The Trees on Xenia Street

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“It’s almost like the government’s imposing its will on its residents,” Trayon White, the D.C. council member for Ward 8, said at the council’s June 6 legislative meeting. He wasn’t talking about a proposed highway, a subway station, a power plant, or—perish the thought—an apartment building. He was talking about trees: specifically, three linden trees on Xenia Street planted a few years ago by D.C.’s Urban Forestry Division. To my surprise, the legislative body of a major American city experiencing escalating homelessness and a serious spike in violent crime dedicated a quarter of its time that day to discussing three trees.

White said he was concerned about the potential risk to property values and what he sees as a “reasonable fear” that once mature, the trees would “be large enough to make it difficult to see through and around the walkway, which is a public-safety concern.” He asked his colleagues to support an emergency resolution to remove them before this happened.

For a while, the members carried on as though this were a perfectly normal matter for their attention. A few suggested that perhaps expanding the tree canopy was good, actually. But no one really questioned the underlying premise of White’s proposal: that the community had risen up in dendrophobic opposition.

“We want to note that these are homeowners who are worried about the value of their homes,” White said. “I just believe that [the District Department of Transportation, or DDOT] can be more friendly in responding to the needs of the community with their request, and if they’re requesting different trees, I don’t see what the big problem is.”

The council went on to debate the merits of the public-safety question. Councilman Kenyan McDuffie recalled that in his ward the city had planted trees in parking spaces so as not to encroach on the already narrow sidewalks. “I still question whether there is the appropriate level of consultation and engagement in the impacted communities,” he said, backing White.

After more than 20 minutes, the chair of the council noted with surprise that “we spent this much time on the issue of removing three trees.” White, recognizing the lack of sufficient support from his colleagues, withdrew the matter from the agenda, allowing the trees to grow another day.

What initially drew me to this story was the obvious mismatch between the rhetoric at the council meeting and the subject at hand. How could a few trees constitute a threat to public safety or property values? Were these trees particularly ugly? And who was behind White’s push to get them removed? Like many stories about government, this seemingly trivial drama turned out to be about power, and how people justify using it.

Xenia Street is in Ward 8, physically separated from most of D.C. by the Anacostia River. That’s not the only thing that sets it apart. This side of the river is overwhelmingly Black and has a higher unemployment rate, a lower labor-force-participation rate, and a higher poverty rate than the rest of the city. The census tract that contains Xenia Street is one of the most heat sensitive in the city, a metric that reflects the prevalence of asthma, coronary heart disease, and disability, as well as racial demographics and income. D.C.’s Urban Forestry Department, a division of DDOT, planted the trees after a beetle infestation harmed several local ash trees. A senior official told me the department is generally concerned about the unequal distribution of tree canopy across wards: At the end of June, Ward 8 had roughly 500 open requests for new plantings; the higher-income Ward 4 had nearly 6,000.

Tree planting doesn’t meet the bar for more serious types of notification and community-input processes that a new road or train station might. But according to Kay Armstead, a former member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission—an elected body meant to serve as a hyperlocal voice on zoning, bike lanes, liquor licenses—the city did inform the commission of a plan to bring more trees to the neighborhood. In the fall of 2020, it planted 35 trees, some American linden, some apple, on a publicly owned lot between two condo buildings, 450 Xenia Street and 450 Condon Terrace.

I wanted to see the trees for myself. In the weeks following White’s proposed emergency resolution, I visited the quiet residential street on three separate occasions, asking people if they had any thoughts about the trees. No one I interviewed registered strong opinions, or had even heard of the controversy.

One resident of 450 Condon Terrace immediately redirected my attention to a massive hole in the ground of her parking lot, which she said had been caused by a garbage truck. Another told me he hadn’t heard about the controversy but wanted to talk about trash pickup. “I mean, look at this shit,” he said, pointing to a pile of trash on the sidewalk. Trees? Low on the list of priorities. Another man found my line of questioning confusing, to say the least. “They’re oxygen!” When I said some people worried the trees could encourage crime, he laughed at me. “Now, you know that’s crazy. Who’s going to hide underneath these trees?”

