Washington: a tale of two cities

Two politicians – a former and a would-be mayor – symbolise the momentous changes polarising Washington DC, writes Richard McGregor

A view of the Capitol dome from South Capitol Street on the far side of the Anacostia river, in council member Marion Barry’s 8th Ward

Marion Barry barely lifts his head when I am ushered into his office after an hour-long wait. The attention of the 77-year-old former mayor of Washington DC is elsewhere, on piles of photocopied newspaper articles about his career, spread out on a long table in front of him like an architect’s master plan. He cocks an eyebrow when asked what he is doing. “Off the record?” he replies, an admonition that ricochets around the room as it is repeated by one adviser after another. The imposing “Mayor for Life”, as his supporters call him, hushes his surroundings, and then relents. “I am writing my autobiography,” he says.

Once, Barry’s biography seemed to parallel the city’s, from the champion of civil rights triumphantly elected as mayor in 1978, to the tawdry downward spiral that culminated in his arrest in 1990, in an FBI sting, for taking crack cocaine. Long gone from top office, he still commands his ward’s seat on the council. His office lies east of imperial Washington, a short drive across the Anacostia river that erases all traces of the capital’s grandeur and power. Constituents come and go in the waiting room, where there is a bowl filled with condoms, rather than sweets – a testament to the city’s HIV/Aids problem.

For all the talk of US decline, Washington remains the pre-eminent global power centre, with scores of million-dollar businesses devoted to infiltrating the White House and Congress and influencing their decisions. Barry’s enduring presence, however, is a reminder of something else, that the capital and the vast wealth it spawns still coexists with the smouldering remnants of segregation, prejudice and poverty.

Washington has always had a distinct black culture and institutions, and black leadership since Congress granted the city limited self-rule in 1973. In the wake of the riots sparked by Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, when parts of the city burnt for three days, many wealthier whites, and some middle-class blacks, fled to the leafy suburbs in adjacent Maryland and Virginia. Apart from the affluent northwest corner, the diamond-shaped capital was largely black, and often poor. Under Barry’s rule, “Chocolate City” – the nickname immortalised in a hit by 1970s funk band Parliament – earned a reputation for drugs and crime. Awash in crack cocaine, Washington, with a population of around 600,000, became America’s murder capital. In 1990, it had nearly as many murders as the whole of the UK – most of them the result of internecine drug wars among largely black gangs.

Marion Barry, mayor of Washington 1979-91 and 1995-99

These days, the chocolate city is melting. African-Americans made up about 70 per cent of the population in the 1970s; by 2011, after two decades of young white professionals moving in, the black share of the population dropped to under half. “It really has been an astounding flip from black gains and white flight in the 1960s, to a substantial white-dominated gentrification in the last decade,” says William Frey, a demographer from the Brookings Institution, a think-tank in the capital.

Washington is bucking the national trend at a time when minorities are growing rapidly in nearly every state in the country. The city has got richer too, while the national economy has been battered by the financial crisis. By one measure, seven of the wealthiest counties in the US are part of the greater DC metropolitan area, vast suburbs in Virginia and Maryland filled with sprawling mansions and long white picket fences that scream, in the words of writer Thomas Frank, “horse country”.

“Washington has become wealthier, whiter and whinier,” says Tom Sherwood, the author of Dream City, a history of the first decades under home rule. The war on terror and the explosion in Pentagon spending has helped. Federal spending on procurement has tripled since 1990, to a peak of $550.8bn in 2009, although it has diminished slightly since, as the US retreats from Iraq and Afghanistan. Greater Washington’s share of that money over the same period has more than doubled, from just under 7 to about 15 per cent. “Our share of the pie has gone up like nowhere else in the country,” said Stephen Fuller, a professor at George Mason University in Virginia, who compiled the figures.

The district’s peculiar subway advertisements provide a window into its robust economic microclimate. In March, Raytheon, a defence contractor, took over an entire underground station to advertise the “Zumwalt-class destroyer” with the company’s missile, anti-submarine and satellite communication systems. The most expensive stations at which to buy advertising are the two with the most influential commuters – Capitol South, used by congressional workers, and the Pentagon.

Tommy Wells, who could become the first white mayor of Washington

The sweeping demographic (read racial) changes are one reason why many think that Tommy Wells might be elected the city’s next mayor in 2014. Even before the election, the 56-year-old council representative is tiring of the queries his victory would bring, as Washington’s first-ever white mayor. “I will get that question a lot,” he says, in an interview in his office on Pennsylvania Avenue, a stone’s throw from the White House, in the building that houses city council members.

