FLOTSAM & JETSAM: Elian comes to the 'hood

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Elian comes to the 'hood

From 50 years of our overstocked archives

[In 1999, a six year old Cuban boy, Elian Gonzales, was found off the Florida coast in an inner tube. Conservative relatives in Florida fought for custody of the boy in a seven month standoff until the Supreme Court ruled he could go home with his father. In the meantime, he found exile in your editor's neighborhood.]

Sam Smith 2000
  - Readers may recall that early in the Elian caper, your editor was asked whether he and his wife would be willing to rent their house to provide shelter for the Cuban tike and as many of his nuclear family, classmates, physicians and so forth as could squeeze in. My keen journalistic nose sniffed a possible story and besides the suggested rent intrigued me.

But I had married the virtue, good sense and neighborly consideration that I lacked and so the notion was soon deflated. I did, however, suggest to my cut-out that Elian consider Rosedale, a farm house on a nearby estate owned by Youth for Understanding. It was, I suggested, ideal for the purpose since it was probably already well wired to the Central Intelligence Agency.

In Washington, you develop a sense for such things. In individuals it is suggested by a certain vague and antiseptic charm, in organizations by a certain vague and antiseptic languor about matters of normal concern, such as public relations and fund-raising. Youth for Understanding, a well-endowed student exchange program, was started in the early 1950s during a time when the agency was being especially solicitous towards the young, co-opting the National Student Association, dragooning Europe-bound Ivy Leaguers and so forth. Among the rogue influences it presumably wished to counter was that of the Experiment in International Living, a progressive exchange program favored by students not all that interested in joining the establishment. YFU became an establishment alternative to the Experiment.

So why would your editor, of all people, propose such a locale? The story goes back 25 years when Rosedale was owned by the National Cathedral. It had been used as a boarding campus for wealthy southern Episcopalian girls attending the National Cathedral School. The DC riots of 1968, however, had dampened white southern enthusiasm for Washington and the Cathedral found itself with, so to speak, a very white elephant.

At the time, I was one of 300 advisory neighborhood commissioners elected for the first time in the city. Since the commissioner idea had been one of my pet projects, I took my responsibilities seriously, never more so than when word came that the National Cathedral planned to sell beautiful Rosedale to the Bulgarians for an embassy and chancery. The neighbors were beside themselves, their favorite position, and I was more than willing to join the fray.

We set about with vigor to block the Cathedral's plan. A member of the family that had formerly owned the land spoke wistfully of it having been passed to the church "in Christian trust." Terry Lenzner's father-in-law provided counsel not only on commercial, but canonical, law. For my part, as a recovering Episcopalian turned navipasqua (one who goes to church only on Christmas and Easter), I was more than happy to take on the bishop. His was, after all, a religion that included among its sins acts of supererogation -- which is to say doing more good works than the Lord demands of you -- clearly not a faith to be trusted in a planning dispute.

We finally bearded Bishop William Creighton in a crowded meeting at St. Alban's school. Noting that the bishop was seated between his treasurer, a CIA official, and the head of his foundation, another agency man, I prefaced my remarks by remarking that it looked as if the score was Caesar 2, God 0. Creighton did not flinch but when it was his turn to speak, he pulled out the stops, suggesting an anti-Eastern European tenor to the community's opposition. I'd been mau-maued by a few black militants but never by a whole Bishop of the Episcopal Church. When it was my turn, I looked Creighton right in the eye and told him what I thought of the charge, concluding that "on the whole, I have been treated far better by Bulgarians than by Episcopalians."

And I wasn't the most vociferous. Still, the Cathedral held its ground until someone uncovered an ancient written agreement that the Cathedral would not act except upon consultation with the neighborhood. And so, after another commissioner and I wrote the bishop accusing him of "bad faith," the moral hand passed to our side and it was not long before Ambassador Popov and his embassy were gone and Youth For Understanding was making an offer, encouraged -- I did not doubt -- by the two agency men at the head table, Robert Amory and Richard Drain, the latter one of the brains behind the Bay of Pigs disaster.

I considered myself a practical pol and had no objections to replacing high-rise diplomats with low-rise spooks. All we now wanted was the historic right of residents and their dogs to wander across the grounds. The easements were eventually signed and the neighborhood enjoyed 25 years of what amounted to a private park. It was the scene of touch football games and amorous assignments and floating Frisbees. And the dogs could run at will.

With so much happy use, it would be wrong to begrudge Elian an opportunity to enjoy it as well. But he will not come alone, he will be accompanied by men in black vans, big guns, and bland faces whom we will be paying (for reasons that remain uncertain) to protect a Cuban kid the way they protect, say, a vice president or a cabinet official. They will undoubtedly tell the neighbors that they can no longer use Rosedale as they have in the past. And the same rules will apply to dogs. The day-glo green tennis balls will thus remain unmasticated behind bushes and in crevices until the administration and the courts figure out finally what to do about Elian.

I have already apologized to one neighbor for having ever suggesting Rosedale, although it was probably far from a unique idea. As former commissioner of District 7C, however, I also strongly suggested a review by a dog-owning attorney of the relevant easements, particularly those sections relating to the rights of canines. Perhaps the park could be divided in two -- a dog walk and an Elian walk [which is what the Secret Service eventually did with the longest yellow police tape I have ever seen] In any event, it is only fair that Elian share Rosedale with the neighbors and their dogs. No issue is so important that it justifies denying a dog's place in the sun.