As readers know, I've been following this story for a while. I've been able to track down what happened with regard to the August 28 removal of the Alice Swanson ghost bike at Connecticut and R Streets, NW. This is a lot of information, so bear with me.
On Wednesday August 19, Ed Grandis, the Executive Director of the Dupont Circle Merchants and Professionals Association (DC MAP) sent an email to Mark Bjorge at the District Department of Transportation. In this email, Grandis characterized the ghost bike as being in "significant disrepair" an "eye sore" that was "not a memorial." Grandis requested the removal of the bike on behalf of "several commercial property owners." Also copied on this email was DC MAP's board, including Susan Taylor (Church of Scientology), David Perruzza (JR's Bar and Grill), Jonathan J. ten Hoopen (Black Fox Lounge) and James McGlade (The Leather Rack). When asked via email, Grandis declined to comment for this story. Perruzza responded writing "I work on 17th street but from what I understand they removed it because it is in the way of pedestrian traffic."
On Thursday August 27, Andrew Huff, Mayor Fenty's Ward 2 Outreach Specialist sent an urgent request to DPW asking that the lock on the ghost bike be cut immediately. The email was sent at 7:33 PM and asked that the lock be cut before close of business on Friday. Huff said that it was "a Mayoral request and your assistance is greatly appreciated." The request did contain a note saying "DO NOT REMOVE OR THROW BICYCLE AWAY - JUST CUT THE LOCK AND LEAVE AT LOCATION. FAMILY MEMBERS WILL RETRIEVE BICYCLE TOMORROW."
At 8:20 PM, Jim Sebastian, who works on bicycle matters at DDOT, replied to Huff and DPW saying that Eric Gilliland at the Washington Area Bicyclist Association had located the key to the lock, and asked if the bike's removal could wait until Monday. Huff replied saying "[w]e can wait until Monday but not later." Huff the notified DPW that their services would not be needed.
On Friday, August 28, Earl Simpson at DPW reported that they had cut the lock on the bike. He told Anthony Duckett, Associate Administrator in DPW's Solid Waste Management Administration that the bicycle had been left at Cosi, "because we didn't want anyone to take it while its unlock (sic)."
On Monday, when the media began asking questions about the ghost bike's removal, there was much discussion within DPW, the Executive Office of the Mayor (EOM), and DDOT on how to respond. According to Nancee Lyons at DPW, the bicycle was removed via the abandoned bicycle policy, and not the sidewalk memorial policy. Had it been removed under the memorial policy, a 30-day notice would have been left. The public affairs campaign regarding the incident began to get muddled, as it was unclear whether the Mayor's Office or DPW would take the lead in responding.
I had asked DPW for an official comment on Monday, and internal communication between DPW and EOM revealed a bit of conflict. Mafara Hobson, Fenty's Director of Communications was unwilling to take the lead wanting "to leave the Mayor's name out of the matter." DPW tossed around the idea of sending me a comment explaining the bike's lock had been cut and it had been left in a secure location to prevent theft. I didn't receive an official comment until Tuesday, September 1. This email referenced only the 30-day policy, and extended condolences to Swanson's family. It was unsigned and provided no further information.
The most interesting part of the internal discussion was the consideration of an official memorial being placed for Alice Swanson. Sarah Latterner at the Mayor's Office arranged to call a meeting with all of the involved agencies, as well as WABA and Swanson's family. Francisco Fimbres at the Mayor's Office asked DDOT to "come prepared to suggest a memorial on the sidewalk. Be it a tree box structure with a bike and flowers + a little placard. WABA or family can pay, DDOT and EOM could support and help them make it happen."
Lyons, in an email to DPW Director Bill Howland, said "so now that the Mayor's office apparently asked for this to be removed, folks are apparently freaking out at the reaction. I don't think affixing a permanent memorial is the right way to go to appease just one family, do you?"
Monday afternoon Howland sent an email to City Administrator Neil Albert, Fenty's Chief of Staff Carrie Kohns, Hobson and DDOT Director Gabe Klein saying he was opposed to any permanent memorial to Alice Swanson. Albert and Hobson would agree, and the official public relations response would be to say that the official policy was that memorials are removed after 30 days and that the city is sorry for the family's loss. That would be the end of discussion on the matter.
What remains unknown is why this issue became such an urgent priority to the Mayor's office. DC MAP's request did not indicate there was an urgent need to remove the bicycle. These emails were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, however it does appear that Mayor Fenty's office withheld many documents. I sent separate FOIA requests to both DPW and EOM. DPW's response includes over 80 pages of emails, many that were sent from staff in Fenty's office. Many of those emails were NOT also included in the FOIA documents supplied by the Mayor's Office. I was provided with no documents that show how the matter moved from DDOT to EOM and why it became a priority. Also, there is still no information on what businesses approached DC MAP with the original request. This would not have been covered by the FOIA request.
If anything, this whole incident has revealed some tension and blame-passing between DPW and Fenty's office. Fenty's office demanded the prompt removal of the bike, and then essentially hung DPW out to dry. It's no surprise I received 80 pages of documentation from DPW and roughly 4 pages from Fenty's office. They fall back on the "30 day policy," however the memorial clearly remained for more than 30 days. DPW's communications indicate the bike wasn't removed under the 30 day policy, but rather under the abandoned bicycle policy.
Personally, I believe that the replacement memorial idea should not have been shot down so quickly. Had the city offered to help dedicate a treebox near the site, I don't believe the 22 ghost bike art project would have happened. Rather we would have had a small, unobtrusive memorial. From a political standpoint that would have been much better than the mess that unfolded. It would not have necessarily resulted in a "Pandora's Box" as the DPW chief called it. Clearly this memorial was allowed to remain beyond 30 days, so this was done on a case-by-case basis. Permanent memorials for tragedies in the future could also have been handled on a case-by-case basis. Having some plaques on some treeboxes is not unheard of, and would not clutter up the city.