For nearly one and three-quarter centuries, the city of Washington had served as house-servant to the national government, garbed in gaudy livery that veiled its menial status. Washington did not participate in the Union, it waited on it. It staged a pageant of democracy without sharing in that which was being portrayed.
To most of the eighteen million tourists visiting Washington every year, the arrangement was more than satisfactory. To stand, even for a moment, where the most powerful had stood was worth the wait. To visit the other side of the television screen and see the stage sets of the evening news was enthralling.
And if the aura of the awesome and the trip into the media’s eye was not enough, the physical city loomed over every block the tourist was likely to see, proclaiming in cold, intimidating marble that this was the Capital of the Free World. The tourist, who was not likely to meet a president during a lifetime, could arise early to stand long in line and be hustled through White House rooms where presidents had stood, perhaps as recently as last evening. Squads of high school students on spring tours could step out of buses at the foot of Capitol Hill and march respectfully up for a glance — no talking, reading, or leaning on the rail in the gallery, please — of the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” impressive even if you couldn’t hear what those two senators are saying to each other and there were only three others on the floor and you didn’t recognize any of them anyway.
Then there was the majesty of the Supreme Court, the mystery of the FBI, the strength and grace of Abraham Lincoln, and the Smithsonian’s mementos of our history and technology. And for those too jaded, a pair of giant pandas had been installed at the National Zoo.
What lay beyond, the community that supported this pageant, was considered a strange and fearful place inhabited by muggers and rapists. The tourists heeded the advice of room clerks, cab drivers, and tour guides not to stray far from the Mall or their hotels.
For the temporary residents who floated in and out of Washington with the tides of national administrations, the arrangement was at least adequate and sometimes exhilarating. From the first diplomatic reception attended by the new Assistant Undersecretary, from the first Georgetown cocktail sipped by the neophyte Hill receptionist, from the first confidential file touched by the newly arrived FBI clerk, Washington raised the curtain on heady experience. To those passing through, Washington was not so much a city as an event. It was democracy’s Disneyland, where senators, rather than Pluto and Donald Duck, popped out at you in unlikely corners. Charlie McDowell, who liked to gaze out of his National Press Building office window, recalled; “Once I perceived John Connally of Texas, Jacob Javits of New York, Sonny Jurgenson of Washington, David Brinkley of NBC, and a red-bearded man from somewhere wearing a sandwich board that said, ‘The man with the plan: Jesus in ’72,’ all within the space of a couple of hours, each alone, each on some mission of his own among ordinary mortals in the street.”
Charlie was part of Washington’s scene himself, He was first assigned to cover the capital for the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1965 after publisher D. Tennant Bryan reluctantly agreed to the idea, which was being pushed by managing editor John Leard. Bryan allegedly noted that the paper had withdrawn its Washington correspondent at the time of the Civil War and that probably enough time had passed to send one back.
After all, Washington was also a period — the Civil War, the New Frontier, the Nixon Era — rather than just a place. It was who you knew rather than where you were. It was not a community to discover but a stage on which to act. And if you were important it was not where you were from. As Russell Baker of the New York Times once noted, John F. Kennedy spent most of his adult life in Washington but remained “from Boston.” Lyndon Johnson lived thirty-five years in DC but was “from Texas.”
Yet to those who called Washington home, those who stayed when others left, the bulk of the 750,000 residents of the capital, the functions assigned the city were at best barren and at worst the source of bitterness that only habit conceal. To the Washingtonian, the oft-made declaration that “Washington belongs to all the people of the nation” had the sound of a sponging cousin asserting that your house belonged to all the family.
Acres of trees had fallen to construct paper monuments to Washington’s marble ones. Still more had been turned to descriptions of Washington’s national political life. But the nature of the capital as a place — a community — remained hidden from view; and what was seen was often misunderstood, leading visitors to appreciate the city less than they might have and residents to endure more suffering than they should have.
Washingtonians suffered because, while they lived in the capital, they also lived in a colony. The District at the end of the 60s had nearly sixty times its 1800 population. It was larger than were any of the thirteen original states at the time of their union. It was larger than ten present-day states and had more people than twenty independent nations of the world that voted equally with the United States in the UN General Assembly. Yet the District’s every act, from dog licensing to levying taxes, required the implicit or explicit consent of non-Washingtonians in Congress and the White House. DC acted only by the grace of the crown.
Nowhere was the price of this arrangement clearer than in the details of the physical city. There were six major animal species in Washington: dogs, birds, cockroaches, termites, rats, and human beings. Of these only the last was endangered. Dogs ran wild in packs in some parts of town; starlings and pigeons resisted the most technologically advanced techniques of eradication; roaches and termites thrived despite extermination service contracts; and the rat responded to the best efforts of the Department of Environmental Services by producing a mutant strain resistant to all known poisons. But the human was in trouble. One reason was that the ecology of the urban human was so little understood. We now comprehend the hazards of blithely pouring DDT over crops, slashing through tree lands, or fouling the air. But we still acted as though we could, without penalty, wipe out neighborhoods, force mass migrations, rip out favorite meeting places for people, or tear down centers of communications, culture, and commerce that are as important to a community as a marsh is to a flyway. Those human marshes we call cities were in danger throughout America, but politically powerless Washington was particularly vulnerable. How, where, or whether a convention center, freeway, subway, or high-rise office building got built was a matter over which Washingtonians have had minimal control. They could protest in the streets or the courts — which they did with much frequency and less effectiveness, but such power was only the power to prevent. The power to conceive and carry out has rested with others — Congress, the White House, appointed bodies such as the Zoning Commission and Redevelopment Land Agency, and their multitudinous friends in the construction and development business.
There were a few organizations in Washington dedicated to human conservation. But they generally fell into two categories: the small and weak, and those large, slick groups whose advocacy had a hollow sound. Too often the latter bodies consisted of cooks protesting the stew. There were too many vested interests within their confines. What started out as an urban coalition turned into an urban cabal. A manufacturer of redwood homes would be unlikely to win a seat on the board of the Sierra Club. In Washington, it was different. The people who appointed themselves to solve urban problems and the people causing the problems were too often the same. Washington, as a result, was strip-mined, cut over, polluted, depleted, desecrated, and decimated by every economic and political interest that could get its trucks and machinery into the territory. Few forests, rivers, or mineral lodes have gotten worse treatment than that accorded Washington, DC. It was one long urban gang bang.
