Georgetown Current

Exorcist Steps Event to Commemorate Local Movie Landmark

October 28, 2015

By Mark Lieberman
Current Staff Writer

A longtime “Exorcist” enthusiast, Andrew Huff got to thinking about the movie’s iconic Georgetown steps one day last June, while showering “with a head full of shampoo.”

The iconic Exorcist steps — featured in the climax of William Friedkin’s 1973 horror film — are already a well-known tourist attraction. But Huff, a D.C. resident and American University’s director of community relations, believed the site could use more formal recognition.

On Friday evening, Huff’s brainchild completes the journey from his shower to the steps at 3600 Prospect St. NW. City officials including Mayor Muriel Bowser and several D.C. Council members will unveil a plaque commemorating the famous site during a 6 p.m. ceremony at the bottom of the steps. And per a ceremonial D.C. Council resolution authored by Ward 2 member Jack Evans (Huff’s former boss), Oct. 30 will be known as “Exorcist Day” in D.C. going forward.

Before the ceremony, from 4 to 6 p.m., Friedkin will be at the top of the steps signing autographs, answering questions and giving away a limited number of free Blu-rays of the film and collectible headshot photos of himself on the set. William Peter Blatty, the author of the book on which the movie is based, will join Friedkin for the second hour.

The event concludes with an invitation-only screening of “The Exorcist” at the nearby AMC Georgetown theater.

Interested residents across the city, from Tim Russert’s widow Maureen Orth to Redwood Investments founder Michael Wood, donated a total of $7,000 to the event. Support from Aaron DeNu at Dupont Festival, the event’s official organizer, and promotion from the Georgetown advisory neighborhood commission and other city officials, made those donations possible, Huff said.

“That’s the coolest part of all this,” Huff said of the citywide enthusiasm. “It really is a local D.C. event, and it’s important enough to these people and these organizations to have this location commemorated that they’re willing to help us.”

Since his dad showed him the movie when he was 10 years old, Huff has been fascinated with every aspect of “The Exorcist.” He estimates he’s seen it 50 times since.

“It created an impression in me that never left,” Huff said. “The fact that I was so interested and terrified at the same time, and so curious, made the movie stay with me.”

Often cited among the most beloved horror movies of all time, the horror thriller follows a young woman (Ellen Burstyn) struggling to rid her daughter of a demonic possession with the help of two unconventional priests. During the movie’s bloody climax, the priest Father Karras (Jason Miller) tumbles down the Georgetown steps to his death.

While growing up in Front Royal, Va., Huff and his friends made frequent day trips to D.C., often making a point to stop by the steps, “just kind of standing there and messing around.” As an adult he rarely takes his visiting friends to the monuments, but the steps are always a must-see.

With the idea for a plaque in mind, Huff sought support and funding from D.C. government agencies. The Office of Motion Picture and Television Development was eager to assist, according to director of communications Pharoh Martin.

“We like to really recognize important film locations in the District,” Martin said. “There’s nothing that’s more significant than the Exorcist steps in Georgetown, we feel. It was just a long time coming.”

Martin’s office helped secure funding, permits and promotion for the event. And some of what Huff expected to be the most difficult tasks proved to be significantly easier than he expected.

He tweeted at director Friedkin, who lives in Beverly Hills, Calif., without ever having spoken to him before, and Friedkin responded favorably within a day. From there, getting author Blatty on board was just a matter of Friedkin reconnecting with the writer, an alumnus of Georgetown University who lives in Bethesda.

“Having the two of them together in the same place is pretty special,” Huff said. “It’s going to be really neat to see them together at this location where they spent so much time and poured out so much of their souls.”

The event is also significant for Robert and Barbara O’Malley, who have lived in the house next door to the steps for 11 years. They knew about their house’s Hollywood connection when they bought it, but it didn’t influence their decision.

“It sort of amuses me,” Robert O’Malley said in an interview. “It’s sort of a perverse status, one might say, to have the most visited house by tourists.”

Huff is urging eventgoers to reach the steps via public transportation on Friday. If it rains, the ceremony will move from the bottom of the steps to the top, where there’s an outdoor pavilion.

