Brits have solution

The dire thought of charging museum fees for Smithsonian exhibits has emerged and D.C.’s stalwart Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) is girding with her battle ax.

The dire thought of charging museum fees for Smithsonian exhibits has emerged and D.C.’s stalwart Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) is girding with her battle ax.

The idea that people should pay for the privilege of seeing the world-famous Smithsonian exhibits — 16 museums here and two in New York — seems harmless on the surface, particularly as the fee mentioned by Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) to fellow House Appropriations Committee members is a measly $1.

But there are layers here. It is a fact that the magnificent museums have been built and maintained on the taxpayers. And that the not-insignificant salaries of Smithsonian employees, plus their generous benefits and magnificent lunch room in the Smithsonian “castle,” as well as their liberal parking arrangements, etc., etc. are also a public expense. It might therefore be argued, even without a clever lawyer, that the same taxpayers are really the Smithsonian’s owners and have every right to visit their possessions freely.

Then there’s another layer. The Smithsonian is a government agency. If citizens are to pay to visit it, what agency will be barred from charging similar fees? Will there be charges at the Capitol? And the White House? (Though vicious rumor would have it that there are fees for sleeping in certain bedrooms there.)

There is already unfairness aplenty. The Smithsonian treasures are concentrated almost completely in the east. To visit them from states west of the Ohio River is a hardship Easterners don’t undergo. A fee would add insult to geographical injury.

Norton made strong objections to Moran’s statement. “I don’t understand why we don’t charge a fee,” the Virginian said. Norton answered with practical arguments: “Half the visitors are schoolchildren. ... Far fewer would come if we imposed charges on any of the sites that bring them to the city,” she said. She added that the fees would break a 160-year tradition of free access and begin a trend that would lead to charges for all institutions.

Having just returned from a visit to the British Museum in London, where I was delighted to find that access is free, even more so in ways than ours (for instance, I was allowed to see and handle more than 100 of the museum’s 18th century prints by Thomas Rowlandson, a favorite artist, by simply producing a passport). The Brits have discovered a way to charge visitors. They allow free access to the museum’s permanent exhibits but charge quite heavily for special exhibits, in this case Michelangelo’s drawings.

The same model could well be used here. In the meantime, Del. Norton wants her committee to come up with a plan to renovate and repair the Smithsonian museums. They are suffering, she says, because of the normal wear and tear of millions of visitors.



Booming H Street’s development hiccup

Patriotism may be the last refuge of a scoundrel; on the Hill, racism is often the easiest stone to throw in a neighborhood dispute.

The latest example of just how mean racial politics on the Hill can get involves Bernard Gibson’s clean, well-run fast-food restaurant on H Street N.E., Cluck-U Chicken, and a can-do advisory neighborhood commissioner named Joe Fengler.

Need it be said that Gibson, restaurateur, is black and Fengler, watchdog commissioner, is white?

At issue is whether Cluck-U Chicken, which has no sit-down service, should seek an exemption from H Street zoning regulations, which prohibit fast food. That process would allow local residents to weigh in on whether or not the city’s zoning office should grant the exception — most likely at a crowded Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) meeting that Fengler, ANC chairman, would run.

Fengler wants Cluck-U to apply for the special exception. Gibson, rallying against interference from what he calls “new” voices, says he’s become a victim because he’s black.

There’s a lot of back-story here. For decades, after rampaging black mobs burned out many businesses during the 1968 Martin Luther King riot, H Street was an economic wasteland and local entrepreneurial groups like the H Street Community Development Corp. would welcome almost any business willing to come back into the 15-block strip.

But with the housing boom, new money muscled in. Ambitious young whites bought housing in what had been an all-black neighborhood south of H Street. Now change is everywhere, and one of the most notable changes has been at the ANC, where the majority complexion changed from black to white and a spirit of action and gentrification replaced inertia and squabbling. Fengler was a leader and soon exemplified the new.

No one complained when Fengler and his colleagues, black and white, demanded and got more police, better city services, planning attention and a forward-looking streetcar scheme for the street. Fengler, a federal worker, kept careful records, sent e-mails to city officials, followed by written copies, and became knowledgeable about city regulations. H Street cheered.