Even after legislation granted the District the right to elect a mayor and city council, control over the budget, courts prosecutor’s office, police and planning remained wholly or partially hostage to the federal government. Further, the city continued to be without voting representation in either the Senate or the House; and since the limited suffrage granted could be revoked by simple act of Congress, it was conditional on local policy being acceptable to Capitol Hill and the White House. A special White House assistant for DC affairs warned local politicians against indulging in partisan politics, and promised that the administration would exercise “oversight” to “see that self-government works.”
Thus the city was permitted the externals of self-determination, elections, without its heart, power. We were left still far short of the local autonomy that other Americans enjoy, in fact less control over our destiny than either the Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico. In essence we have been granted participatory colonialism. The style was democratic but the substance was still deeply autocratic. –
oSammie Abbott’s constancy remained to the end. When Tina Hobson gave Julius Hobson’s papers to the Martin Luther King Library, Sammie was at the reception. He looked frailer than the last time I had seen him and in the pleasure of reunion, I also felt sad. Then Sammie started to talk, softly at first, but soon, as he warmed up, leaning forward in his familiar lunge-like stance. Within two minutes he had launched into a full-fledged attack on the faults of Julius’s old opponent, the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, and I smiled and was happy that Sammie was still on the case.
Julius would have smiled, too, for he had been the one who had railed against “ministers, preachers, deacons, deaconesses, Eastern Stars, and other assorted heavenly bodies.” Throughout the years of Washington’s awakening, no one individual had changed the course and the psychology of DC more than ]ulius Hobson. In a city where it could be said that never had so many sold out for so little, Hobson refused to compromise. In a city where good causes were often victimized by the manipulations of hustlers, Hobson was a man of extraordinary integrity. In a city that tended to take a self-congratulatory respite following every step forward, Hobson kept pointing out the distance left to travel. Though a strong critic of police excess, he also was found after his death to have cooperated with the FBI. And at the height of the era of black nationalism, Hobson married a white woman.
Julius Hobson was born in Alabama. His father ran a drug store and a cleaning plant; his mother was principal of a high school. They talked about education at the dinner table. Recalled Hobson: “Everybody who stayed in school learned to read. Learning to read was no big deal. Now, it was a lousy high school. They didn’t teach languages — no Spanish, no German, no French, no Latin, very little history except General Lee. But out of that high school still came a group of students who were able to function in that they could read, write, spell, and communicate.” After the Second World War, where Hobson flew dozens of missions and won three bronze stars along with other medals, he ended up at Howard. There he was introduced to Marxist and radical thought, some of it from professors who would subsequently be fired during the McCarthy era. After Howard, he got a job as a GS-5 junior professional in the Legislative Reference Service of the Library of Congress. Six years later, he went to work for the Social Security Administration. Slowly, Julius became more involved in civic activities. He started with the PTA, then the local civic association, then the Federation of Civic Associations, then the NAACP. But Julius was an angry man and the caution and propriety of such organizations could not contain his anger. As chairman of the local CORE branch, Hobson finally struck out on his own. To his detractors, his organization was just “six men and a telephone booth,” but Hobson would argue that was all he needed for a revolution. In fact, he seldom had more than ten people working with him. Once in a church with about 30 parishioners, he commented, “If I had that many people behind me, I’d be president.”
One by one old barriers began to fall. Between 1960 and 1964, Julius Hobson ran more than 80 picket lines on approximately 120 retail stores in downtown DC, resulting in employment for some 5,000 blacks. He initiated a campaign that resulted in the first hiring of black bus drivers by DC Transit. Hobson and CORE forced the hiring of the first black auto salesmen and dairy employees and started a campaign to combat job discrimination by the public utilities that led to a permanent court injunction to prevent Hobson from encouraging people to paste stickers over the holes in punch-card utility bills.
Hobson directed campaigns against private apartment buildings that discriminated against blacks and led a demonstration by 4,500 people to the District Building that encouraged the District to end housing segregation. He conducted a lie-in at the Washington Hospital Center that produced a jail term for himself and helped to end segregation in the hospitals. His arrest in a sit-in at the Benjamin Franklin School in 1964 helped lead to the desegregation of private business schools. In 1967, Julius Hobson won, after a long and very lonely court battle that left him deeply in debt, a suit that outlawed the existing rigid track system, teacher segregation, and differential distribution of books and supplies. It also led, indirectly, to the resignation of the school ‘superintendent and first elections of a city school board. Beyond all this, Hobson was repeatedly involved in peace, police, and transportation issues; he filed a major suit in 1969 accusing the federal government of bias against blacks, women, and Mexican~Americans.
With such a record, one might have expected Julius Hobson to emerge as a national civil rights leader. His achievements were as impressive as the best of them and if he had wished to, he could have drifted into the more comfortable world of semi-acceptance enjoyed by James Farmer, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, and even Martin Luther King in his later years — a world achieved by exchanging effectiveness for respectability and progress for power.
But Hobson eschewed power and he refused acceptability. He was equally frank about his Marxist philosophy and his atheism. He had an innate distrust of leaders, black or white, and he spoke disparagingly of the new leadership in the city government as “pasteurized Negroes.”
There was no let-up in the Hobson irascibility. When he ran for nonvoting delegate in 1971, he did so for the express purpose of being permitted to raise hell on behalf of the District in the United States Congress. And if Hobson had been e1ected, he might have made the greatest black congressional hell-raiser, Adam Clayton Powell, look like a moderate, Even prospect of an early death from multiple myeloma failed to chasten the man. He described the conversation he would have with the Lord, if there turned out to be one, as Hobson presenting a bill of particulars on behalf of the oppressed people still back on earth. And he concluded, “That’s what I’d have to say to the Maker. And if the Maker doesn’t like it, to hell with him.” [Excerpt from Hobson’s last interview]
In his office was a poster quoting Frederick Douglass: “Those who profess to favor freedom, yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”
He might just as easily framed and set on the wall earlier words of William Lloyd Garrison: “Tell a man whose house is on fire to give moderate alarm; tel1 him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen.”