So who forms “the community” so opposed to the trees? His name is Darryl Ross.

Ross has been active in local politics for decades. He is treasurer of the Ward 8 Democrats and of White’s constituent-services fund, a controversial purse that some critics have called a “slush fund.” When White refers to constituent outreach to his office over this issue, he’s talking about Ross. (White and his chief of staff both declined to be interviewed for this story.) Ross doesn’t live at 450 Xenia Street, but he used to. He still owns a unit in the building, which he rents out, and is the president of the Xenia Condominium Owners Association.

Ross has been angry about the trees since the day they were planted. He told me he saw workers digging and began calling around, furious that no one had informed the neighborhood about the project, astounded that the city thought 35 trees (“a forest!”) made sense on the street, and frustrated by hypothetical future private costs that the trees would impose on residents.

His 311 requests to remove the trees went nowhere. So he tried officials at DDOT and the Urban Forestry Department, White and several other members of the city council, the office of the inspector general, and current and former members of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission. He knows he wouldn’t have been able to get so much attention without his connections: “Believe me, I’m using all the leverage I can to get the desired result,” he told me.

After months of effort, in August of 2021, representatives from DDOT, White’s chief of staff, and a senior staffer for at-large Council Member Anita Bonds met with Ross and a couple of area residents on the site to discuss the problem. The officials agreed to remove 14 of the 35 newly planted trees. The agency also promised to complete a lighting survey, which resulted in the installation of three large streetlights, a data-driven approach to reducing crime.

The “desire to compromise for this individual is because we want to make sure we’re doing this for people, not to them,” a senior official in the Urban Forestry department (who requested anonymity to speak freely) told me. “If we can mollify someone, engender a sense of ownership … You take someone and make them more of an ally.”

Ross was not mollified. He continued his crusade to have three more trees removed—the ones closest to his condo building’s walkway. He lodged a complaint with D.C.’s Office of the Inspector General, which led to a formal response from DDOT Director Everett Lott, who argued that the department had broken no laws in planting the trees and had in fact exceeded the mandate for public notification. Undeterred, Ross continued his advocacy, which culminated with White’s proposed emergency resolution at the city-council meeting in June.

Ross put me in touch with a few of his allies, most of whom sounded only slightly more informed about the situation than the residents I randomly encountered on my visits. Some had no idea that many trees had already been removed; others were just vaguely aware that at one point the trees had seemed like a problem. One woman told me she thought children might throw fallen apples at cars or building windows. (The trees at issue in the emergency legislation are linden, not apple.)

According to Ross, the condo association was united in opposition. He called the vice president, Hazel Farmer, on speaker in my presence.

“You remember there were four [trees] that were too close to the walkway?” he asked.

“I thought we had finished that,” she said, sounding confused.

“No, no, we are still battling,” Ross replied quickly.

After Ross refreshed her memory, Farmer said she worried that the trees would one day push up the concrete sidewalk, impeding residents’ ability to walk in and out of the building. Ross later clarified that Farmer had already moved out because the steps on the walkway were too difficult for her to navigate.

Xenia Street in 2019 (left) and 2023 (right) (Courtesy of Jerusalem Demsas)

In a July legislative meeting, White withdrew the emergency resolution, citing a compromise reached by the chair of the D.C. council and DDOT to apply a growth regulator to the offending saplings. This outcome infuriates Ross, who is seeking a meeting with Mayor Muriel Bowser: “At the end of the day we voted for her, we didn’t vote for [DDOT officials], and we had faith in her to do what’s best for the people.”

Ross still has options. If the worst happens and these trees end up extending over the sidewalk, he can call 311 to request tree pruning. According to the Urban Forestry Department, these requests are resolved, on average, within 20 days.

