Green Zone on the Green Line

The Department of Homeland Security goes house hunting in one of Washington’s most troubled neighborhoods.

When the U.S. Office of Personnel Management surveyed the job satisfaction of the federal workforce in 2008, the Department of Homeland Security ranked at or near the bottom in nearly every category. It was another dubious distinction for the department, which had launched with much fanfare in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the largest overhaul of the federal bureaucracy since Harry Truman created the Department of Defense. But DHS was the kind of sweeping but light-on-the-details gesture at which the Bush administration excelled, gathering twenty-two agencies with often unrelated missionsfrom fighting terrorism to issuing green cards to inspecting fishing boats safety gearunder a single roof. It was a recipe for bureaucratic dysfunction, not least because the department didnt actually have a single roof; its member agencies were scattered among seventy different buildings in forty discrete Beltway locations.

Unlike the new departments other institutional pathologies, this problem seemed like it wouldnt be that difficult to solve. But where do you find the real estate to house 14,000 employees within the already cramped confines of the District of Columbia? Pentagon-sized plots of land arent exactly easy to come by. In the fall of 2005, following DHSs botched response to Hurricane Katrina, then Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff ratcheted up his pleas to the General Services Administration, the federal governments landlord, to find them a home. The GSA bureaucrats came back with an idea. For decades, the federal government had been trying to find a use for St. Elizabeths Hospital, a century-and-a-half-old former mental hospital in Washingtons Anacostia neighborhood. It was in bad shape, but it was big enough to house the homeless Homeland Security. And the neighborhood, one of the most crime-ridden in the city, was very much in the market for development opportunities, as local City Councilman Marion Barrythe oft-disgraced former mayor of Washington and de facto mayor-for-life of Anacostiawould happily tell you.

The plan, which was approved in January, does not in its general contours appear to be the most promising arrangement in the world: move the most dysfunctional department in the federal government into the most troublesome building the government owns, in one of the Districts worst neighborhoods, presided over by the citys most famously questionable politician. In fact, the only thing crazier than the idea itself is the fact that it might actually work out pretty well for everyone involved.

St. Elizabeths is a study in isolation, fenced off and barricaded from Anacostia just as the neighborhood is removed from the rest of Washington. A short walk from the Metros green line, the hospital is divided by Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue into a west and east campus. It is eerie in its emptiness: the drab red buildings, separated by broad swaths of dead grass, might as well be haunted houses. Except for a few people waiting for the bus down the street, the place is deserted, and seems far more apart from the world than the four miles that separate it from the Capitol suggest.

The feeling of separation is not entirely an accident. St. Elizabeths opened in 1855, premised on the Quaker belief that the mentally ill could have meaningful lives if they were allowed to escape the rest of society. It expanded during the Civil War with its care for traumatized soldiers and was later taken over as a general “government hospital for the insane” by the Adjutant Generals Office in the Department of the Interior. The grounds were a miniature walled city that eventually featured a movie theater, a library, a barber shop, a nursery school, and tennis courts. (The modernist poet Ezra Pound was among its residents, as was, many years later, would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley.)

Through the first half of the twentieth century St. Elizabeths coexisted with a diverse Anacostia neighborhood, but in the 1950s both the neighborhood and the hospital began a downhill slide. City planners and the Eisenhower administration decided to build the regional Interstate, I-295, through the middle of Anacostia, connecting military stations but permanently fragmenting the neighborhood. The white population, like those in other cities, fled for the suburbs, and the community began drifting away from governmental Washington. Meanwhile, St. Elizabeths itself fell victim to the growing backlash against mass institutions for the mentally ill. By 1987, the federal government had turned over the remaining mental health facilities on the hospitals 268-acre east campus, as well as the 900 remaining patients, to the city.