It was Hobson’s unflagging distaste for moderation that led a city official to say in 1965, “He’s never satisfied. He’s never agreeable.You can’t compromise with him. He wants everything and refuses to barter or trade. When the hell will he quit?” But it was not just city officials and businessmen who were sent up the wall by Hobson. If the city’s black population appreciated Hobson’s years of work on their behalf, they were more disturbed by his refusal to let things be, his atheism, and his white wife. When he ran for delegate his strongest black support came from younger and more radical voters rather than from the older ones who had directly benefited from his efforts. One day during the campaign, Julius Hobson, on the back of a flat bed truck, passed a bus driven by a black driver. Through the loud-speaker, Hobson reminded the driver who had busted open DC Transit. The bus driver gave him the finger.
But Julius was used to being alone: his aloneness helped give him a perspective on the hustles and the hassles around him. He remained aloof from the wave of black nationalism that swept the city and the country in the latter part of the sixties. When people like Marion Barry adopted a dashiki, he stuck to his pipe and fedora, black tie, and conservative suits. When a white peace leader apologized for racism in the peace movement following a public attack by a number of local black politicians, Hobson said the man wasn’t a racist but a fool. And few things made him madder during the delegate campaign than the sniping references to his second wife, Tina, a woman of great force and strength and an activist in her own right. When a black opponent gave out his home phone number, adding snidely, “where I sleep with my black wife,” staffers had to convince Hobson not to leave the podium.
Julius remained one of the few leaders in Washington who could lead an effective black-white coalition. Hobson knew that nationalism and militancy were not synonymous, and he preferred militancy. His coalitions, though never large, were given impact by Hobson’s flair for the dramatic and his sense of the media. He knew how to get a headline and how to frighten people. He threatened to capture rats in the poor sections of town and release them in Georgetown, but he knew that all he needed to do was ride around with a few rats in a cage on top of a Volkswagon to get the desired effect. And when the American Civil Liberties Union gave its annual award to Senator Joseph Tydings, Hobson copped the coverage by leading a picket line outside the dinner to protest an award to one who had played a leading part in passage of a repressive DC crime bill. The spirit of the man came out with every paragraph that he spoke. House District Committee Chairman John McMillan was a “rat.” Joe Rauh, ADA and local home rule leader, was a “milquetoast liberal,” and J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI were “a bunch of idiots.”
When picketed businessmen told Julius Hobson, “Bring in some people and we’ll hire them,” Hobson replied: “Baby, I ain’t no employment agency. But I’m going to take 70 percent of your business away from you.”
On the first elected city council under home rule: “Now I have eleven people who don’t represent me.”
On delegate candidate Walter Fauntroy’s constant allusions to his work with Martin Luther King: “With all respect to Martin Luther King, he is dead. He is not running for this seat. He will not be the man who will be on the floor of the House.” He also accused Fauntroy of “running in the shadow of a dead man.”
On a provision of the DC crime bill permitting no-knock searches: “If anyone breaks down my door, I will meet him with whatever I’ve got.”
On Marxism: “Ideologically I consider myself a Marxist. . . . I believe in socialism; I believe what we’re fighting over is the distribution of goods and services and the production of them; and I believe that everybody on earth has the inalienable right to share in them.”
On what he would do if elected to Congress: “My position is that, if elected, they can’t isolate me from the House District Committee. I’ll break up their goddamn meetings. What’s going on up there anyway? Nothing but theft. I’d go to the floor of the House and speak until I’m tired. I wouldn’t honor any procedure about my being a junior Congressman or any of that bullshit. I think for a while they need a real man up there, and if they throw me out — all right. Because then, at least, the people of the District will be forced to realize that if somebody gives you your freedom at their pleasure, they can take it away from you at their pleasure.”
On democracy. “In this country, you don’t have any democracy really. You have the right to elect but not to select. For example, here’s two people: you get to vote for one of them. But you didn’t choose in the first place either of them. That’s not democracy from what I understand.”
On being a politician: “Let me explain something to you. I am not a politician. A politician is someone who does things to get elected. He is a guy who says things to please the public, that he thinks the public wants to hear, and his story changes with every passing day. I want to be elected, but I am not going to say a damn thing for your benefit, or that person’s benefit out there on the street, or anybody’s.”
On the nature of the struggle: “The struggle isn’t whether you like a nigger or a nigger likes a cracker or whitey is a pig or any of that stuff. I’ve called people whitey and pig and the FBI never said a word. All I have to do is put on a dashiki, get a wig, go out there on Fourteenth Street, and yell, ‘Whitey is a pig and I’m going to take care of him’ — the FBI will stand there and laugh at me. But the moment I start to discuss the way goods and services are distributed and I start talking about the nature of the political system and show that it’s a corollary of the economic system, that’s when the FBI comes in for harassment.”
On capitalism: “Can black people ever win the fight for freedom so long as they accept America’s exploitive capitalism as the economic system within which they must wage the battle? Black leaders have not confronted this question. Whether from a lack of understanding of our economic and political systems or from an unwillingness to challenge them, their silence is a betrayal of trust of the black people they purport to lead.”
On a local black minister: ”I was asked to speak at his church one Sunday. I went over there and when I went there I looked over the congregation. I would say the average person in there had on a pair of Tom McAn shoes, that their suits cost an average of $35 apiece, that their shirts were from Hecht’s basements, and they were very poor and very illiterate — almost illiterate — people who were emotionally shocked, just came to the church to let out this scream. [The minister] took up a love offering, he took up a minister’s travel offering and then he took up a regular — he took up five or six offerings. So when he got to me to speak, I got up and said, ‘God-damnit, if this is Christianity I want no part of it,’ and ‘This son of a bitch is stealing from you, and the thing is, he’s not just stealing your money, he’s stealing your minds. And I refuse to be a part of this.’ And I walked off.”
A statistician, Hobson operated with a calculator and conviction. Sometimes the changes came almost coincidentally in the churning wake of his actions. When he filed suit against the school system to end unequal expenditures, the rigid track system, and other inequities, he aimed the action against the local city judges, since it was they, under a peculiar provision of DC law, who were responsible for appointing the school board. The case was consequently bounced up to the US Court of Appeals where Judge Skelley Wright issued an historic decision banning discriminatory disparities in educational funding and policy. It was not long after, in part because of the local judges’ reluctance to get involved in the increasingly political issue of DC schools, that Congress granted the District an elected school board, the first elected local body in almost a hundred years.
