From Lafayette, Views Vary

Skaters, Walkers Praise Closure; Protesters, Homeless Criticize Barriers

By Linda Wheeler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 23, 1996

For the last year, Neal Peterson's route to work has been right down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. He strides along a faded yellow stripe, three lanes to the left of him, three lanes to the right of him, silent and peaceful.

Peterson, a deputy director of the Thrift Depositor Protection Oversight Board, gets to walk down the most famous block in the country because there are no cars to dodge or traffic lights to halt his progress. In May of last year, the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue NW was closed to through traffic after the bombing of the federal government building in Oklahoma City. The abrupt closing created instant traffic jams and a year-long debate about its permanence.

"I guess they could improve the aesthetics of it all," he said, as the sun rose behind him and he turned right onto Jackson Place, passing concrete barriers and parked police cars.

In addition to Peterson's dawn patrol, thousands of tourists, hundreds of in-line skaters and a handful of hockey players have made use of the street. The noise of braking cars, horns and loud music is no more. The birds, always a part of Lafayette Square, now can be heard along with the hum of the lawn mower being pushed through the thick grass by John Allen, a National Park Service employee.

All this quiet and concern for presidential security hasn't been good for perennial protester Concepcion Picciotto, who has campaigned for world peace in the park since February 1981. She asks for signatures on a petition and takes donations for her hand-painted stones at her round-the-clock protest site adjoining the closed street.

"This is like a fortress now," she said, shaking her head. "People used to drive by and give us food and blankets. It was nice. Now, even the tourists have a hard time getting here."

Sandy Crane, visiting from San Francisco, said that driving to the White House would have been difficult but that she had no trouble getting there from her Arlington hotel by Metro. She likes the closed road, saying it reminded her of cities in Europe where pedestrians are given priority over cars.

"This works," she said. "I don't want to have to dodge cars to see the White House. We read about this when it happened last year and didn't know what to expect. It's just fine."

Street hockey players like the vacant avenue as well. Brooks Singer, a Catholic University law student, said he and three classmates try to play every day. There are few places with open pavement in the city, he said.

"I hope they don't change this," he said. "They need to think about the people before opening it up again or making any other changes."

There have been a few changes in the park as well in the last year. David Lockwitch, who has camped with his signs advocating nuclear disarmament for more than a year, said he believes there is a conspiracy between the White House and Supreme Court to keep the avenue closed, discouraging groups from bringing free food to the homeless. Behind it all, he said, is not presidential security but a wish to drive the homeless from the park.

"This is our living," he said. "This is our constitutional right to be here."

There are indeed fewer homeless people in the park than a year ago, said U.S. Park Police Maj. Robert Hines, whose agency has jurisdiction over the federal park. In December 1994, a Park Police officer shot to death a homeless man in front of the White House. The man had been brandishing a knife taped to his hand, police said.

"Many of the homeless have moved on because of the increased presence of the police," Hines said, noting that his two officers are backed up by at least a dozen uniformed Secret Service officers. "Some of the homeless seek the safety of the park, and others, bent on nefarious activities, have left."

A year ago, homeless men congregated by a fountain on the east side of the park, ever ready to panhandle from anyone who walked by. Yesterday, there was no one there except book readers and squirrel feeders.

Across the way, Jill Gibbons sat on one of the many wood-and-metal benches that dot the park, eating her lunch. The legal analyst for the executive office of the president said the closing of the avenue had improved the park, a place she visits almost daily in good weather.

"It's more like a college campus now," she said.

Gibbons was one of thousands of daily commuters who got caught in traffic jams prompted by the street closing. She said that for several weeks, her car pool continued to take the same route, circling the park to get to 17th Street NW.

"Then it dawned on us to try another way," she said. "One day we came across the 14th Street Bridge, turned left on Constitution Avenue and zipped up 17th Street. The old way was a mess. The new way works."