Tall, fair-skinned and ruddy, Wells is no yuppie newcomer to Washington. He spent formative work years as a child protection officer at the height of the crack epidemic, when foster families stopped taking in abandoned children because of fear of Aids. “In DC, I would not be in office but for African-American voters,” he says. “I ran for school board in a district that was 30 per cent white, and I was elected twice. I don’t want to say we are ever beyond that, but that it’s no longer the first lens that is looked through.”

Wells’s own ward, around Capitol Hill, mirrors the changes. The area was once a perennial prop for stories about crime and drugs, as drive-by journalists invariably noted such horrors were occurring “just blocks from Congress”, or “five minutes from the White House”, to emphasise the degradation of the modern-day Rome. What locals call “gentrification” – a euphemism for wealthier whites driving out poorer blacks – has gradually taken the area behind the Capitol staunchly upmarket.

Wells acknowledges that the rising cost of housing causes “anger and frustration” but suggests some of the claims are exaggerated. “The black flight happened well before the city became attractive again,” he says. “That happened during the time of crack, when we were the murder capital of the world, and when the school system was in the toilet. Anybody that could move to neighbouring counties did.”

The city in the aftermath of the 1968 riots

Few areas have changed as much as nearby H Street, which heads east from Union Station, near the Capitol. Tracts of burnt-out land remained abandoned for decades after the 1968 riots and H Street became notorious for prostitution and heroin, until a makeover in the last few years. Now the street is dotted with establishments selling the accoutrements of the global village – Irish ales, Belgian mussels, Asian noodles and Lebanese falafels, plus multiple hipster bars. Wells defends the changes. “When I was in Anacostia the other night, the discussion wasn’t so much about ‘gentrification’,” he says, “but about how do we get those businesses in our neighbourhood as well.”

Veterans of H Street – such as Martha Akers, who runs a fancy thrift store called The Majestic, selling clothes, hats and so on – are not so sure. She has raw memories of the old days, when she kept “two ugly dogs” for protection. “People would tell you that they were going to sell drugs, whether you liked it or not,” she says. “You were putting your life on the line to run against them. Who wants to live in a neighbourhood where you can go out and get shot?”

Ms Akers, who has thick braided hair and a cautious manner with this random visitor, says “race doesn’t matter” but complains about the people with a “high level of academics” who are taking over the street. “They collaborate with others to oppress individuals, or to keep them in deprivation. That’s a better word,” she says. “Even community meetings – they post them on the internet, so only people fluent in the internet can see it.”

Marion Barry is not so sure the political landscape has changed either. “It’s going to be difficult for Tommy. I have told him that,” he says. Dressed in a banker’s suit, all pinstripes and wide lapels, and now warming to the topic, Mr Barry says people “pretty much” vote along racial lines in Washington. “White people have a slightly different culture. A lot of the black culture has been lost.” His re-election to the council after his controversial trial and short jail term is a case in point. “After the trial,” he notes, “I still got 50,000 votes.”

Marion Barry campaigning in 1978

The last mayor, Adrian Fenty, probably agrees the old ways still work for local politicians. Born in Washington to an Italian-American mother and a black father, Fenty lost the Democratic primary (which counts as the election) in 2010 and was turfed out the next year after only a single term. Some blamed his political tin ear, but he also suffered by not greasing the wheels of the old political machine.

“He didn’t appoint people to boards and commissions the way people wanted him to do, and because he didn’t, he suffered,” said his schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, whose own education policies were a lightning rod for criticism. “The narrative about Fenty and me was that we cared more about the white people than the black people; that he was creating dog paths and bike lanes and gentrifying areas, instead of working for the black poor folks. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but it resonated and it stuck.”

The man who beat Fenty to become the new mayor, Vincent Gray, has endured numerous old-fashioned machine-politics scandals since his 2011 election. A number of campaign aides have pleaded guilty to corruption and are in jail, including his campaign finance manager. One candidate said Gray paid him to stay in the race just to undermine Fenty.

A glance at how the city’s African-American community has changed in the last two decades suggests Gray could represent the last gasp of the ancien régime. As well as its established black middle class, Washington has what might be called a black ruling class. Eugene Robinson, a columnist for the Washington Post, recalled attending a function at the start of Barack Obama’s first term, “an only-in-Washington” affair at a stately mansion, with Secret Service SUVs purring outside (a social marker in the capital). The A-list in attendance included CEOs, investment bankers, high-powered lawyers, members of the new administration and TV pundits. The one thing that made the event stand out,” he said in his book Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America, “was that all the luminaries were black.”