There was another, and more troubling side, of Hobson that wasn’t revealed until several years after his death, when Paul Valentine reported in the Washington Post:
The late D.C. City Council member Julius W. Hobson, one of Washington’s most widely known civil rights activists, maintained a confidential but ambiguous relationship with the FBI during the early and mid-1960s, providing agents with information about violence-prone groups and individuals as well as plans of his own organizations, according to FBI files. The files, obtained by The Washington Post, designated Hobson usually as a “confidential source” and once as a “confidential informant” and said he was paid once for his work, receiving $100 and possibly $300. But other portions of the files described him as an undependable leftist radical who should be kept under surveillance.
Hobson, who died in 1977, once told reporters that he received $200 from the FBI, but denied passing information in exchange for it. Members of Hobson’s family and activists close to Hobson interviewed over the past several weeks also disputed the characterization of Hobson as a “source” or “informant.” They said that Hobson either was “manipulating the FBI” with useless, false and exaggerated information or was negotiating openly with it and other law enforcement agencies about upcoming street demonstrations to minimize confrontation and violence. Such negotiations were common among some protect organizers at that time.
There is nothing in the file to indicate Hobson was an agent provocateur or that he betrayed the trust of activists organizing legal demonstrations. There are 29 specific reports over a five-year period of Hobson giving information to agents contained in the massive 1,575-page file obtained by The Post through the Freedom assembled the file on Hobson over a nearly 20-year period from the 1950s to the early 1970s. The file indicates, among other things, that Hobson gave the FBI information on advanced planning for the historic March on Washington led by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 and was paid $100 to $300 in expenses to monitor and report on civil rights demonstration plans at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. . .
The files are sprinkled with references to Hobson as a Marxist and communist. His public rhetoric ranged widely from calls for the overthrow of the capitalist system to administrations against mob action. Yet both his civil rights colleagues and FBI agents who knew him say that privately Hobson was opposed to violence and illegality. “Julius abhorred violence,” said retired FBI agent Elmer Lee Todd, who was one of Hobson’s principal contacts in the 1960s. “The only time we contacted him was about groups and individuals that might be violent. . . . We never tried to interfere with him or steer him.”. . .
According to the file, Hobson was abruptly ordered dropped as a source or informant in June 1966 by then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover after Hobson complained to the news media that FBI agents were badgering him for information about upcoming demonstrations. . .
None of the former colleagues and family members interviewed — except Tina Hobson — said they were aware of Hobson’s FBI relationship . . . They contended he was not a “source or “informant” in the conventional sense. All suggested that he deliberately cultivated the FBI in order to control information — and occasionally “disinformation,” as Tina Hobson put it — going to the bureau to protect his own organizations and projects and occasionally to denigrate others.
By the same token, Tina Hobson acknowledge that he may have provided the FBI serious information from time to time, such as a warning of potential violence, as in the Girard College protests. Much of what he told them also could be obtained from the press and other public sources, she said. Summing up Hobson’s dual FBI-activist role, retired agent Todd said: “I have the highest respect for Julius. He did not betray any body. . . . There’s no way he could have been a Communist. I knew him well, and he was a red-blooded American.”
While Julius Hobson was a man as important to Washington in his way as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were to the nation, he differed markedly from other charismatic figures in that he never developed a mass following. One local activist who worked closely with Julius for a number of years said, “He’s a prophet; but he can’t organize shit.” Hobson’s inherent suspicion of the system and its faults also occasionally enveloped his friends and coworkers as well. Remarks dropped at meetings like, “Everyone in favor of this idea say aye, the rest get the hell out of here,” were only partly facetious and if you weren’t pretty tough, it was easy to leave one of Julius’ forays with hurt feelings. He got drummed out of CORE at one point in the midst of complaints against his dictatorial way of running the organization. He could be mercurial, be all in favor of an idea or a tactic one day, then dump on it the next. But his irascibility was not really a personal thing. He was a loner and the pressures, frustrations, and compromises demanded of one man creating a movement left him irritated, impatient to the point that he would make a rigid decision just to keep things moving. In less public and less pressured situations, Hobson was extremely receptive to both ideas and criticisms. He both gave and received advice with a generous spirit that contrasted with his public image as an enfant terrible.
And nothing cowed him. Not even death. Bill Raspberry was right in his column on Julius when he said: “It’s hard to talk with a man and know he’s dying without feeling sorry for him. Unless the man is Julius Hobson.” When I visited him, the pain of what was happening to Julius struck hard, but his own irreverence about his mortality, and about the dream of human immortality, applied a balm. Sure he was scared. And depressed. But the bastard was going to make them keep on paying right to the end; and he would try to enjoy it, too. The sanctimonious could pretend that they finally appreciated Julius and were sorry to see him go, only to find that he was still very much around making life difficult for them. And the pious could hope for a retreat from impious convictions and all they would get is what Julius told Raspberry; “Death doesn’t frighten me the way it does a Christian. All it means to me is the end; I don’t have to contend with those two doors on the other side and wonder which one I’ll be going through.”
If there was going to be a premature wake, it was going to be done his way. He sat in bed picking at the shish kebob Tina had brought in from Adams Rib, because Julius was conducting a another boycott, this time against lousy hospital food. He worried about how best to break the news to people. He talked about Raspberry wanting to do a piece. I said I thought the Post ought to pay him for an article and that he ought to begin with the lead: “The only way I can get fair coverage in the Post is to be dying. ” He talked wryly about the black lady patient who had told him that she hoped he would die before he left the hospital because he had been nothing but trouble for blacks. And about the intern who delivered a cold and professional analysis of Hobson’s problem and then broke down as he started to leave. And about the hospital workers who came to see Mr. Hobson and how was he getting along. And about all the writing he wanted to do, perhaps an autobiography. And about the goddamn fascist appointments Nixon made to the Supreme Court as we watched on television. Things like that.
