Tale of two cities

Sam Smith, 2002 – Forty five years ago this summer, at age 19, I arrived in Washington to begin working as a radio news reporter. I would return to college in the fall with the promise of a fulltime job upon graduation. I had no trouble accepting the offer.

Washington had been my home until I was ten and from the moment I came back it seemed to be home again. But a home that had changed.

A Republican was in the White House instead of the Democrat for whom my father had worked. Three years earlier my public elementary school – along with all the other public schools in the city – had been desegregated. The horse drawn vendors crying their wares outside the window were gone although the most recent census had still found Georgetown with 226 of its 1,663 occupied dwellings without a private bath and 135 without running water. We had lived on the same street as some of these dwellings, even though ours was a newly constructed modern house and my father was a middle level government official. The schools were integrated now but few white middle level government officials would live on the same street as their black postman anymore. Segregation would henceforth be measured in miles rather than in blocks.

The streetcars were no longer ancient double-enders but mostly streamlined cars, even including one that had been air-conditioned. Air conditioning was taking hold elsewhere as well. In the streetcars, attached to advertising cards announcing government clerical jobs, were postage-paid postcard applications. Black Washingtonians were taking the cards and mailing them to friends and relatives further south, which is one reason that between 1940 and 1970, the city’s black population doubled while the white population declined by more than half.

It was then, as it had always been, a better place for African-Americans than the rest of the south. Still, in DC segregation had only been a custom and not a law, and not even the Supreme Court could ban custom, and so DC remained in many ways – noted and unnoted – a segregated city. In many ways it still is.

Yet if the curse of the south survived, so did the blessings. You found it in the human pace, the civility, and in the soft stillness of summer. Along the one-syllable, two-syllable, three-syllable blocks of older Washington you couldn’t miss it: the leafy canopy, the tableaux on porches and stoops, and the sounds — a siren, a cry, a song — all the more startling because of the broken quiet. It was during these slow, pregnant green days that Washington became most true to itself.

It was a place that white outsiders tended to dismiss. New Yorkers complained of the lack of bagels and good restaurants. Until air conditioning, the British embassy declared Washington a tropical hardship post and allowed its staff to wear Bermuda shorts. John F. Kennedy said it was a city of southern efficiency and northern charm and those from other places laughed with him.

But it had quite a different meaning to newcomers from further south. With the help of federal employment and white flight, DC became a deep well of opportunity. The new residents weren’t always welcomed, even by a long established black community that shared some of the biases of the white city and sometimes referred to the newcomers as “‘Bamas,” – too black, too uneducated, and too poor. As late as the 1980s, a newly named, dark-skinned head of Howard University walked into the hall where all his predecessors’ portraits hung. “I realized then,” he said later, “that I was Howard’s first black president.”

Kenneth Carroll, who grew up in public housing, described the contrasting views in the Washington Post:

“You will not refer to the nation’s capital as D.C. in my classroom,” screamed Mrs. Hillman to the 25 brown faces populating her third-grade class at the Lucy D. Stowe Elementary School in Northeast. Had I not been 8 years old and a coward, I would have told Mrs. Hillman that for us, Washington and D.C. were entities separate and apart. Washington was the White House, monuments, slick museums, ornate embassies; it was where our parents worked. D.C. was neighborhoods, playgrounds, stores, churches and relatives. It was where we lived.”

By the mid 1960s, the second city was coming into its own. The spirit of black power, the confluence of the civil rights, peace, and self-government movements, new musical energy, and an extraordinarily vibrant art scene made it clear where the real city was.

For about fifteen years, DC thrived – refusing to be the silent, stolid servant of the nation and demanding its own time and ground. Although no one admitted it publicly, the riots around the country helped, and in the six years following DC’s own insurrection, the capital colony was given an elected school board, a non-voting delegate in the House, and an elected mayor and city council, albeit of limited power.

For young whites, it rivaled Berkeley and Madison. For women it was as good a town as you could find. For blacks there was the spirit proclaimed in the mid-1970s by Parliament-Funkadelic founder George Clinton:

We didn’t get our forty acres and a mule,
But we did get you, CC . . .
A Chocolate City is no dream,
It’s my piece of the rock and I love you CC.

Carroll described Chocolate City as “cultural muscularity flexing itself.” Part of that, of course, was Marion Barry. But Barry, along with many other African-American politicians, assumed that black power had tenure. He forgot how many were just waiting for the stumble. Barry would desert the progressive politics he once led and become an easy – and easily exaggerated – target for those who had never liked black power in the first place and were discovering that cities were too valuable to waste on the ghetto. You didn’t have to sound prejudiced anymore, all you had to say was “Barry” and white people knew just what you were talking about. He became gentrification’s excuse.

As early as 1981, I sensed the change and wrote a piece for the Washington Post that began:

Could you stop the renaissance of Washington a minute? I want to get off. I have to run down to People’s and restock my inventory of Rolaids before reading one more article about how the city is being reborn, revived, and revitalized. This city – the Paris of prevarication, the London of dissemblance, the Florence of deceit – has outdone itself: It is telling itself and the world that it is getting better.

