Kotler's end of industry

Down in farthest Southeast, huge steel barges still move mountains of sand up the river for the city’s building boom, giant crushers smash waste-concrete slabs to fine rubble and empty cement trucks wait to be poured full.

And nearby, one of Washington’s well-known oil painters has set up his easel to capture the last year of Washington’s heavy industry.

“It’s not that it’s going,” says Martin Kotler, the Hill painter famed for his light-and-shadow-filled portraits of city alleys. “It’s the shapes, the light, the forms. ... They say Washington is a city where nothing is produced except paper, but here there are people working with their hands; they’re doing it.”

Duncan Spencer
Martin Kotler’s work records D.C.’s fading industry.

Baseball will end all this, he is well aware. The gravel yard, the asphalt plant, the cement factory, the Florida Rock concrete-aggregate business and its subsidiaries D.C. Rock and Maryland Rock — all are doomed, their dun piles of sand and gray stone to be replaced with high-end housing, retail and, of course, the Nationals’ stadium.

But in the meantime they are the subjects for Kotler’s busy brush in dozens of canvasses depicting trucks, machinery, rubble piles — all of it in the intense, pale light that the artist believes is created by the two rivers that surround the city.

He has become a familiar figure to the truck drivers, who honk and wave. Kotler’s work, which can be seen on the Hemphill Gallery website (www.hemphillfinearts.com), under “Exhibitions,” in the “past exhibitions” section; or hanging a the gallery at 1515 14th St. N.W., won the French Rochefort-en-Terre prize in 2002, and his paintings sell for thousands of dollars now.

Kotler came to D.C. from New Jersey and promptly fell in love with the city’s unique light, which always surprises. Painting the three graces, he says, is little different from painting three cement trucks. He reminds onlookers of what Victor Hugo said about subject matter: “There’s nothing more interesting than a wall behind which something is happening.”

Dad was like any illegal Latino

This country is about as tight as a sieve when it comes to immigration — and it always has been.

That is the moral weight behind the banner that 10 million illegals are now raising, not the phony hero status plastered on them by the media, nor the equally repellent cry that they can brazenly demand to have their illegalities ignored and call it justice.

My favorite illegal, of course, is my deceased father, who came here from Scotland in 1921 and stayed with scarce a thought of becoming a citizen. He was just a bit surprised when citizenship was conferred on him for service in the 8th Army Air Force during World War II.

Things were a bit different in those days; he could even remember when no passports were required to travel anywhere in Europe. And the first comprehensive law limiting immigration to the United States was not passed until 1924.

The brief for the illegals cannot be a plea for special treatment. They should argue that they just want what most immigrants have enjoyed throughout the past century — porous borders, lackluster officialdom, laws easy to ignore or sidestep and gradual assimilation in the land of opportunity.

For in spite of all the weeping and self-flagellation of those who regard America as a war-mongering, imperialist tyranny, most of the world’s energetic poor would love to be here. And in spite of the moaning of ecologists and sprawl-phobics, this country is still basically empty. In fact most of its area is becoming even emptier, with the collapse of Eastern farming, the concentration of population on the coasts and urbanization.

What is more difficult for this generation of immigrants is forging an effective political platform. It is not enough to proclaim “We are here” and make that fact a slogan. Not that U.S. immigration law has been fair — or even legal. It has been ad hoc and racially motivated, barring Chinese, Asian Indians, Japanese and Filipinos as politics dictated in turn over the years.

There is another important sidelight to the Latino immigration story, which relates to Mexicans and some others. The reason illegals struggle to come here and find work is not only to make money — it is effectively to double or triple the value of that money by sending dollars back home. As one observer put it, “They are the only ones still living the American dream.” And they are willing to do it in order to buy land, houses and stability for their families in home nations, where the $6- to $8-per-hour dead-end U.S. job looks like a fine income. Americans who are already living here, on the other hand, simply can’t afford to work for those wages and keep up their payments.

But to get back to dear Dad: He first visited the great U.S.A. in 1917, when he was a pilot in training with the Royal Flying Corps. He took a train to Cleveland from Toronto, then the training center. There he saw a county fair, combined with revival tents, sawing and horse-pulling contests and many other oddities; it was called a Chautauqua, all taking place on land so rich — the topsoil he said, was 4 feet deep and more.

He survived the war and came back — to New York. He remembered that Ohio visit.

“This is a country ripe for the taking,” he would say. And it still is.

Emergency unit emerges

The flimsy hospital partnership between Howard University and the city seems more and more like something cobbled together over a card table — where both sides were bluffing.

Was the whole thing a case of Mayor Anthony Williams (D) misreading his constituents’ needs? Or was it a case of local politics at its best, with local groups of several kinds exercising pressure against an unwise proposal until those in charge listened?

But assuming that the National Capital Medical Center is dead, what next? It seems that the emerging idea is to erect a specialty hospital, a free-standing emergency center that can take care of the routine health needs of the city’s thousands of uninsured, plus handle the serious traumas that are a product of accidents, crime and the drug culture.

Howard is now complaining bitterly as Williams speaks of “alternatives.” But the city may have dodged two bitter bullets — the $400 million price tag and the necessity of tearing down the entire hospital complex. With a smaller, more compact emergency center, planners may even find a way to use the vast buildings and the surrounding roads and infrastructure.


• Those big plans for Eastern Market — which include skylights on the west roof, ramps for the handicapped and a new heating and air-conditioning system, are all funded (to the tune of $9 million) in the mayor’s 2007 budget. Will it get done? “It’s tight,” said Office of Property Management spokesman Peter May. “I think we can do everything that’s in the proposal.” ...

• Kevin Clinton, Mayor Williams’s budget official, told listeners at this month’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6B meeting that, whatever the outcome of the hospital controversy, $15 million is in the 2007 budget to be spent on Reservation 13 (the old D.C. General site) for infrastructure. ...

• Longtime Hill soccer coach Brian Cassidy (one of the founders of Soccer on the Hill) is blowing the whistle on what he calls “calculated permit evasion” in his neighborhood, the 700 block of 13th Street S.E. Cassidy is demanding that the much-disparaged Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs stop development there, and ANC 6B officials agreed. ...

• New allies in the NCMC debate, Greater Southeast Community Hospital and about 250 George Washington University Hospital doctors, stand ready to team up to take over Southeast’s emergency room — if the $400 million NCMC plan falls through. ...

• Ward 6 (the Hill) likes take-charge women — that’s the conclusion of a straw poll taken of mayoral candidates by Ward 6 Democrats and community newspaper Capitol Hill Current Voice of the Hill. Top vote getters were Council Chairwoman Linda Cropp (86) and Pepco exec Marie Johns (43), while highly touted Councilmember Adrian Fenty languished with 34 votes, lobbyist Michael Brown got 14 and Councilman Vincent Orange 5. ...

• Gallant members of the Anacostia Watershed Society and their friends will make a river-cleanup effort April 22 (Saturday) with a picnic afterward at Seafarers Yacht Club, 1950 M St. S.E. Gathering is at Kingman Island (due east of RFK Stadium) at 8:30 a.m.