A few days later, Julius was out of the hospital and around the streets. Blasting the city’s proposed curfew regulations. Drumming up support for old friend Dick Brown who was running for School Board in Ward Six. Speaking at a rally at the Three Sisters Bridge. And if I had thought to make myself a promise never to get mad at Julius again, I would have had to renege shortly as the crazy SOB publicly, withdrew his support from Marion Barry at a critical junction in the campaign because Marion was using some radio spots featuring the Rev. Fauntroy and Julius wasn’t about to get into bed with any preachers or machine politicians. So then those of us who liked both Marion and Julius had to go around explaining to our friends what happened, feeling just a bit miffed that Hobson wouldn’t let things be for a little while. Of course, Julius wouldn’t let them be. “No, I’m not reordering any personal priorities. I’ll travel a little if I get the chance and can afford it, but otherwise nothing will change. I don’t intend to lie in bed and deteriorate and I don’t intend to traipse all over the world looking for a cure. I don’t want to be pillowed and bilked. I’ll just do my work and then I guess I’ll have to find myself a sunset to walk into. “
When Washington learned of his fatal illness, it reacted with the sort of reevaluation of a man’s life that usually takes place after his death. The Washington Post ran a long interview series with Hobson. The Evening Star and News became solicitous. And a group of old friends and associates organized a testimonial evening that brought out 2,000 friends, enemies, and observers of Hobson from GOP City Council Chairman Jack Nevius to ex-student and still apostle Stokely Carmichael. Hobson was there, sitting in a lounge chair and smoking a cigar that helped quell the nausea created by the drugs he was taking. Although the evening, which Julius had earlier described as “his wake,” had moments of embarrassing schmaltz (Joan Baez sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”), it was as moving and genuinely emotional a few hours as any of those present were likely to experience. Stokely Carmichael quoted Nkrumah: “Revolutions are made by men who think as men of action and act as men of thought,” a near perfect encapsulation of Hobson. Julius’ family was there, providing a dramatic reminder that he was one man who had not sacrificed his family on the altar of public service. His teacher mother, up from Alabama, ended a powerful speech with the benediction, “Go, son, go,” which brought the audience to its feet. Scattered throughout the crowd were people who were important just to Julius — those unknown people who had stood with him on picket lines or joined him in other protests and who had, unlike many who share the early rise of the important, retained the loyalty and friendship of the man who was being honored. And at the end, one old friend shook the hand of another and said, “Where do we go from here, baby?”
Julius, as usual, had his own ideas. He went into remission, was elected to the city council and lived for some years thereafter.
oIn the summer of 1970, Kathy and I drove to Maine in about the worst smog we had seen. The yellow gauze seemed to symbolize the sense of depression and disintegration that had followed the riots. We talked seriously that August of moving to Maine but, when Labor Day loomed, we packed our car and returned home.
Not many weeks later, I was invited to a meeting to discuss the candidacy of Julius Hobson for non-voting delegate to Congress, one of the tokens that the federal government had thrown our way to help calm the city down.
We met in a barren church basement hall on East Capitol Street. Just a few of us, our chairs pulled in a small circle. After a while, Julius asked on what platform we thought he should run. Someone in the room mentioned an article I had written four months earlier calling for DC statehood and explaining for the first time how it might achieved without a constitutional amendment. It was only the second time I had heard anyone mention the article. One reader had sent me five dollars, asking that it be contributed to the cause if it ever got going.
The statehood idea was not new. A year earlier, a group of black activists had held a news conference calling for DC statehood. It had, however, been one of those 12-hour revolutions — running from the 11 am news conference to the 11 pm news broadcast.
Also, Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin had run for New York mayor and city council president on a platform that included not only statehood for the Big Apple but monthly “Sweet Sundays” – when the city would comes to a halt “so human beings can rest and talk to each other and the air can purify itself.”
They also proposed a Manhattan monorail and jitney buses, accompanying their arguments with maps, stats, as well as top, side, and interior views of the vehicles in question. Among their other planks: restoration of Mohammed Ali’s world championship, vest pocket neighborhood colleges and zoos, free bicycles in the parks, a US Grand Prix in Central Park, and weekend jousting matches for teenagers. Mailer and Breslin understood that real politics is not just a matter of management but a collective expression of a community’s soul.
It made eminent sense. Today, for example, New York City has to share two senators with the residue of New York state, which is also larger than all these other states put together. In fact, there are 16 states with a combined population less than New York in its entirety. This discrimination is, of course, not unique to New York. The larger states of California and Texas have it worse.
The results of this constitutional but crazy apportionment of America’s upper house means, among other things, that ethnic minorities are underrepresented in a manner officially permitted hardly anywhere else in American culture. If the Senate had been a school district it would have been under court-ordered bussing for the past few decades. If it were a private club, you’d want to resign from it before running for public office.
In fact, the malapportionment of the Senate was perhaps the most important, undiscussed issue in the country at the turn of the century for there was hardly a matter of political importance that would not be affected if that body were to reflect 21st century rather than 19th century demographics.
After discussing the concept for a few minutes, Julius announced that he liked it was going to run on it. The DC statehood movement was born in the perversely serendipitous ways of history.
Statehood, the simple demand that DC have full equality with the rest of the country, was so far beyond even the “home rule” advocates’ wildest dreams that few believed it possible. The “practical” politicians and goo-goo groups like the League of Women Voters and Common Cause ignored it, hoping the idea would go away. The press reported no more than minimal civility required, preferring the limited colonialism it thought achievable through a constitutional representation amendment. The Statehood Party itself didn’t always help, going through periods of factionalism and slipping from theoretical decentralization of power into actual disintegration of effort.
No major politicians with the exception of Walter Fauntroy would actually come out against statehood. Even Mayor Walter Washington found it “interesting.” But no major politician worked for it, either; no major media gave it the time of day; and much of the rest of the city’s elite viewed it as another example of the flakiness that went with the territory of the times.
Given all the rhetoric about the need for “home rule,” there was something quite illogical about all this. Politicians would get up and demand “full self-government” for the city but lose interest when you suggested how it might be most directly attained.
Blacks elsewhere in the country seemed surprisingly indifferent to the colonial status of a half million of their racial compatriots in the nation’s capital.
Labor and other progressive groups, which would gain politically from more liberal representation in Congress, couldn’t be bothered.
The New York Times had Tom Wicker write a series on Puerto Rico’s status anomaly but ignored the status of the people right under the noses of their Washington staff.
It was widely thought that statehood just wasn’t practical. To those in the statehood movement, however, not only was the idea practical but, whether it was or not, you don’t give out rain checks on freedom for tactical reasons.
Outside the movement, though, no one even wanted to test the practicality. When Alaska had come up with the impractical idea of statehood, its political elite did something. It sent lobbyists to Washington. It sent seven memorials between 1945 and 1957 from the territorial legislature to Congress urging statehood. It called its own constitutional convention; sent provisional senators and a provisional congressman to Washington to aid in the effort. And it finally got statehood. When Hawaii came up with the impractical idea of statehood, its political elite did something. It established a statehood commission, a constitutional convention and funded a lobbying office in Washington. It even provided that “entertainment” funds would not have to be accounted for. It took time, but it too eventually got statehood.
