When Randy Downs was elected to Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2B (Dupont Circle) in November, he realized he suddenly had more power to act on a change he’d long envisioned for his neighborhood.
Downs has watched with envy in recent years as cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, Miami and New York have installed rainbow crosswalks to symbolize gay pride and support for the LGBTQ community. “It’s just sort of baffled me that we really don’t have that many public displays of art, or at least queer art, in the area,” Downs told The Current.
Now Downs hopes he can change that. He has formed a coalition of neighbors and garnered hundreds of signatures on an online petition to outfit 17th Street between P and R streets NW — a stretch with a rich history of LGBTQ affiliations — with rainbow crosswalks. Ideally, he said, the colored asphalt would be installed in time for the annual Capital Pride Parade in June, though he concedes that a more temporary installation might be more feasible in that timeframe.
“Just seeing a painted crosswalk on the streets really conveys the sense of belonging and acceptance,” Downs said. “I would love for that to happen before June.”
Thus far, though, the project has faced a regulatory roadblock: An obscure provision in the Federal Highway Administration regulations requires crosswalks to be uniform, according to D.C. Department of Transportation spokesperson Terry Owens. The agency is required to follow those regulations because it receives federal funding. But the proposal isn’t dead yet, Owens said.
“DDOT supports the community’s desire to celebrate the neighborhood’s identity and is happy to help explore other options such as decorating a sidewalk, a proposal that would not have the agency in conflict with FHWA guidelines,” Owens wrote in an email. “We look forward to continued discussions with the community.”
Downs will meet with the agency and a representative of the mayor’s office on April 17 to discuss next steps.
Downs’ proposal is not without precedent — the crosswalks at 7th and H streets NW in Chinatown were adorned with a permanent public art installation last summer. However, Owens said the federal government notified the city about crosswalk requirements during the installation of that crosswalk. “Going forward we are happy to support community projects that meet federal and District regulations,” Owens wrote in an email.
Should the original proposal move forward, the project could cost as little as $3,000 or as much as $20,000, Downs said. If the government doesn’t have sufficient funds, Downs said his coalition is prepared to cover the remainder through fundraising.
Downs chose the two-block stretch of 17th Street in part because he himself lives there, but in larger part due to its long history as a gay enclave. Those blocks are sprinkled with gay bars and other gay-friendly establishments, and have hosted the annual High Heel Drag Queen Race for the last 30 years. They also earned the official alternate moniker Frank Kameny Way in 2010, in honor of an influential local gay rights activist who was dismissed from his position as an Army astronomer in 1957 due to his homosexuality. Meanwhile, Stonewall Kickball, a community-based nonprofit for LGBTQ residents and allies, plays at nearby Stead Park.
“It’s already been sort of memorialized as a place where gay, lesbian, transgender, queer folks can feel safe,” Downs said. “I definitely want to continue to make that mark.”
Support isn’t limited to Dupont residents. John-Paul Hayworth, a Petworth advisory neighborhood commissioner, told The Current he joined the coalition’s Facebook group after seeing it pop up randomly on his feed. He thinks the rainbow crosswalks could be tacked on to existing reconstruction projects along Frank Kameny Way fairly easily, and perhaps provide a more noticeable marking for drivers who might otherwise speed through.
“They’re a really great way for the community to identify with each other. They’re much more than an LGBT-type thing at this point,” Hayworth said. “They bring the community together in a way that is pretty sorely needed right now.”
The coalition has drawn optimism from Mayor Muriel Bowser’s support of the LGBTQ community, particularly in her aggressive courting of the 2022 Gay Games, for which D.C. is currently one of three finalist cities alongside Hong Kong and Guadalajara, Mexico. The Federation of Gay Games will announce the chosen host city in October.
In the meantime, the petition surpassed its goal of 500 signatures within 24 hours of posting on April 5, and new supporters are joining at a rapid clip, with 913 signed on as of Tuesday night. If this particular effort is stymied, though, Downs said he’ll turn to other decorations like light posts and banners.
“I’m just really trying to create that sense of community in Dupont and celebrate diversity,” Downs said. “If we don’t get crosswalks, then we’ll look for something else.”