But the more I talked with Ross and his allies, the more I realized that the trees were also stand-ins for their broader unhappiness with DDOT, which they see as not acting for them but doing things to them: bike racks “just dropped” in front of some businesses, bike lanes constructed over their objections, and traffic-safety infrastructure—in D.C.’s highest traffic-fatality ward—installed without their consent. This is why Ross was able to enlist supporters in the first place—by tapping into existing anger some residents feel toward the city’s transportation agency. Anger that, in a ward of nearly 90,000 people, a few individuals do not have the final say.

This is a classic story of local government and its discontents. Government takes action. Angry, well-connected local fights back, annoyed that they weren’t consulted. But when they fight back, claiming the will of the “people,” how do we know if they’re right? Backing up a bit: How do we even decide who the people are?

In the Xenia Street episode, is it the people who live right next to the trees? How about one street over? Just property owners like Ross? Because the trees are on public land, should all D.C. residents have a say? Is it all Americans? Addressing the reforestation backlog is a national priority. Or, given that trees help mitigate climate change, should all people have a voice? This is the so-called boundary problem, which the political scientist Robert Dahl once quipped has “no theoretical solution,” only pragmatic ones. Even if surveying all of humanity were theoretically desirable, it’s a practical impossibility. One has to draw the line somewhere and delegate representatives or spokespersons.

Arguably the best delegates in this matter are local elected officials, who get their authority from voters. The problem is that, at the local and especially hyperlocal levels, nobody’s voting. In 2018, two-thirds of Advisory Neighborhood Commission races were uncontested. Even when these contests are competitive, only a handful of people show up to cast a ballot. In the single-member district that includes Xenia Street, Armstead, one of Ross’s allies, lost her election 137–91. Last year, two ANC races were tied following Election Day; in one of them each candidate had garnered 12 votes apiece, while in the other each candidate had claimed just one (presumably their own). Vox populi indeed.

If the ANC can’t quite speak for the people, what about the D.C. council, and specifically Council Member White? Council voting rates are also dismal: About 8,700 people total voted in the 2020 primary contest that secured White’s reelection, out of roughly 57,000 citizens of voting age in Ward 8.

How about DDOT? As an agency housed in the executive branch, DDOT gains its authority from the mayor. In 2022, Mayor Bowser received fewer than 4,000 votes from Ward 8 during the primary (the true election in this heavily Democratic city). Only about 10,000 people in the ward voted at all in that contest.

There’s no magical threshold at which elected officials become democratically legitimate. But more than half of eligible voters routinely show up for federal and state contests while our municipal elections struggle to top 15 percent. What we’re seeing in local governments is a crisis of democracy unparalleled at other levels of government.

“It’s not the trees; it’s the disrespect,” Armstead told me. She called tree removal a top priority because “when you come to a community and you don’t listen, then [we’re] being disrespected and disregarded.” Ross made a similar point: “It makes me angry because, like I said, we’re the stakeholders. We’re the taxpayers. We fund the salaries for the D.C. government employees, council … This is our money!”

When we collectively feel entitled to hold the government accountable, that’s democracy. But when individuals do, that’s something else: institutional capture.

Because so few people vote in local elections, the power of those who speak up and claim to speak for their neighborhoods is hard to challenge. If a homeowner’s association headed by the neighborhood busybody says he speaks for you, are you showing up to contest that claim? What’s obvious about Ross’s perseverance is that its effectiveness is largely due to its singularity. If everyone engaged as he did—called and emailed and attended meeting after meeting, filed complaints with everyone from the office of the inspector general on down—his power would be diluted instantly. No one can claim to speak for a community if everyone’s speaking for themselves.

Democracy is about feedback loops. We elect people. If they do poorly, we choose alternatives. But when the election system falters from disuse, other feedback loops take root. Elected officials at the local level become accountable to the unrepresentative handful of voters who do engage; and public servants become preemptively sensitive to well-connected people who have the time and energy to demand disproportionate focus.

People like Ross may not get everything they want, but they know how to command attention. No fewer than four D.C. council members have become personally involved in the matter of the trees on Xenia Street. Meanwhile, that massive hole in the ground? It’s still there.

www.theatlantic.com

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/08/trees-xenia-street-washington-dc-local-government/674949/