Like other good ideas, however, the idea of statehood refused to die. In many places, in small ways, its logic and its need was reinforced. While statehood remained antithetical to the strategy and sen-sibilities of the political and media elite, it caught on elsewhere. Neighborhood groups, activist organizations, and college students had, unlike the press and politicians, little difficulty grasping the significance and sense of the idea.
In some important ways, the Statehood Party itself was an extension of the remarkably comfortable biracial politics that had grown during the anti-freeway fight. The party emphasized the pragmatic over the ideological, appealed to both blacks and whites, and implicitly shared Julius Hobson’s view that class and power trumped race. Still, there were few discourses on the capitalist structure at Statehood Party meetings, for there were too many specific things that needed doing.
In 1972 I wrote a draft of the Statehood Constitution which declared:
While statehood is the original purpose that joined us, we have many common concerns and make many common demands. We need not catalog the present disaster. Whether we rise from our troubles depends not upon additional critiques, nor upon a reshuffling of the old agenda. We need a new society, not merely new priorities. This is our task: not simply to condemn the errors of the past and present, but to construct a new community based on cooperation before profit, liberty before sterile order, and justice before efficiency. We seek a democratic, free, just and cooperative city, whose benefits touch those in every living room on every block in every neighborhood. We are the people’s party. Guiding us is but one master: the people.
To reach this goal we presented perhaps the most eclectic, radical and prescient collection of policies one could have found anywhere in the early 1970s:
· Neighborhood authorities and neighborhood housing banks
· Public ownership of all center city land & of key commercial strips
· Urban rehabilitation over urban renewal
· Elected neighborhood legislative councils and neighborhood executives with power over selection of neighborhood police officials, selection of neighborhood school superintendent, school site selection and proposed roads.
· Extended voting over several days
· Proportional representation
· A property tax that includes not only real estate but other property such as stocks and bonds
· The taxation of income-producing property of non-profit organizations and churches
· Encouragement of light, smokeless industry
· Low- rent facilities in new commercial centers for small businesses
· Enclosed and open stalls for artisans, craftsmen and other small operators.
· The end of the forced displacement of small business.
· The construction of public markets
· The conversion of banks and public utilities to cooperatives.
· A national guaranteed income
· Ownership of liquor stores by neighborhood cooperatives
· Conversion of the correctional system from punitive to a rehabilitative
· Legalization of gambling, prostitution, marijuana use and drug addiction.
· A massive expansion of drug treatment programs
· Division of police into a uniformed crime-fighting force and a neighborhood constabulary
· The recruitment of lawyers into the police department at the level of captain and above
· No more parking lots downtown
· Creation of jitney service
· Public ownership and fare subsidy of the transit system
· Opposition to ownership by suburban-dominated Metro
· Serious consideration of monorails, personal transit systems, and streetcars
· Community control of the schools
· The immediate withdrawal of all forces form Indochina
· Strongest measures to end pollution in all its forms
· Free health care for all citizens
· Free abortions on demand
· Opposition to discrimination against blacks, women, homosexuals, chicanos, Asians and other ethnic minorities, men in the case of laws relating to alimony, the mentally or physically handicapped, and ex-felons in the denial of right to participate politically
· Equal wages for equal work
· Maternity and paternity leave with pay
· No media monopolies
· Cooperative control of cable television
· Youth representation on legislative and other governing councils
· Creation of an equal service commission to ensure equal distribution of public services throughout the city
· Ward balance in capital improvements and government personnel
· Varied curriculum, services and teaching methods in the schools
· An environmental commission or court with the power to halt or alter projects and practices detrimental to the environment
oOne of our proposals would take root with the creation of limited self-government in 1974. Placed in the legislation by Rep. Donald Frazer was a provision for elected neighborhood councils.
Washington DC’s advisory neighborhood commissions would represent a unique counter-trend in American politics, away from a century-long growth of political institutions isolated from constituencies, city governments made unwieldy by consolidations and rising population, a ballooning federal government intruding increasingly into local affairs and the development of regional agencies controlling such matters as transportation and sanitation, transferring the local franchise to a new elite of administrators and planners.
In 1816, Columbus, Ohio had one city councilman for every hundred residents. By 1840 the figure was one per thousand; by 1872 it was one per five thousand; one hundred years later it was one per 55,000. Before the neighborhood commissions, the lowliest elected official in DC represented 90,000 people. The new neighborhood commissioners represented 2,000.
By contemporary American urban standards, having a politician represent only 2,000 people was a radical idea, although Jefferson thought that about one pol for every hundred voters was about right. Two centuries after it all began many would still find the thought that democracy could be trusted to people to be a scary one. Traditional politicians found it worse. Neighborhood commissions were, they grumbled at city hall, “another layer of bureaucracy,” and the papers from picked up the theme, ignoring the obvious point that neighborhood commissioners weren’t bureaucrats at all, that they didn’t get enough money to establish a bureaucracy if they wanted to, and in fact were able to spend less per capita on their neighborhoods than some of the more conventional politicians spent per voter on their campaigns.
My own career as a commissioner got off to a rocky start. It was reported in the Washington Post that I had won my race for advisory neighborhood commisioner by 179 to 112, for a total of 291 votes, the highest turnout in the city. In fact, I won by 168 to 37, meaning a total turnout of 205, one of the highest but not the highest. And I almost won by only 103 to 100.
On election night, after spending most of the day at the polls, I decided to go down to the Sheraton Park Hotel and watch the count. Kathy said to me, “Don’t you think you’re taking this a little too seriously?” But she was holding a Sunday school teachers’ meeting and I figured that if she was going to be tied up with the spiritual, I could attend to the temporal a while longer.
So I drove down to the Sheraton Park, took a couple of escalators to the catacombs where the count was underway and chatted distractedly with some of the other candidates who were also waiting for word of victory or defeat. Finally the sheet with the morning results for my district — familiarly known in those parts as 3CO7 — turned up. My opponent had slaughtered me 75 to 11 in the morning count.
Since I had counted some 35 people coming to the polls before two PM whom I had personally encouraged to vote, I was apparently on the way to one of the most humiliating defeats imaginable. At least two dozen people had smiled pleasantly at me, murmured encouragement and then gone in and voted for my opponent. I had — with flyers, coffees and telephone calls — organized the neighborhood against me. My opponent had barely campaigned. Harold Stassen never had it so bad.