In addition to Friedkin, Blatty and Bowser, guests of honor at the ceremony include Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia and D.C. Council members Evans, Vincent Orange and Brandon Todd, Huff said. More than 1,200 people have reported that they’re going to the event on its Facebook page (tinyurl.com/nduufrv), and Huff is estimating a crowd of “hundreds, easily.”

Martin said everyone involved is surprised but pleased by the volume of interest.

“We thought it was something neat that needed to be recognized, but we didn’t have any idea of the magnitude of interest in commemorating these steps,” Martin said. “It’s going to be a very fun experience.”

This article appears in the Oct. 28 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.


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Georgetown Drops App Over Racial Issues

October 21, 2015

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

The GroupMe messenger app is gone from Georgetown, withdrawn by a local business group in the face of withering media coverage that highlighted allegations of racial profiling.

The smartphone application — which the Georgetown Business Improvement District began using in the neighborhood last year — allowed real-time conversations among businesses, residents and police officers, intended to instantly alert the entire community to a live crime threat. Metropolitan Police Department officials, business owners and community members lauded it as a clever use of technology to respond to high shoplifting rates and other public safety concerns.

But problems emerged. As first reported by The Georgetowner in August and then by The Washington Post last week, a disproportionate number of the reports circulated on the GroupMe app were warning of African-Americans deemed “suspicious” by retail personnel.

National reaction to The Post’s coverage painted Georgetown as an affluent white community that’s unwelcoming to minorities. After initially defending the program, the BID decided over the weekend to withdraw it.

“While the app has been effective in deterring shoplifting, the news stories and the dialogue that followed have brought up legitimate concerns about the use of the app and its potential to wrongfully identify shoppers as shoplifters,” BID CEO Joe Sternlieb said in a written statement Sunday night. “The overriding goal of our retail community is to ensure that everyone who visits Georgetown feels welcomed, comfortable, safe, and that their civil rights and individual dignity are protected and respected. So long as there are questions about how this app is being used, this goal cannot be met.”

BID officials said yesterday that although it took longer than expected to disable the app, it went offline yesterday evening.

Sternlieb said the BID will look into whether new rules, training on racial profiling and stricter membership criteria could allow GroupMe or a similar app to resume operation in the future. A spokesperson for the BID said the group had no comment beyond the written statement.

To some Georgetown community leaders, the experiment with GroupMe was a costly blow to the neighborhood’s reputation and should not be repeated.

“That program does not represent Georgetown’s welcoming and respectful spirit,” advisory neighborhood commission chair Ron Lewis said in an interview. “The BID was right to take it down, and it needs to stay down.”

The commission hasn’t taken a formal position, but Jeff Jones, another commissioner, agreed with Lewis that GroupMe “should be permanently shut down and disavowed” in favor of contacting police via 911.

“I believe although it was reported [that] a small percentage of comments ... were completely inappropriate, the hurt and ill-will it has created is very high,” Jones wrote. “It is very unfortunate not only for those on the receiving end of the inappropriate comments, but also for the many individuals and businesses in our community who have been generous and kind to others for so many years.”

The idea behind GroupMe’s use in Georgetown is that residents who call 911 are often on the line for five or six minutes, whereas the app can alert not only police but also other users nearby who might spot a crime suspect or become more alert to an individual’s behavior. The Microsoft-owned app was launched in 2010, designed for a variety of conversations among large groups of users. 

“I would have to say that it has assisted the officers in getting to the scene and addressing a situation quicker,” Metropolitan Police Department 2nd District Cmdr. Melvin Gresham told The Current this summer. “If someone calls 911, there may be a delay because the information has to be filtered.”

A Metropolitan Police Department spokesperson didn’t respond to requests for comment this week.

Some community members do think that the concept behind GroupMe can be salvaged in Georgetown. Neighborhood commissioner Bill Starrels said in an interview that ongoing sensitivity training could curb the sort of “snide comments” sent out by some of the app’s users. “There were a small number of people that were doing things that they shouldn’t have been doing that really weren’t sensitive on any level and were just wrong on every level,” he said.