Robinson says there is good reason why elected African-American officials spend a lot of time talking about purely “symbolic” issues. Such are the income disparities within the community, “symbolism, history and old-fashioned racism are about the only things they can be sure their African-American constituents still have in common”.

Getting ready for Marion Barry’s annual State of the Ward address in Matthews Memorial Baptist Church, on Martin Luther King Jr Avenue

The most inspiring symbol of racial equality is, of course, Obama, comfortably re-elected to a second term in the White House. Lionel Edmonds, the pastor of Mount Lebanon Baptist Church, says the President retains this symbolic power for African-Americans, but he reckons it hasn’t changed much for his parishioners. I went to see Edmonds a few days after a drive-by shooting near his church, blocks from the city’s emerging new business hub, financed by the Qatar Investment Fund. Edmonds’s church, 113 years old, has had only four pastors in its lifetime. The present incumbent wears a Coptic Christian ornamental chain around his neck, with the baroque curves of street jewellery.

The shooting – of 13 mainly young people outside Tyler House, a public housing block, late one evening in March – attracted attention partly because such incidents are rare now. In 2012, the city had its lowest number of homicides in more than 50 years. Tommy Wells was quickly on the scene in the days after to pledge to shut down nearby nightclubs (named “Fur” and “Ibiza”) which were “incompatible” with an up-and-coming neighbourhood. It was “almost Chicago gunland-style. That is just not who we are as a city any more,” he said. Later, he walked back his statements about closing the clubs.

Sitting on a pew in his church, Edmonds says the shooting got attention because of the new, richer residents in modern apartment blocks nearby. “They don’t want to look out the windows of their new condos and see blood on the footpath,” he said. “They didn’t even hear the shooting. They slept through it. That’s the problem. For them these folks who live in Tyler House do not exist.”

He doesn’t see much of Washington’s growing affluence in his parish, even as its trappings bear down on the area. There are four gyms in the surrounding streets, but none marketed to the long-term residents. “You got one fitness centre which teaches people for stunts in the movies, and two blocks away you got real shootings going on,” he says. Every week, his prayer box is stuffed full of requests for help to pay the bills. “You don’t have the brazen violence that was connected to the crack cocaine drug epidemic,” he says. “Then you had quick death. Now you have slow death.”

The Peregrine Espresso bar in Union Market, in the once-notorious and now rapidly gentrifying area around the city’s rail terminus, Union Station

A fortnight or so later, Marion Barry holds his signature event of the year, his “State of the Ward” address, at a high-ceilinged modern church on Martin Luther King Jr Avenue in Anacostia. With a population about 98 per cent African-American, the ward has hardly felt the city’s transformation. Poverty and unemployment rates are about double the rest of the city, and average annual income about a third. (The comparison would be even worse if the wealthy suburbs in Virginia and Maryland were included.) “Once you get – excuse the expression – whites in here, we can’t afford the rent anymore,” says Wayne Jackson, 57, who has come to see the “Mayor for Life”. “They push black people out to the suburbs and make them somebody else’s problems. We like a closeness of community.”

Ashanti West is 18, although he looks 10 years older, and has no memory of Barry’s turbulent drug-taking days. He only knows Barry for his help finding him a job-training programme after getting into trouble for “missing school and then stealing cars and stuff”. He calls Barry “a good dude”.

The event starts late, and Barry doesn’t come on until about 9.30pm, after speeches from successful local students, his son, a rousing pulpit address from the pastor (“He has risked his entire life!”) and songs from a rock gospel band. Vincent Gray, the mayor, comes to speak and offer support. When Barry takes the stage, he is tired and cuts his speech in half. Less than a week later, he is admitted to hospital for a few days after falling ill.

The event mixes soaring optimism with grounded pessimism about the community’s prospects. But not everybody strikes the same tone. Outside, before the event starts, Mike Jones, who hosts a local radio show, starts talking up the Anacostia real estate market, which has some of the cheapest housing in an otherwise inflated district. It’s the first time I feel transported back to the other side of the river, to the Washington where tracking ever-rising property prices has become the obsession that it was across the country before the crash.

“Let’s be frank. Some black communities don’t take care of properties like they should,” he says. But his eyes are twinkling at his own prospects. “We bought it in January, and it has already increased,” he says, adding with the confidence of someone who is on the up and up: “My house is going to double in value.”

Richard McGregor is the FT’s Washington bureau chief.

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