On Pennsylvania Avenue, Frustration Mingled With Understanding

By Mnrcia Slacum Greene
Washington Post Staff Writer

They talked of little else as they snapped pictures of the White House, strolled through Lafayette Square and rode bicycles in circles in the middle of what used to be one of the busiest sections of Pennsylvania Avenue. Security was the issue, and their views ranged from sadness to outrage.

It was the first day that Pennsylvania Avenue NW in front of the White House was closed to traffic out of concern for presidential security. Tourists and area residents, who for the first time had to leave their buses and cars to get a closer look at the nations most famous residence, had mixed reactions to what they agreed was a historic action.

The closing was a boon to bicyclists and roller-bladers, with a couple of people even playing street hockey in front of the White House in early afternoon.

But many people saw the change as an ominous sign of fear gripping the nation.

Carol Meola of Allentown, Pa., who had just toured the White House with her husband, said she wished there were another way to deal with potential threats. As she spoke, her voice trembled, and her eyes filled with tears.

"I know this is a sign of the times," Meola, 54, said. "I wonder what this says about the kind of world we live in, and I start to worry about my kids. My husband was just saying last night that it seems that everything is falling apart. My 78-year old mother was recently mugged. Now, I see this, and it becomes a reminder of so many things that are wrong."

On the other side of Laffayette Square, George D. Berry, a New Yorker, snapped pictures of a crane that was placing concrete barriers along H Street to prevent parking. "To see this happening is historic, and I want pictures," Berry said. "But to close this to the American people, I think it's terrible."

The section of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House was closed to traffic at 5 a.m. yesterday. Immediate complaints focused on the inconvenience that change would cause. Until yesterday, about 26,000 cars and Metrobuses with about 11,000 passengers had used all or part of the closed section of Pennsylvania Avenue daily.

Some D.C. Council members, who did not learn of the impending closing until late Friday night, expressed concerns about what will happen tomorrow morning when commuters begin seeking alternate routes.

"lt will cause a disruption in Ihr flow of the traffic," said D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Sr. (D-Ward 5), chairman of the council's committee on public works. "But I think it was a much needed thing. We have to have the best security for the president."

Meanwhile, some tourists were annoyed by the change.

It's horrible," said Deborah Duke, here with her family from Cincinnati. "We had to park far, far away. We had to walk all around. We got lost because we couldn't get up here. . . . I think it's too much security."

Michelle Roberts also was disappointed. "We were just saying how when we came from New York before it was so nice to just be able to drive by," said the New York lawyer, in town with her mother and 1-year-old son for her brother's graduation. "It [the White House] was just part of the community."

Bob Hanshaw, of Waynesboro, Va., was stuck in traffic traveling south on 17th Street in the early afternoon. "I think it sucks," he said. "It's the people's house. Everyone should have access to it. Schoolchildren go by and wave and say, "That's the president's house.'"

Concerns about security at the White House have heightened since the bombing last month of a federal building in Oklahoma City. In addition, there have been several recent security breaches at hte White House. In September, a plane crashed on the White House lawn. In October, a man fired an assult rifle from the sidewalk in front of the building into the White House before being subdued by bystanders.

The change came after an advisory committee reviewing White House security recommended this month that part oft he street be closed. David Douglass, executive director of that committee, said yesterday that after looking at issues regarding security and access to the White House, he feels good about the decision.

"If the Avmerican people could know the htings we learned in the course of the review, they would be enthusiastic about this action," he said.

But yesterday, some people were skeptical and debated whether the new security measure is justified.

Carl Nelson, a District resident, said that making the White House less accessible to people puts more walls around the government and makes it more remote to citizens.

"I don't know what the threat is," Nelson said. "If they had some intelligence that there were a number of plots hatching to bomb the place, then it would be justified."

Perry Hicks, 26, and Carol Kelley, 30, argued about such justification as they rode their bicycles on Pennsylvania Avenue directly in front of the White House.

Noting that recent attacks on the White House came from a plane and a man walking by with a gun, Hicks questioned how much more secure the building or those inside would be by keeping traffic at a distance. Hicks doubted that the gains will outweigh the inconvenience to the thousands of people who will have to find alternate traffic routes.

But Kelley, leaning on her bicycle and staring at the White House, dismissed Hicks's arguments. "I stand here, and I can see people's faces in the windows of the White House," she said. "It is just awfully darn close to the street. A truck bomb could do a lot of damage. The president and the White House are symbols of this country and the government. We can put up with a little inconvenience to make sure they are safe."

Others agreed with Kelley.

"It took something like the Oklahoma City bombing," said Robert Davenport, 29, a District resident who takes the Metro to his job as a mover near the White House. "It should have been done earlier than this."

Said Charles Wright, who was making his first trip to Washington: "It's a good idea. There are too many nuts out here."

Meanwhile, tour bus drivers stood around wondering - no one they asked seemed to have the answers - where they would park and how they would satisfy customers now that they can no longer fulfill one of the most popular requests: Let's drive by the White House.

In fact, the White House was supposed to be the highlight and final stop on a Saturday night tour of Washington for a group of fifth-graders from West Virginia.

"I think it's sad we can't see it that way," said 11-year-old Tommy Adkins, one of those fifth-graders. "It should be open to the public."

Staff writer Sandra Evans contributed to this report.

Pennsylvania Ave. Closure || Peace Park