Without a doubt, there is a new Washington, but it does not follow, as The Washingtonian suggested recently, that the city is “coming of age.” And there certainly is no renaissance – for that you need ideas . . . The much touted physical changes of the city have produced little other than rampant displacement, creeping homogeneity and an overabundance of automatic teller machines. Washington’s “greater sophistication” is virtually indistinguishable from rampant cynicism and mindless profligacy, and its autoerotic fascination with power for its own sake threatens to prove that masturbation does cause insanity.

The real story of the new Washington is that the told story is a lie. Strip away the icons of progress – Metro, the East Wing, the Kennedy Center, Neiman-Marcus and Pisces – and you will find a new Washington that is not vibrant; it merely vibrates. A Washington that is not more sophisticated because it comprehends and considers less. A Washington whose interest in culture is marked more by acquisition than by appreciation. And a Washington whose power is, in truth, declining because it has lost the key component of respect. . . . The new city is [one] of real estate dealers rather than merchants, the city where you damn well better not leave home without. It is the clone of Gotham, sire of scandal so tawdry that it has discredited political corruption, the city in which a day’s work can consist of a memorandum revised, a two-hour quiche lorraine and martini lunch and four phone calls to say you’re all tied up.

Nonetheless the city was, by its leaders’ accounts, on a roll. Nobody noticed that as DC spent hundreds of millions on economic development, families moved out of town in huge numbers, jobs for local residents declined, and sales tax revenue barely kept up with inflation. And nobody noticed that the vaunted subway had, in fact, made it easier for residents, businesses, and tourists to leave the city yet use it when desired on a virtually tax-free basis.

In the 1990s, with Barry turning the city into a late night TV joke, deficits climbing, and whites realizing they shouldn’t have tossed away their cities, DC once again became a target. Weak places are often the first to be dislocated by history’s change of course and DC – the local colony, not the federal capital – was one of the weakest places in the country. The federal government reseized power, increased control over the justice system, cut back on self government, and let services to lower income residents deteriorate or disappear. By the mid 1990s the socio-economic cleansing of DC was well underway. In 1997 I wrote:

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.”. . .

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 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 had 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.

Kenneth Carroll, writing in 1998, noted that “today, the most common question for successful black Washingtonians is, ‘Why are you still in D.C.?'” It is a question I often ask as well as I move through a city that has lost competence, conscience, and charm. It is now a place corrupt and contented. Its scribes tend to be sycophants or stenographers. Its local officials act like bureaucrats in the India of the British Raj. Artists can’t afford to live here. And there are 120,000 fewer children than 30 years ago, and with them have gone their laughter, imagination, and hope.

I am most days an exile in my native town, living in a place whose values I don’t like, whose symbols are jarring, whose language is neither colorful nor convincing, whose obsession with security just creates new fears, and whose ambience often has all the soul, substance, and permanence of a downtown hotel lobby.

I find myself, forty-five years later, more of a pariah than when I started. I’ve covered more administrations than Helen Thomas – but from the street rather than from the West Wing. I believe journalists should identify with their readers more than sources and I believe news should be new and so I write new things. Some people take it personally, as though I rebelled simply to annoy them. They make little jokes about the fact that I’m different, as if I had a moral obligation to be like them. When they see someone like me coming, they close the doors of their institutions, their imaginations, and their hearts. We, after all, are thieves who may abscond with their most precious possession: the tranquility of unexamined certainty.

But that’s all right because the best period for a revolution of the good is when one is young. To be twenty or thirty and part of an uprising of the collective soul is a rare gift of life. It does spoil you, though, for you go through the rest of your time wondering why that moment went away and why nothing seems able to bring it back. What was unexpected, both in timing and intensity, was that I would not only live through one of America’s great revivals but during a subsequent era when my country — without debate, consideration, or struggle — decided it didn’t really want to be America any more . . .

And then I stumble into a friend from the silenced city, or I wander into an Irish bar in Brookland where most of the customers are black and a Gene McCarthy poster is on the wall, or I drive through the green canyon of Rock Creek Park, and I am reminded that DC’s heart is still there, even though splintered by numerous alien settlements, a sort of Palestine of the soul. I also remind myself that those determined to rid America of the values that served it well for two centuries had only used DC for research and development. Now they have a whole country to play with. Now there is no escape.

I sometimes think of the DJ who called himself ‘Bama and said that “90% of the people in DC spend 90% of their time bragging about how great they are. But you can’t brag and move at the same time, so while they’re standing there bragging, you just slip right on by.”

And I sometimes think of what Willy Brandt said when asked why he hadn’t stayed in Norway, to which he had escaped during World War II. It is more important, he said, to be a democrat in Germany than in Norway.

It is really important to be a democrat in Washington these days. And besides, if I can help it, I don’t want the story to end like this

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