it’s not alone. Thirty feet behind it, a Ford with New York takes takes the cake.
The low light levels in the photo shroud the evidence somewhat, but it’s still clearly messed up. Aside from the indications that this derelict vehicle suffered a head-on collision, the open window on the passenger side isn’t exactly a naturally occurring phenomenon.
Someone smashed it open, using the opportunity to plunder something from within. And, since it’s been like this for several days (maybe weeks), other people have simply tossed trash in the shattered opening. Or maybe it was filled with trash to begin with. Either way, it’s highly unlikely this car is going anywhere.
Essentially, this underpass has served as a repository for generally neglected derelict vehicles. If it were an obscure part of town with few passers-by, I can certainly see how it might devolve to this state. But it’s a busy, densely populated area, with members of the armed forces walking by constantly, as previously indicated. Nonetheless, I don’t want to second-guess myself or suffer from confirmation bias; it’s possible I’m only noticing this because I pass by fairly frequently, or simply that I’m identifying a problem because I was already dead-set on finding one. Not all the cars here look bad, and an expired or out-of-state license plate is hardly the same metric of civic neglect as a beat-up and pillaged machine rotting on the side of the road.
All of the above photos come from about a week ago. However, I reassessed the situation almost a week later—yesterday, according to the date I posted this article. What about the cars? Those derelict vehicles? The Eurovan, surprisingly, was gone. But the dusty GMC Sierra with Indiana tags? Hadn’t moved. Neither had the haggard Acura with the Mississippi tags.
The mysterious red “historic vehicle” with DC tags and duct tape on the windshield remained at the same spot, though unfortunately my camera’s photos got corrupted, and I no longer have proof. Most importantly, though, the smashed-in Ford with New York tags is still there.
Looks just as bad as ever. I’m confident this derelict vehicle was involved in some sort of crime and was dumped here, potentially after an initial break-in or carjacking transformed it into some sort of getaway tool.
By my count, this underpass features twelve off-street spaces, of which at least two are derelict vehicles. Perhaps I’m amplifying a very minor problem by devoting so much time, photography, and analysis on this subject. Two dumped cars is a drop in the bucket in a city this size. At least three or four of other vehicles are just taking advantage of lax enforcement and supervision and are sitting parked here long enough for visible dust to accumulate. What’s the big deal?
If the previous photos didn’t give it away, this one—with the green sign more prominent—most definitely does. These aren’t just spaces with mild restrictions for permitted vehicles; they are metered spaces. They should receive heightened scrutiny from Washington DC parking enforcement, or from administrators of the ParkMobile app, confirming that people are regularly paying for their spaces. Yet both the derelict vehicles and the perfectly functional ones easily sit parked here for days, weeks, months. In fact, all it takes is the presence of one or two derelict vehicles to signal that this is a generally unmonitored space. So DC residents who don’t bother to comply with the District’s rules for license plates can park for months on end, retaining tags from New York, Indiana, California, Mississippi, or even Maryland and Virginia. They can even be expired. This space at the 7th Street SE underpass is clearly out-of-sight and out-of-mind for DC parking enforcement. Much like the trash-filled exit ramp a block away, a smashed-up car sitting in a valid metered on-street parking space for weeks on end sends a signal widespread public sector neglect, both to people living in the area or to miscreants from elsewhere who are looking for an easy place to offend without repercussion. Whether derelict vehicles or not, any car parked here beyond four hours is fundamentally violating the law by failing to feed the meter (ParkMobile), which in turn opens these twelve spaces up to a variety of infractions: out-of-state plates, expired plates, violating inspection standards, abandonment, or a dumping site for vehicles involved in other, more serious crimes.
One could argue that the US Marine Corps, which owns or controls much of the interstitial space near where these roads cross under I-695, should at least report these infractions. Perhaps they do. But even if they don’t, what incentive do they have? The Marines are a federal unit and the surrounding streets fall within municipal control. As long as the designated authorities turn a blind eye to derelict vehicles, one should naturally expect a growing acceptance for crimes of increasing severity. Hopefully, over the last week, nobody stole that groovy Eurovan.