The silenced city

Sam Smith, 1997 – In June the soft stillness of southern summer returns to Washington. In the everything-controlled environment of the newer city it’s easy to ignore but along the one-syllable, two-syllable, three-syllable blocks of older Washington you can’t miss it: the leafy canopy, the human tableaux on porches and stoops, and the sounds — a siren, a cry, a song — all the more startling because of the broken quiet. It is during these slow, pregnant green days that Washington becomes most true to itself, and a sweet place still. This year, however, summer’s sultry seduction seems almost illicit. Maybe that’s why it arrived so hesitantly. Seasons are for places, and DC, we are told by those with the power to tell us, is no longer a place but a problem. The quiet trees, the moist heat, and their spawned reveries lure us away from the real business, which is to reform, reorganize and perhaps even replace ourselves.

The assumption is that by moving around enough bodies, buildings, and budgets, the city will somehow revive.

The faith is that the arbitrary choices of a few men of power and rank can successfully substitute for the consent, cooperation, enthusiasm and affection of a whole people. The argument is that a city can be refashioned using little more than good accounting principles.

The people of the shaded streets know this isn’t true, but then they see the city through the lens of place rather than of power. And what they see doesn’t matter that much any more. As power has consolidated, place has disintegrated.

It is not just that something terrible has happened; it’s also that we’re not meant to notice or, if we do, not to say anything about it. It’s as if the normal business of revitalization always included abrogating democracy, tearing down schools, slashing health clinics, disassembling our one public university, hauling citizens off in handcuffs for forgetting to renew their licenses; and sending our wayward young to privatized gulags hundreds of miles from family and community. The one comfort of the silenced city is knowing you are not alone. When we meet we hug more, in the manner of those who have lost someone shared deeply.

And we talk more. An African-American accountant working out at my health club says quietly, “They want us out of the city, but I’m not going.” A street vendor and I talk of the city’s troubles for a while and then I ask, “Why do you bother to stay?” And he sits me down on a low wall of the bitterly named Freedom Plaza, pulls out his wallet and shows me photos of his kids: “This has been a wonderful city to me. I’m staying here for them.”

On Tuesdays I go to a meeting of a task force on the police and justice. The task force has the usual suspects — someone from the NAACP, the ACLU, the Gay and Lesbian Activist Alliance — but, surprisingly, there are also several retired top police officials and they are no less troubled by what is happening than the others.

We meet in a large hall above the offices of the NAACP on U Street. Except for the addition of a few plaques nothing much has changed in that hall for decades. We only need two tables pushed together so there is plenty of room for the ghosts of those who once sat around such tables asking the same questions, seeking the same solutions, striving for some way for decency to get a foothold. Basic legal strategies for the civil rights movement were planned along this street.

Did perhaps Thurgood Marshall or Clarence Mitchell once sit at one end of this hall and also wonder what to do next? Eventually such leaders would destroy the illusory doctrine of separate but equal. What would they advise us decades later in a city where the separate is not only still unequal but being eliminated? If the past is faithful, what has happened will be with us for a long time. This city suffered the twin indignities of segregation and disenfranchisement for nearly a century. To those us who came in at the end of the struggle, in my case catching only the last decade or so, the prospect of recreating both the expectation of justice and the means of achieving it is daunting beyond belief. Yet there is no other choice — except to leave.

I would much rather live among free people. I would much rather live in a town where the police treated its citizens with tolerance and respect rather than with zero tolerance and disrespect. I would prefer not to live in a place where plenary powers are given those who mistake arrogance for leadership and certitude for wisdom. I would be happier in a town that shared with Jane Jacobs the notion that “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” I would much rather not retrace long faltering steps that were more easily taken when I still believed progress moved in only one direction.

Every day about 20 more people move out of town than move in. They leave because of opportunity, a better dream, eviction, anger, or the end of endless patience. Yet many more stay and in their willingness to remain a while longer lies Washington’s future. It will not be found among the city’s princes in their downtown everything-controlled offices trying to figure out why things didn’t work out like they did on paper.

It will be found instead along shaded streets where people understand that community does not have a bottom line; there is no balance sheet for friendship; shared history does not depreciate in value, and a decent, humane culture is not for sale. It will be found in the courage of those who, though still unheard, preserve in small places the true values, hopes and ecology of DC as they begin one more Washington summer without justice.

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