Where Have Metro’s Flowers Gone?

The D.C. Metro authorities go to absurd lengths to enforce silly rules.

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An excerpt from "The Dresser," a Walt Whitman poem about tending to soldiers wounded in battle, is being carved in the granite wall of the Dupont Circle Metro station in Washington on Thursday, July 12, 2007. The public art project is intended to celebrate individuals who have worked to ease the suffering of people living with HIV and AIDS. A dedication for the project, which also will include a second poem around a nearby bench, is being held Saturday.

Users of the Dupont Circle Metro station in the nation's capital might resurrect an old Vietnam-era protest song: "Where Have all the Flowers Gone?"

In this case, Metro took them away. There was no legitimate reason to remove them – certainly not the trumped-up, hyper-bureaucratic explanation that keeping up the flowers would be a safety hazard. It was just to enforce the rules for enforcing-the-rules sake, punishing a local self-described performance artist who had the temerity to add a little color and natural joy into the lives of cranky D.C. commuters.

It started when Henry Docter went to the trouble and expense of planting flowers in the unfilled boxes alongside the long (and frequently out-of-service) escalators at the Q Street Station. It almost validated those irritatingly sanctimonious bumper stickers urging people to commit "random acts of kindness." It was just a nice thing to do, a non-controversial gift to locals taking the subway. Who, after all, could be against fresh flowers?

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The D.C. Metro authorities could be, it turns out. They sent Docter a cease-and-desist letter, telling him he could not tend to the flowers because he could become injured doing so. He offered to sign a waiver sparing them from liability if something indeed happened. They refused the reasonable offer.

Docter got a petition going to keep the flowers, getting 4,000 signatures. It meant nothing. Metro removed the flowers. They couldn't even just let the blooms live as long as they could with the steady sun and even steadier rain that the District has experienced.

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No, Metro – which seems incapable of repairing lines with any haste, or operating working escalators, or producing Metro farecards that don't demagnetize just by being in the same room as a credit card – was stunningly efficient in getting rid of the flowers.

This isn't really about safety. It's about Metro not liking it when someone breaks the rules, no matter how silly the rule might be. Some people thought Metro went too far when it arrested and handcuffed a 12-year-old girl in 2000 for eating French fries as she entered the Metro at Tenleytown (as a minor, she had to be taken into custody; an adult would have been ticketed and fined up to $300). That was also an over-reaction (and led to a change in Metro policy), but on some level, it made sense. The reason we don't see rats in the subway, and the reason it doesn't smell like the New York City underground system, is because the no-eating-or-drinking rule is strictly enforced. But batches of flowers? The Metro is frequently in disrepair. Surely, its management has higher priorities.

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