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Posted at 11:31 AM ET, 10/19/2010

Peace, love and a teachable moment in Palisades

By Janice L. Kaplan and Michael Allen

The authors and their children with the Peace-Mobile.

By Janice L. Kaplan and Michael Allen

The controversy playing out in our front yard in Northwest Washington — over a parked 1972 Volkswagen microbus painted with peace signs and rainbows, and dubbed the Peace-Mobile — may strike some as frivolous or, as one commenter on an Internet site wrote, “problems rich people have.”

But the debate has generated an important First Amendment discussion of the age-old question “What is art?” and provides an opportunity to talk about the values we grown-ups pass on to our children.

We brought the Peace-Mobile to our Palisades yard at the end of its run as a set piece for a Georgetown Day School theatrical production last spring. All summer, passersby stopped to take photos with their cellphones. But last month, a neighbor complained to the D.C. Department of Public Works (DPW), which now threatens to shut down our display. On Sept. 16, DPW declared the colorful, engineless VW “dangerous.” The agency threatened to remove it by the end of the month and fine us as much as $1,000.

As taxpaying District residents, we believe it is our right to display this iconic work in our yard. The District disagrees, speculating that the vehicle may attract animals. (Note to DPW: So does our vegetable garden and the recycling bin outside our back door.)
We understand that our neighbors do not have the sentimental attachment to the bus that we do. Many of them love the Peace-Mobile for evoking a bygone era. Others view it as an eyesore, may be concerned about their property values or would prefer to see it in another neighborhood.

Because we are mindful of our neighbors’ concerns (not to mention the costs of a legal battle), we know the Peace-Mobile’s days in our yard may be numbered. But we see this as both a teachable moment for our neighbors and our children. As neighbors, we can disagree without being disagreeable. As parents, we can use the Peace-Mobile to teach those in the next generation the value of asking questions, standing up for what they believe in (even when their views may be unpopular) and working with others to resolve issues. Our daughter, for instance, asked whether the neighborhood and the D.C. government would get to weigh in if we decided to paint our house in rainbow colors. This week the issue we are discussing at home is freedom of expression. Next week it may be the environment, homelessness or equal rights.

This particular VW has had many lives already. The title says it was purchased in Arkansas. Georgetown Day School students bought it on eBay. Its next chapter is yet to be written. We’ve considered inviting people to bring their abandoned vehicles to our yard so artists can paint them. They could then be auctioned off and displayed in yards and public spaces around town, like the donkeys and elephants. If someone wants to take up the cause, we’d consider donating a much-loved VW microbus.

By Janice L. Kaplan and Michael Allen  | October 19, 2010; 11:31 AM ET
Categories:  D.C., HotTopic, arts  
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