Mini-Stories: Volume 8

Bad Neighbors by Katie Mingle

Irene and Alan Wurtzel live an area in Washington DC called Kalorama. For socioeconomic context, it’s the same neighborhood that Jeff Bezos lives in, and through the years a bunch of presidents have lived there, including, currently, the Obamas. It’s basically the Beverly Hills of D.C. This neighborhood sees its fair share of motorcades, but every neighborhood, no matter how fancy, can have neighbors that are kind of…problematic.

Irene and Alan currently live next door to a problematic neighbor. Their neighbor’s house was built in the early 1900s with good lines and nice windows, but no one has lived there since the Wurtzels moved in in the early ‘90s. It’s a 10,000 square foot mansion that’s connected to the Wurtzel’s home in a line of row houses. But unlike most of the houses on the block, this particular house has been unmaintained for years. The facade is decaying with bricks falling off, and debris from the house occasionally drops onto the Wurtzels’ patio. Over the years, there have also been pigeons roosting inside the building, and problems with rats. But no one can do anything about it.

Buildings located on Embassy Row. Photo by APK  (CC BY SA 3.0)

The home is owned by the government of Argentina, even though it was never an official embassy. D.C. has around 530 diplomatic properties and although they’re not all in such bad condition, several of them are in pretty rough shape, and abandoned diplomatic properties are a common enough phenomenon that there are various videos on YouTube of people exploring them.


It’s very complicated and difficult to get anyone to do anything about these buildings. They aren’t actually considered to be “foreign soil”— if someone were to commit murder in the Wurtzel’s neighbor’s house, for example, they’d still be tried in the American criminal justice system. But these properties do enjoy certain kinds of privileges. They don’t have to pay property taxes for example, and cannot be searched by the police. They also don’t have to build according to local building codes, though they are encouraged to do so.  A city council member was quoted in the New York Post saying, “If I have a vacant house that’s becoming a problem, I can call in the cops, clean it up, throw a fence around it and if necessary seize it for unpaid taxes… I have a lot of tools in my toolbox. But I don’t have those tools available to me if it’s a diplomatic property.”

One thing that makes these properties interesting, (and possibly harder to actually deal with) is how different they all are. Some carry the baggage of entire countries in political upheaval. For example, in 2006, the former Yugoslavia’s diplomatic properties were divided among the six succeeding countries.  One of these properties sat vacant and derelict much like the Wurtzel’s neighbors, but doing anything about it proved difficult. Although the house was turned over to Bosnia, the deed was never transferred, and in 2008 someone at the Bosnian embassy was quoted saying that they didn’t even know who had the key.  The house was finally sold in 2015 for $650,000 after sitting vacant for three decades.

In response to neighbors complaining about diplomatic properties, the State Department issued a reply essentially saying there was very little they could do—their hands were tied because of rules protecting diplomatic properties established in the Vienna Convention of 1961. Their only recourse is to remove diplomatic status from these properties so that they are subject to the same kinds of property taxes as everyone else, which might encourage the governments to sell their derelict buildings, but this is a last resort and not one that the State Department is eager to use.

Via the Library of Congress.

Special thanks to Abby Maden for research help on this and to Jenna Portnoy who wrote the article in the Washington Post where we first heard about this strange DC problem.

  1. Susan Nace

    RE: Concert Pitch by Sean Real

    RE: Concert Pitch now
    Orchestra directors are still playing with concert pitch. Not certain, but I heard San Francisco is A=441, many are at 442, and Von Karajan pushed his orchestras as high A=452.

    RE: Temperament – A great area to explore
    Great book about temperaments, which is even more fascinating than tuning pitches, is Temperament by Stuart Isacoff. There were huge arguments over it and J.S. Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” was a theoretical work (although it is a series of 48 Preludes and Fugues in every key) because equal temperament was a controversial idea in Bach’s day. There are several different temperament systems and several are used now. Choirs and Instruments use either just or a combination of just and Pythagorean tuning. Ragnar Bohlin with the SF Symphony Chorus is all about tunings and his choirs (generally toward the end of the season) show it!

    Finally, glad you posted Vivaldi in A=415 Youtube
    Historically Informed Performance (HIP) has been around for a long time in the 20th/21st centuries and Early Music musicians are all over the tuning, techniques, and using instruments of the period (or facsimilies) Andrew Parrott’s groups do original tuning. I had the opportunity of hearing Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” with period instruments and lowered tuning. I am not a Mozart afficionado, but with period instruments and lowered tuning ,I fell in love with Mozart. It was a completely different experience! The San Francisco Early Music Society can link you up with performers and scholars!

    Cheers! Keep exploring: Music has a lot of “invisibleness” by design!

  2. On the Dutch bond value: A Dutch guilder (‘Gulden’ in Dutch) is valued in 100 ‘cent’. And a ‘stuiver’ is simply 5 cent! In the report is was mentioned that a guilder is „20 stuivers“, 20 times 5 cent equals 100 cent, which gives one guilder.
    This has been the case until the introduction of the Euro also in Holland.

    1. Stephane Famelaer

      So 1 stuiver was almost the same as one Belgian Frank. Interesting 🤔 never knew this!

  3. Charles Wu

    The concert pitch story is totally missing any mention of the Historically Informed Performance (HIP) movement in classical music which aims to play classical music as the original composers had heard it, on historically-accurate instruments and using historical tuning (usually around A=415). Even a layperson can hear the differences in tuning and style:

    Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony played by the Orchestra of the 18th Century under Frans Bruggen on period instruments and tuning:

    The same piece played by the Vienna Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein on modern instruments and tuning:

    There are at least a dozen world-class period orchestras who specialize in historical performance (see, the best-known of which are the Academy of Ancient Music, Concentus Musicus Wien, the English Concert, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and the Orchestra of the 18th Century.

    There’s also a number of soloists who similarly play on period equipment (Rachel Podger and Andrew Manze are the most famous violinists). For piano pieces, Robert Levin has recorded most of Mozart’s best known piano concertos on period-accurate fortepiano instruments. This just scratches the surface, and would make a great 99PI story.

    So you don’t need computer modification to hear period-accurate tuning, you just need to fire up Youtube or Spotify and listen to some great musicians who are keeping old music alive today.

  4. Tim Harris

    Not precisely bearer bonds but, to this day, the design of English bank notes includes a printed promise from the Bank, such as “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of ten pounds”. I have always been curious what the Bank of England would give me if I arrive and ask them to make good on this.

  5. Sheryl

    On concert pitch, being obsessed with Bach at one point I was well aware of baroque music ensembles that tune their instruments to the appropriate historical tuning. I also was looking this up and found that contemporary musicians like Jimi Hendrix and U2 tune down a semitone for greater resonance. When I tune my violin by ear I always end up about a semitone flat from A440. I wonder if that is a somewhat “unnatural” tuning to my ear?
    Something else to explore: Temper. Around Bach’s time there were many ways to tune a piano/ klavier. Not just in terms of the central pitch but how far each tone is space from the others. Perfectly “even” temper (equal spacing of tones) ends up sounding out of tune to our ears. So thus Bach’s “well tempered Clavier”. I’m far from an expert, but I think there is a whole show’s worth of stuff to explore w/r/t tuning and pitch!

  6. Jim Crigler

    Parts of Richard Feynman’s memoir, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” talk about life at Los Alamos during the war.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Minimize Maximize