Security changes pace, look of once-relaxed city

Posted: Tuesday, September 17, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Welcome to America's Main Street. Now, move along.

With the nation on a war footing, people are increasingly cut off from government -- and one another -- in the capital.

Barriers and bag checks have been a feature of life here since the mid-1980s, but the surge in security since the terrorist attacks seems to have forever buried Washington's once-cherished reputation as a big-issue city with small-town ambiance.

''I was attracted to Washington because it was beautiful and open,'' said Nancy McCall, who moved to the Capitol Hill neighborhood in 1985. ''Now it's like a city under siege.''

Inconveniences range from loss of time in traffic jams to loss of livelihood in security shutdowns. Washington is still a place of open monuments, leafy spaces and many free museums, but the spread of protective concrete is dispiriting to some who live here or visit.

''You don't need to be ugly to be secure,'' said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's nonvoting member of Congress. ''If people were to come today, they would think we're seeing a cheap version of a wartime zone.''

A one-time sanctuary, the Capitol, is being treated as if a bulls-eye were painted on it.

It does not help that the grounds look forbidding. Views of a reflecting pool's shimmering mirror-image of the Capitol's neoclassical domes are hindered by a chain link fence erected since the attacks.

The Secret Service has banned trucks on 17th Street, a Washington artery that skirts the White House, and business owners fear for their futures now that deliveries have become nearly impossible.

Federal buildings have always had security checks, but these have been considerably tightened since that Sept. 11. Education Secretary Rod Paige was so dismayed by the drab, workaday security huts that sprang up in front of his department that he ordered them ''enhanced'' as little red schoolhouses, emblazoned with the motto, ''No Child Left Behind.''

At the Treasury Department, employees are grumbling about the missing doughnuts. Before Sept. 11, a Rockville, Md., bakery would drop off 60 doughnuts in the foyer each morning at 5:30 a.m.; snack bar proprietor Charlie Davis would pick them up at 7 a.m. Now, the prospect of an unsecured shipment sitting around for 90 minutes concerns the Secret Service, and Treasury staffers suffer through unglazed mornings.

The Supreme Court has added two bomb-sniffing dogs. The Library of Congress refuses entry to readers carrying penknives. The Coast Guard, which boarded no vessels on the Potomac River before Sept. 11, has boarded 2,000 since. An orange Coast Guard boat with a mounted machine gun patrols the river.

People make the best of it all. Eight sweaty roller bladers played street hockey on a recent Sunday on the portion of Pennsylvania Avenue closed to traffic as White House security staff watched. The barriers made a convenient rink.

Still, the only unfettered public buildings are the historic churches. Patrons of the Martin Luther King Library, once an oasis of accessibility in a rundown area, now pass through metal detectors.

Restrictions have reached into Washington's suburbs. Residents of the Carlyle, an upscale condominium complex next to the courthouse in Alexandria, Va., have been repeatedly stopped and searched during hearings in terrorism cases.

Somebody lobbed two bricks through the window of Alexandria's Islamic Bookstore just after Sept. 11. Non-Muslim neighbors raised money to repair the damage, but Hazem Barakat's regular Muslim clients have not come back, and he shuttered the shop. ''They are fearful,'' he said.

Longtime Washington-area residents remember when the people's business was a little more personal.

Judi Seiden hankers for nothing more complicated than a crosstown drive on Pennsylvania Avenue, barricaded since 1995 because of anxieties about the residents of 1600.

''I used to whip right across town,'' said the Capitol Hill real estate agent.

Washington's small-town sensibilities were once legendary. In a 1999 reminiscence, the late Benjamin Welles recalled sauntering through the front door of his school buddy John's house and chatting about dating and stamp collecting with John's dad, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

''There was no barricade, no police,'' Welles said. ''There was the president in his blue silk dressing gown in his wheelchair.''

Another time, his father, Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles, ran into Eleanor Roosevelt on the street and they commiserated about their sons' passion for partying. Conversation fodder familiar, perhaps, to Laura Bush -- but not on Washington sidewalks.

The first substantive changes prompted by the threat of terror came in 1983, shortly after a truck bomb killed more than 200 U.S. servicemen in Beirut. Piles of sand were dumped around of the State Department, the White House and the Capitol.

Those soon disappeared, but barricades and metal detectors came back for good in 1995, after the Oklahoma City bombing, and their use has increased since.


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