The Georgetowner’s Peter Murray, who authored the first article on the racial profiling concerns, wrote in a blog post last week that some of the recent coverage has picked the wrong target. “The app is not racist, some users are,” he wrote. And the flaws included racial profiling, he added, not just racially tinged commentary.

“The problem, demonstrated by the catalog of GroupMe messages is that users are more closely watching blacks than whites,” wrote Murray. This resulted, he said, not only in surveillance of innocent African-Americans but also disproportionate rates of black arrests while white shoplifters likely escaped notice.

This article appears in the Oct. 21 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.


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Council Weighs Eminent Domain for Alley

October 14, 2015

By Mark Lieberman
Current Staff Writer

A bill to seize a Georgetown alley using eminent domain received a favorable response from D.C. Council members at a committee hearing last Thursday.

Residents and city agencies have always treated the paved open space behind homes on N and O streets NW between Potomac and 33rd streets NW as public property, a way to access garages and backyards. But several years ago, the city sold off the area as five lots in a tax auction — evidently in error — and their new owner says he’d like to construct a home there.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans supported the bill during Thursday’s hearing at the council’s Committee of the Whole. Evans also expressed frustration that this matter continues to take up his and the council’s time.

“I’m very annoyed that we’re here at all today,” Evans said. “This is a ridiculous issue.”

Evans said that he wishes eminent domain weren’t necessary but that the property owner wasn’t negotiating in good faith with neighbors or the city. If the bill passes and the city seizes the lot, a judge will determine an amount of money proportional to property owner Kebreab Zere’s loss, according to Evans.

At the hearing, Zere argued that he should be allowed to let the market determine the value of the property, which city records say he purchased for $25,204.67.

“If the neighbors want to buy the lots, they need to pay the fair market value, which I deserve as an investor,” he said. “They shouldn’t try to take advantage of me or waste D.C. taxpayers’ money through unnecessary, time-consuming and expensive eminent domain legislation. I am an honest investor, and I want my rights as a property owner to be respected.”

Zere has at times tried to fence off the alley site — an application was rejected by the Old Georgetown Board design review panel — and to construct a home there. The Historic Preservation Review Board will consider this month whether the properties constitute buildable space. A staff report by city architectural historian Tim Dennée said the land area would allow a row house to be constructed facing Potomac Street NW, but he nonetheless recommended that the board deny the application, calling the scheme “incompatible with the character of the historic district.”

Several community members also spoke at the hearing. Paul Frazer, whose garage opens onto the alley, testified that neighbors weren’t even aware that the alley was threatened until long after Zere had finalized the purchase. Frazer said he has used the alley the entire time he has lived in his home, and the previous property owners used the alley to access their garage for the entirety of their four decades there.

“These tax auction sales have struck at the heart of basic rights enjoyed without question by generations of property owners using this public alley, and threaten the equity that these families have built up over the years,” Frazer said. “The news that key portions have been purchased came as a complete shock to all affected homeowners.”

In addition to daily use by nearby residents — and regular trash collections that take place there — security officers occasionally conduct business in the alley related to Secretary of State John Kerry, who lives nearby, Frazer said.

Zere said none of the nearby residents had made him an offer to buy back the lots, contradicting a claim from Frazer just minutes earlier. Frazer said he and his neighbors offered to pay Zere slightly more than what he paid in order to regain control of the lots, but according to Frazer, Zere denied that request over a year ago. Zere said such an exchange never happened.

Mendelson balked at the idea that Zere thought he could attract anyone to pay more than he did, given that several of the lots appear to have little to no value at all. “I think that the lots are worthless, even the one that still has frontage,” Mendelson said.

The residents’ attorney, Chip Glasgow, testified that the process for converting the tax lots into usable space would require numerous bureaucratic processes, including getting approval to subdivide the lots.

The record will be open for public comment on the issue until 5 p.m. today. Evans said he hopes to resolve the matter swiftly at that point. “I think it is very unreasonable to ask individuals who have been using this alley for years, decades, parking their cars in these garages, to now have to pay money to do that, even if it’s in settlement in a case,” Evans said.

As of yesterday, no further action has been scheduled for the bill, though it will be on the table for markup at a future committee meeting, according to Committee of the Whole director Evan Cash.

This article appears in the Oct. 14 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.


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