I found Norval Perkins, the affable head of the Board of Elections. and tried to explain why a candidate with only 13% of the vote wanted a recount. He was noncommittal but added my district to his growing list of requested recounts.
Meanwhile I found the table where the evening ballots were being counted. Something was wrong. I had won the evening count 93 to 26. I checked each ballot. It was true.
I found Norval again. He tried to soothe me: “Maybe, Sam, you just have more evening friends than morning friends.”
I preferred to soothe myself. Even with the wrong count I figured that I had won by three votes. Later, local election wizard Al Gollin would explain to me that it was statistically improbable to have more evening friends than morning friends.
I found the table where my recount was going on. I had indeed won, but, as I had come to suspect, all my ballots had initially been given to my opponent. I went to have a drink at a friend’s house.
The next day I went down to the Board of Elections to compile the results of the various elections. Recording the results, I found myself writing down 179 votes for myself and 112 votes for my opponent. Where the hell did those numbers come from? I looked at the figures again. There were three columns instead of the normal two. Whoever had computed the total had added the three columns together which, I figured out, represented the incorrect morning count, the correct recount and the evening count. The morning ballots had been counted twice — once rightly and once wrongly.
It still makes me shiver to think that two things had happened to me that aren’t even meant to happen in Chicago: my votes were given en masse to my opponent and nearly half the votes were counted twice.
I had never paid much attention to the counting. It always seemed like the most boring end of the business and besides there seemed to be enough people involved to prevent anything bad from happening. Now at last I knew what politicians meant when they warned: watch the count.
Out in the neighborhoods, the new commissions met with enthusiasm in some quarters and indifference in others. Some of them deserved the enthusiasm, some the indifference, but I didn’t have much chance to check out which was which among the thirty-six commissions around the city. I was too busy with my own.
It began the morning after the election. Congressman Fred Rooney, who lived in my district and had taken a paternal interest in my electoral efforts, was on the phone: “This is Rooney up on Highland Alley. Why hasn’t my damn trash been picked up?” A professional politician was taking me seriously. A good start, I thought. I spent much of the day trying to find out why the congressman’s trash hadn’t been collected but the number downtown was always busy or unanswered. The next morning I checked my constituent’s driveway. The cans were gone.
“Well,” I said when I reached him at his Capitol Hill office, “I see we got your trash problem cleared up.” He never asked me who we were. I had followed one of the first rules of politics: exploit serendipity.
Fred still calls me Commissioner or Commish. Another rule of politics: make people feel good. Years later, he also told me that he had once received a call from a woman in a small town in his district wanting to know why her trash hadn’t been picked up. “Have you called the sanitation superintendent?” Rooney asked. “No,” the lady replied. “I didn’t want to bother him, so I just thought I’d call my congressman.”
My second problem was not so simple. Several homes had been flooded. The culprit was a conduit that fed water from a public playground near a row of houses. At issue, it quickly became apparent, was the question of whose conduit it was: the city’s or the property-owners’. The city staunchly maintained that it was the property owners; I, as District Seven commissioner, just as staunchly maintained it was the city’s and that the government should pay for the damage.
To win I needed proof, which unfortunately was lost in the mists of history; city hall merely needed to say no. The letters flowed back and forth, lawyers were visited, engineers appeared. I alerted the press to what I called the “Macomb Street Flood Disaster Area,” but nothing happened, except for the cracking of walls and sinking of foundations. I recalled that Richard Neustadt had spoken of the power of the presidency as being primarily the power to persuade; I was quickly learning that the power of a neighborhood commissioner was entirely the power to persuade.
The neighborhood commissions were established at the same time Congress gave DC the right to elect a mayor and city council. The prospective candidates for these offices had not taken kindly to the prospect of home rule being distributed to others as well as themselves and had campaigned quietly to have the commission section removed from the home rule legislation. Someone had quietly changed the language in the Senate so that the measure would have to be approved by a majority of all registered voters and not just those who came to the polls. The trick was discovered in time and the language revised. Rep. Donald Fraser of that eminently sensible state of Minnesota ultimately prevailed with his bill, noting that it was not likely that the newly elected city government would voluntarily share its power with the neighborhoods were it left to it to decide.
The enabling legislation was quite broad, but in coming up with the operating rules the council and the mayor managed to restrict the commission’s powers, denying them the right to sue the city, to act in concert with city funds, or to incorporate.
For someone who had long believed that urban neighborhoods should be granted semi-autonomous powers, I found the law excessively timid, but consoled myself with the thought that for once people in the colony of DC were ahead of the rest of the nation in something: we were the first major city with elected and funded neighborhood commissions. Besides, the commissioners were elected by single-member district and, if they acted with political sagacity, they could make their knowledge and influence in these small districts a base of unlegislated power. They could become, in effect, non-partisan precinct leaders, unbeholdened to a machine or to the politicians at city hall. The ward and at-large officials had not had time to develop precinct machines of their own and, with working neighborhood commissions in place, it might become difficult. Still I argue that our first task was to kick the “A” out of ANC so that we were no longer advisory.
In our ward, the representative on the city council seemed to understand this from the start and instead of trying to control the commissions, worked with them, using them as an information source and constant referendum on ward opinion. Perhaps she saw that lurking behind the commission idea was a principle eloquently laid down by Chicago’s Vito Marzullo, 25th Ward Alderman, in an interview with the Chicago Sun Times:
I ain’t got no axes to grind. You can take all your news media and all the do-gooders in town and move them into my 25th ward, and do you know what would happen? On election day we’d beat you 15 to one. The mayor don’t run the 25th ward. Neither does the media or the do-gooders.. Me — Vito Marzullo — that’s who runs the 25th Ward and on election day everybody does what Vito Marzullo tells them.
The prospect of 300 neighborhood Vito Marzullos telling people in their districts how to vote in ward and citywide races is a disturbing one to traditional politicians. Fortunately for them, the neighborhoods and their commissioners failed to recognize and use this political potential.
Besides, when you’re a working politician you don’t have much time for theory. Back on 34th Place, they wanted parking stripes. I took a poll of the street to make sure, then petitioned the Department of Transportation. No problem. The parking stripes appeared. Score one for neighborhood government.