But when the ANC dug into zoning enforcement, demanding action from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), the city agency that licenses restaurants and many other businesses, some complained. Cluck-U Chicken, clearly a fast-food shop in a restaurant zone, became a cause.

What next? Fengler’s not likely to back down, but the ANC may decide the battle isn’t worth the strife and anger. It’s the DCRA that’s really in the hot seat.


D.C. has moved on

The cynicism of mega-marketer Wal-Mart and its plans to “benefit” blighted urban areas is marvelous to see.

Having engineered the destruction of many hundreds of traditional downtowns and their communities, Wal-Mart management now presents itself as an urban savior that will bring development and jobs (and tax revenue) to poor old D.C.

Shoppers in nearby towns like Chestertown, Md., which waged a decade-long battle to save its historic, row-building downtown from the retail Moloch, must be hooting with laughter at the plan. Chestertown won its battle; opposition to the chain is now a national movement. Many think the blighted neighborhood plan is a public-relations diversion, simply another cost of doing business.

The company has grown to the world’s leading retailer on three principles: cheap outlying land, cheap Chinese or Third World imports and low-wage employees desperate for work.

The chain plans 220 huge new stores this year. Opposition has grown as communities have seen the system in operation. Wal-Mart drives prices down, causing neighborhood business to cut costs and fire workers in desperation. Wal-Mart crushes grocery stores, usually the key tenants of small malls, and as a result the local mall collapses. Jobless and boarded up, downtowns lose residents as well. Wal-Mart employees make so little (averaging just over $8 per hour) that their kids add to school-lunch costs and they can afford only the lowest cost, least desirable housing.

Mayor Tony Williams (D) had plenty of reasons to see through the plan. There was a time, before Washington’s real-estate and building boom crested, when Wal-Mart was welcome. In 2004 there was a plan to build one of the big-box stores at Brentwood, not far from Capitol Hill in Northeast. Wal-Mart backed out, infuriating City Council members who in turn introduced, but could not pass, a “never again” measure banning “big box” stores in D.C.

Now Williams says Wal-Mart’s time has passed.



Metro

• Snuff out those tools of Satan, cigarettes. Without much fanfare, the city’s smoking ban went into effect April 4, covering all offices, restaurants and public buildings. ...

• Author Jim Myers becomes the preeminent wordsmith of Hill East with the introduction of the word “truthiness,” popularized on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” to the local lexicon. Truthiness, Myers explains, means things you know to be true, even if there is no evidence or the facts are contrary to your belief. Myers introduced the term to the raging fight over the National Capital Medical Center, a fight in which facts and reason have succumbed almost completely to truthiness. ...

• A rousing probe of D.C. job training by Washington Business Week has revealed that employers, legally bound to hire 51 percent city residents for city projects, are nowhere near the mark. Trainers and employers complain that D.C. job candidates can’t show up for work, don’t understand the workplace and can’t even learn to smile at customers. ...

• Walking Town D.C. is a new angle on tourism here, offering 50 free, guided tours of the city, neighborhood by neighborhood (the Hill is well covered), instead of aimless meanders down the Mall. Check www.walkingtowndc.org or call (202) 661-7581. ...

• Mayoral candidate Linda Cropp (D), current City Council chairwoman, has found something she and Ward 6’s Sharon Ambrose (D) and At-large David Catania (I) can all agree on: houses that sell for less than $500,000 should be exempt from a new recordation tax hike to 1.5 percent. Keep the rate at 1 percent, the three lawmakers say. ...

• That hospital vote — in which the City Council approved a funding mechanism to pay for the $400 million proposed National Capital Medical Center — was not council approval of the monster Hill East project, which is still the center of rancorous debate. ...

• Eastern Market merchants are scratching their heads — because market manager Stuart Smith has scheduled a planning meeting for Easter Monday, April 17, breaking up the merchants’ holiday weekend. The market men seldom get a two-day break.