The federal government continued to own the smaller west campus on the other side of MLK Avenue, but it would have preferred not to. As the sixty-two asbestos-filled brick buildings there fell further and further into disrepair, the Department of Health and Human Services (which had inherited the property from Interior) unloaded the property on the GSA. “It was reeking,” says GSA spokesman Mike McGill. “There were floors collapsing, wallpaper peeling off, and light fixtures falling on the floor.” And there was only so much they could do to fix the place uphistoric preservationists had secured St. Elizabeths classification as a national historic landmark, ensuring that the buildings would not be radically refurbished. “We were afraid that if it were turned over to the city it would be bulldozed for apartment buildings,” says Richard Longstreth, a professor of American studies at George Washington University and director of the graduate program in historic preservation there.

The DHS idea not only promised the GSA a way out, but also offered a possible solution to some of the new departments institutional problems. “A common location by itself doesnt guarantee the kind of synergy you need,” says P. J. Crowley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who participated in the Obama administrations DHS agency review team. “But bringing as many top tier leaders under one roof could finally create a shared vision for the department.”

Others smelled opportunity too. In October, Marion Barry addressed a meeting of his constituents in Anacostias Petey Green Community Center, a windowless, two-story brown building sandwiched between vacant lots. “We have been neglected and disrespected for so long,” the seventy-two-year-old ex-mayor declared to a packed house of more than a hundred local residents. “The community deserves this project, doesnt it?” The audience enthusiastically cheered. Four people in the front gave standing ovations. The GSA had promised that construction jobs related to the project would go to Anacostia residents, which is part of why political and business leaders in Barrys Ward 8which consists mostly of Anacostiaand Washington as a whole see in the DHS headquarters a glimmer of hope for a neighborhood driven into dereliction since mid-century. Anacostias crack cocaine epidemic had been the main driver behind Washingtons status as the murder capital of the world during Barrys late-1980s and mid-90s tenures as the citys mayor. Crime has since gone downhomicides in the neighborhoods police district are less than half of what they were in 1993but the government contracting boom and ensuing gentrification that in the last ten years transformed many once rough-edged neighborhoods in Washington hardly touched Anacostia. Ward 8s median annual income is just $14,210, less than a quarter of the District-wide average.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washingtons nonvoting representative in Congress, who has been trying to lure a federal agency to Anacostia for three years, is bullish on the DHS project, and sees in it a chance for a transformation. “Were going to bring these federal employees the quality retail that theyre used to in downtown Washington. The economy may be going down, but were going up.”

Ward 8 may have nowhere to go but upwhen I ask Norton whether the prospective DHS headquarters would compromise Anacostias character, she replies, “Have you seen the neighbor hood?” But its an open question whether DHS employees, the majority of whom will commute from the suburbs, will ever leave a campus, slated to be completed in 2016, that will feature all the necessary amenitiesand a soon-to-be-erected ten-foot-high razor-wire perimeter. “Anacostia is an island unto itself,” says one Federal Emergency Management Agency employee, who asked not to be named. “I dont want to go there every day.”

David Garrison, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who works on metropolitan planning issues, is skeptical, and bluntly compares the idea to the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, with approximately the same economic effects on the community outside the blast walls. “The DHS employees will drive into town on I-295. They will have lunch on campus with the various cafeterias that will be provided. Then theyll drive home. It almost doesnt matter where this activity will be taking place.”

Still, figuring out ways to make money off of federal behemoths is what unofficial Washington does best, and Homeland Security, which spent $11.5 billion on private contracting in 2007 (the last full year the government has data for), is a particularly juicy apple. It takes a lot of lunch meetings to move that kind of cash, and as of yet Anacostia doesnt have a single white-tablecloth restaurant. If theres a threat here, it may be that the urban blight of Anacostia will be replaced with the dullness of Crystal City, the soulless suburban canyonland that has sprung up in the shadow of the Pentagon. But thats a problem that local businesses would probably love to have. And in the meantime, the notoriously demoralized DHS employees can look forward to lots of jokes about having easy access to mental health care.

This site and all contents within are Copyright 1969-2009 Washington Monthly
Editorial offices: 1200 18th Street NW, Suite 330, Washington, DC 20036