In 2024, it’s a rare moment when Washington DC is competently providing a municipal service we should all expect…and yet somehow, in this case, it’s disappointing. I recognize that this is really my problem: my intent with this article was to say, “Here what a road looks like without street sweeping for an entire year”. And then I’d turn it into a low-effort quickie post, in anticipation of a future rumination on disregard for the public realm. Not gonna happen anymore.
As a result, it is for entirely self-serving purposes that a nicely swept street is a disappointment. After all, it was February of 2023 when I first noted the prevalence of litter on a certain stretch of exit ramp—trash that had accumulated over the previous six weeks. One of my commenters on that article noted how, after he used Google Street View, he could tell that this same exit ramp looked decent and clean during the previous summer of 2022. In fact, every single one of the archived Google Street View images of this exit ramp (providing access onto I-695 from 8th Street SE at Virginia Avenue) was better than it looked when I wrote my February 2023 article. As recently as mid-December 2023, the exit ramp remained completely unswept, suggesting to me it really would go a full year without litter maintenance.
But then I swung by in early January, and, lo and behold: some unit from the Department of Public Works decided to run a sweeper along both shoulders of this exit ramp.
It looks pretty not-bad. Not amazing—some residual grime remains, and the mounds of dirt piled along the right-hand wall could benefit from guerrilla gardening—but it at least is sorta clean. Congrats to the District of Columbia. But, keep in mind, when I took these photos about a week ago, this exit ramp had just received its first sweeping in almost a full year. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any other photos during that duration from last February up to the January 2024 street sweeping. The best I can offer is for readers to revisit my February 2023 article’s photos, then imagine how much worse it would have been ten months later.
Furthermore, even though Public Works finally authorized street sweeping on this approximately 800-foot=long exit ramp, the impact of such long-term neglect is visible throughout the immediate area.
Two crude images spray-painted to the left of the interstate highway shields: one in white, one in black. Yes, this graffiti is pretty minor, quickly executed, and not all that disruptive. But it’s also in a high-profile location that remains widely visible at night (street lights are everywhere), and, even at 3:00 am, receives intermittent vehicular traffic, meaning it would be difficult to vandalize that stabilizing wall (I-695 traffic surges past on the topmost edge of the photo) without someone noticing it. And it wouldn’t be hard for the vandals to deface the nearby highway signage, eliciting potential confusion for motorists, just like vandals clearly tried to achieve a mile away on a major interstate sign—a particularly egregious offense I captured several months ago. Simply put: the criminals are getting away with it.
And this isn’t the only offense:
The underpass next to this interstate exit ramp features a variety of long-standing artistic installations, reflective of the US Marines Corps and the US Marine Band. Why reference the Marines? Because the historic Marine Barracks are a few hundred feet away on 8th Street SE, as is a much more recent building housing the Marine Band. This complex of buildings has consistently housed the Marine Corps commensurate with its founding in 1798; some of them date from 18011, predating just about everything else in the Capitol Hill neighborhood and placing them among the oldest surviving structures in Washington DC. This series of artistic installations (I won’t call them murals because they appear to be mounted to the wall, rather than painted directly on it) function as a micro-museum, signifying the historic importance of the area. And, as long as I have seen them, people have respected these paintings as such—at least until recently:
There it is again: in the bottom half of the display, the same white-painted skull that lurked to the left of those blue highway shields, just a few dozen feet away. Probably the same vandal, showing off a signature. This bad-guy (or bad-girl) is violating an unwritten code of the streets, which usually impels graffiti artists not to place their “throwie” (a monochrome signature) on existing art. But then, it’s a real stretch to call these white skulls “artistry”—the point of a throwie is that the vandal can “throw” it on the wall in a matter of minutes, and it’s not a demonstration of skill—more of a mark of territory. By violating this code of the street, the vandals are getting more brazen.
Trying to eliminate vandalism through legislative means is as fruitless of a venture as legislating anger or greed out of existence. A will to subvert the established order will always course through the hardened hearts of a select subset of the population. Cultures more punitory than our own may deter it far better than we (currently) do, but they cannot eliminate it. It is probable that Singapore-style punishments for vandalism elicit a nearly graffiti-free landscape; such were my own observations during a brief visit to that densely populated, law-and-order oriented island nation. But an insufficient portion of the American public possesses the will to deploy corporal punishment as a routine tactic for deterring vandalism, as the highly disputed Clinton-era caning of American youth Michael Fay in Singapore proved. After all, having lived in Singapore as an American expat and with full awareness of the culture, Fay nonetheless chose to steal road signs and (according to Singaporean authorities) to vandalize cars.
The United States as a whole lacking any widespread support for flogging vandals across the derriere with a rattan rod in the United States, Corporal punishment in schools is no longer common. Consequently, the best means of keeping public property unsullied, beyond misdemeanor-level sentences, is to fill the deterrence gap with routine street sweeping. That’s right. Consistently demonstrating public stewardship as a value indicates to prospective criminals that a certain jurisdiction will not enable graffiti artists to tag highway overpasses. If Public Works were to deploy a street sweeper on that little I-695 exit ramp for ten minutes every two weeks, it would work wonders on the surrounding walls, pillars, signs, and art installations. On those occasions when regular street sweeping isn’t good enough—the hardened hearts prevail—a fifteen-minute application of a pressure washer on the spray-painted wall once again communicates to vandals that the neighborhood does not embrace their artistry.
In essence, the Broken Windows Theory reveals its own internal hierarchy: the lowest grade offenses (like litter) are cheaper and easier to fix, but, when left unaddressed, only help to incentivize a mid-tier offense (like tagging public infrastructure), which takes more work to rectify. And, if the mid-tier vandalism sits neglected for too long, the miscreants typically push the envelope further with escalating infractions: defacing civic installations (murals, signage, monuments), vandalism of private property (graffiti on homes and buildings), or overt destruction (broken windows, toppling of statues, arson). Not all criminally minded humans ramp up their offenses along this same increment-bound trajectory, but most do, because the empirical evidence of what the public maintains also signals the level of violation the public will tolerate.
So let’s hope this exit ramp doesn’t go another full year without street sweeping. After all, the Washington Monument can’t afford such neglect.