- Big angel, small hat.
If you want your D.C. trails safe, you could do far worse than calling our city's head Guardian Angel, John Ayala. The man was short, mustachioed, black, and wearing a red beret covered in dangling charms. He had just walked over to the group of cyclists with me, all of us next to the eight-mile long, year-old Metropolitan Branch trail (Met Branch for regulars). The cyclists stood next the old red brick of a building halfway between the Rhode Island and New York Metro stations on the Red Line at the corner of S and 4th street, a little after 6 p.m. Many people carried emergency whistles and pads of paper. Ayala, a constantly active and talking man, 41 years old and the third most powerful Guardian Angel in the country, was passing out white Guardian Angel shirts and dividing the people into three groups to patrol one-and-a-half miles of the trail between Franklin Street NE and L Street NE: two on bike, one walking.
"And you, you're on foot?" Ayala asked me.
"Yes," I replied, smiling. "I am on foot."
The skies were still bright as these people, close to a dozen including the Guardian Angels, prepared to leave for their second safety patrol of the Met Branch trail. ANC commissioner Tim Clark showed up to send off the volunteers. As the Washington Post reported, the first official patrol happened the previous Wednesday, inspired by a series of attacks that have occurred along the trail, most notably Todd Allen Keller, whose attack led the Guardian Angels, a volunteer group of patrolling individuals that's had a presence in D.C. for more than 20 years, to intervene. I requested to patrol with this new group last week when I saw the outreach of Stephen Miller, urban pathways coordinator for the non-profit organization Rails-to-Trails, who has helped motivate people to come to these patrols on neighborhood listservs as well as a Met Branch listserv for regular riders. Miller described crime as a factor that all cities have to deal with, and these patrols are a strong start.
Ayala credited Miller with launching the event last night at the outset. "I mean it, Steve — this wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for you."
The group, as in their inaugural patrol, paused first to take a photo to mark the occasion. Here's what they looked like yesterday evening:
- Watch out, Met Branch. (Photo: John Hendel)
The protocol for the patrol was clear: Don't engage any hostile individuals. Ayala was clear on the steps the volunteers should take. If they saw a problem situation, one group member should begin writing down details on the notepad, another should call 911, and any other people should shout and blow their whistles to discourage the individuals."Our goal is not to go up there and grab 'em," Ayala told us. He also made sure that the Guardian Angels in each group had radios so all three groups could stay connected. Five of the Guardian Angels ultimately accompanied area citizens.
I walked with Ayala and a Brookland volunteer up and down the trail for the next couple hours, until 8 p.m. when the three groups reunited to debrief, strategize about how to get stronger numbers in the coming weeks, and depart. Both Miller and Ayala stressed that they wanted community members to rise up and own the future of these patrols. They wanted a higher turnout, and to potentially begin holding Thursday-evening patrols, too. To make the trail safe for D.C. citizens struck me as absolutely vital, considering the long history and great investment behind the black path. Greater Greater Washington posted a killer timeline of the efforts behind the trail last year and trace its proposal (all the way back in 1988!) to the granting of funds (Congress allocated $8.5 million a decade later) to its opening to last summer's opening of the 1.5-mile stretch of trail between New York Ave and Franklin Street, where last night's crews traveled. The story of the Metropolitan Branch trail has been more than 20 years in the making. The emotion and money has already been invested, and the trail needs to feel safe.
Last night's patrol itself encountered no resistance. Those I was with, however, suggested that the greatest dangers were in the hours after school lets out, when young people hit the trail and grew restless. No one I was with seemed to really expect to break up any scuffles, really. The patrols were more about the idea of a security presence, about communicating community concern, and some good exercise. Several walkers and bike-riders on the trail acknowledged and thanked members of the patrol. When I first left the Rhode Island Metro station, I asked multiple people where the trail was, and no one could answer. The route to the trail involves an unmarked grassy path up to a shopping center that few would ever find without knowing beforehand.
Miller identified this as one of Rails-to-Trails' concerns — the non-profit wants community members to enjoy and know about what truly is a fine, well-paved trail cutting through the city. Better infrastructure might help, and the District transportation department is examining the possibility of creating a bridge linking the trail with the Rhode Island Metro station to facilitate these connections. The city has constructed a fence along the trail to help prevent people from wandering over haphazardly, but a couple segments had been knocked down, as a couple volunteers noted during their debriefing. People wondered whether DDOT knew of the broken links, which apparently have been replaced and then knocked down several times.
"They're aware of it," Miller said. "I think they're done fighting that war." The best bet from DDOT's perspective, Miller estimates, is to create a bridge at the Rhode Island station, which he said was designed, funded, and waiting final approval.
The patrols will continue every Wednesday for now and soon, perhaps, on Thursdays. You can sign up yourself here, read their patrol flyer here, and see some of their outlined safety guidelines here. Miller and Ayala are eager to have others join them. It's every week, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., and you can meet them at the pocket-park section of the trail at S and 4th St. NE. You can't miss it — multiple benches, big wall of red brick. I'm sure they'd love some company next week.