Public space and street memorials

As I was walking to the Dupont Circle Metro this morning, I took a look around the space where Alice Swanson's ghost bike was located. Within that large space of sidewalk at Connecticut and R, I noticed a bunch of "free newspaper" stands, including apartment listings and job flyers, and so forth.

These newspaper boxes take up public space, and most of the 'free' boxes are not even news publications but advertising circulars and such. One argument against leaving street memorials up in perpetuity is that they take up the public space.

I dug into the issue a bit deeper, looking into the permitting process for placing items in public space. Most public space items fall under the purview of the District Department of Transportation. The Public Space Office at DDOT issues permits for the use of public space by private parties. Surprisingly enough, newspaper boxes do not require public space permits. DDOT is considering changing this, though.

I dropped a line to Gabe Klein, Director of DDOT, about what, if any permits, would allow a memorial/dedication on public property. According to Aaron Rhones at DDOT, there is no permitting process or policy for such items at this time. Rhones did acknowledge that this may be a good topic of discussion moving forward, as DDOT revisits some of it's public space policy.

Around the District we have all sorts of strange and odd memorials. Example, the Maine Lobsterman memorial. There are others as well. Now I don't know who owns the land at 6th and Water St. SW, so I don't know if the Lobsterman statue needs a public space permit. It may be on Federal or private property. However, I think this is a topic worth discussion.

There is a difference between the ghost bike and makeshift memorials that appear overnight, made up of candles, stuffed animals and postcards. However well-intentioned these may be, they are temporary by nature. Time and the elements take over, and eventually the memorial needs to be removed. In these cases, the 30-day policy at DPW makes sense. Soggy pieces of paper and melted candles, even if thoughtful, become an eyesore and a mess.

If a group or an individual wishes to take the time to create, install and maintain a memorial, there should be a permitting process to allow this. I find it ridiculous that I could place a few newspaper boxes on the same site where the ghost bike was and those could remain in perpetuity, no matter what literature they were dispensing.

Some argue that if we allow street memorials to remain forever, they will be everywhere and public space will be consumed. First of all, this is a ridiculous argument. While it is true that everyone dies, not all of us will have people clamoring to erect memorials in our honor. Sorry for the ego blow people, but we don't all (live) or die in a fashion that is worthy of a public memorial.

I urge anyone who feels strongly about ghost bikes to contact DDOT, your Councilmember, and the Mayor's Office, and ask them to consider adopting public space permitting in these cases.


  1. Dave,

    Your comparison between newspaper boxes and the ghost bike memorial doesn't hold. Almost all US cities allow the use of public space for newspaper boxes, a practice that relates directly to the First Amendment. When this easement is abused and boxes that aren't really newsworthy outnumber the legitimate news sources, the DC DPW does remove them. I've watched it happen at the Tenleytown metro station.

    Yes, there should be a permitting process to allow for the erection of temporary street memorials in public space, the key word being "temporary". This would protect the memorial for the legal time it is allowed to remain, and then restore the public space back to its original condition after the time expires. No personal memorial should be allowed unlimited time.

    I am not discounting what happened to Alice Swanson. Her death was tragic and unnecessary. I even know a person who worked with her, and I saw how it impacted him. She won't be forgotten, even if the memorial has been removed.

  2. Well, I don't see why there can't be a permitting process for something more permanent. Perhaps a plaque in the sidewalk at the location? It would be something that could be addressed on a case-by-case basis, with input from the community.

    There's a sign posted at Wisconsin and M Streets, NW, in memorial of a DC Aux. Police Officer who was struck and killed with directing traffic. That sign was posted in perpetuity.

    How did we decide that it's allowable for a volunteer traffic officer to have a permanent memorial?

    Interesting questions all around. I'm not sure what the right answer is. I suppose what bothers me the most is that the memorial was removed in such as fashion after being in place for 13 months.

  3. Let me be empathetically clear. I do understand the need for families and friends to erect memorials to those killed in traffic accidents, and in some cases, due to homicides or residential fires. However, I believe that these type of memorials should be temporary. People should not be allowed to permit for permanent personal memorials. What if every homicide, auto or biking victim's family decided they wanted a permanent memorial at the spot that their loved one died? The city would be littered with these things and, I must say, they are often poorly maintained. I can tolerate trees with weather worn teddy-bears and empty alcohol bottles but for so long. Worse, when the city officials attempt to remove them, they are sometimes threatened with assault.

    No, people should be allowed a reasonable time to erect these memorials. Thereafter, their grief process should be a private matter shared among their families and friends NOT the entire city.

  4. "I can tolerate trees with weather worn teddy-bears and empty alcohol bottles but for so long."

    This is why the 30-day DPW policy is in place.

    If the family, along with the local ANC or citizens association or something else wants to apply for a permit to erect a plaque or sign at a location, I don't see the objection to that.