So let’s try a little harder situation: the traffic on 34th Street, a secondary arterial that divides our neighborhood with a steady flow of suburban commuters. It goes right by our elementary school and every so often a child gets hit. One morning a car jumped the curb at 34th & Newark, ran right over the spot where the mercifully absent school safety patrol should have been standing, bounded off a stone wall, back across the street and into a neighbor’s elegantly aging Volvo. Distress at the corner; anger. Then the next day another accident. The now not so elegantly aging Volvo was struck again. I checked with the school safety police officer who produced a computer printout that showed there had been about two dozen accidents at that and near-by corners in the past year. Called up Transportation. Met two engineers early one morning at the corner. They produced a chart that showed (at least it did to them) why traffic could not go slower than 30 miles an hour in a fifteen-mile-per hour school zone. More letters, including one to the director of the Department of Transportation in which I pointed out there have been 26 accidents in the past year in just four blocks of 34th Street. More accidents. A call from the chair of our commission’s transportation committee saying that the Transportation Department had reviewed its files on the situation and decided the corner was not sufficiently accident-prone to warrant action. Hung up the phone and went on errands. Couldn’t get across 34th Street. The corner was blocked by an ambulance and two smashed cars. Neighborhood government, I thought, means using your eyes instead of your files. Score one for the old way.
On another occasion I found myself embroiled in a battle with the National Cathedral over a piece of beloved community land that the Episcopalians owned and wished to sell to for an embassy. This telegram from fellow commissioner Kay McGrath and myself — sent to the Right Reverend William Creighton, bishop of the nation’s capital — shows that we were willing to stop at nothing, including the anathematizing of an Episcopalian bishop:
“Emergency meeting of Rosedale neighbors unanimously tonight called on you to honor agreement made with this community to consult prior to changes at Rosedale. Your present negotiations without such consultation are viewed as a breach of faith . . . “
Creighton agreed to a meeting, the first round in a lengthy battle that was eventually won by the community. During the session, the bishop said he had sensed an undercurrent of anti-Eastern European sentiment in the neighborhood. I rose to the defense of my people, telling the bishop in my best Al Sharpton manner that his comment was outrageous and that, besides, I had found that Bulgarians had generally treated me better than Episcopalians. He did not raise the charge again.
During my term on our neighborhood commission, I was asked to deal with a city-caused flooding problem that severely damaged three homes, an alarming number of accidents along 34th Street, the lack of proper signs on other streets, the need for parking stripes and curb improvement at several intersections, a surfeit of trash can-toppling dogs, a controversy over a tennis backboard, an attempt to sell seven acres of open space for a use repugnant to the community, plans for a new community park, the potential closing of a neighborhood school, land use proposals by the city government, the community’s effort to come up with its own neighborhood plan, the relocation of a post office, speeding police cars on side streets, the expansion of the Sheraton Park Hotel, problems cause by Metro construction, the lack of snow removal during last winter’s storms, the resurfacing of a public basketball court, the granting of the eighth liquor license in a one block stretch of Connecticut Avenue, a dispute over the use of a community garden pot, the proposed introduction of a hospital in our community, changes in flight patterns that would increase aircraft noise, the construction of a new addition to a neighborhood schools, the influx of litter, noise and illegal parked cars due to the opening of “Star Wars” in our neighbored and a teen age rapist roaming our streets.
As time went on, I stopped trying so hard to be an ombudsman. It was a role my constituents expected of me, but both they and I tended to forget that as an individual I had little more power than they. When I called to get the ice cleared off an alley, my complaint was merely added to the list of other citizen calls. There were a few exceptions, but only when the commission acted as a body did we make any impression.
We were handicapped by the prohibition on taking legal action. But when the alcoholic beverage commission ignored our insistence that seven liquor licenses were enough on one block of Connecticut Avenue, we decided to challenge the prohibition. We sued the city as ten individual commissioners and the court gave us standing.
When the commissions were being established, a citizens coalition had met to propose regulations. At one meeting someone suggested that the rules require that the city give the opinions of the commission “great weight.’ A lawyer asked the legal meaning of the phrase. I replied, “Damned if I know, but let’s put it in and find out.”
We did and the term made its way into the official regulations. It was on these grounds that we sued the city. It wasn’t easy for me. The new Irish pub, whose license we were challenging, was in my district. So was the home of one of the owners and his lawyer. But so were the 150 people who signed a petition in opposition to the license.
I wrote the lawyer suggesting that the owner appear at the next meeting of the commission, that perhaps we could work things out. The lawyer told the owner not to come. Thus I found myself opposing, on my constituents’ behalf, one of my deepest held beliefs: that an Irish pub is a good thing. We eventually won in what became a landmark case. The court said the city could reject a commission’s advice but had to put in writing its reasons for doing so, answering point by point each argument. This seemingly weak requirement has altered the politics of development and licensing, because, when you come right down to it, the city often has a difficult time putting in writing logical reasons for what it does.
A new hearing was held on the beverage license and it was granted. We had lost the battle while winning the war. As far as I was concerned, however, we had really won twice because the commissions were now more powerful and I could start using the pub.
My main function on the commission was as chair of the education, recreation and agriculture committee. (This latter role I had assumed after I discovered that we had over 200 garden plots in the commission area – more arable land, I claimed, than any other commission in the city)
My biggest problem was The Wall, a 17-foot high, 40-foot long cinderblock apparition that suddenly turned up on the Hearst playground, obstructing the view of the softball fields for the people across the street. The wall and accompanying fence and asphalt playing surface was, we learned, a tennis backboard area that the recreation department had built with funds from the federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation. The department, however, had not consulted anyone before doing so.
Within a few days, over a hundred signatures had been collected from the immediate neighborhood demanding the removal of the wall, fence and asphalt. Not only was it unsightly, but the neighbors complained the fenced-in area would block a favored sledding slope.
Word soon drifted back to us at the commission that if we would vote to tear down the wall, the recreation department would have it down in 24 hours. This was stunning news and an opportunity for constituent-pandering that we could not pass up. We voted to tear down the wall and it fell shortly thereafter.
At this point, the tennis players became organized. They presented us with a petition with over a hundred names demanding that the wall be put back up. Meetings were organized, proxy votes collected, and venom volleyed across the community’s court. I attended one session that included representatives of the warring factions as well as a sizable delegation from the recreation department; the session lasted four hours and solely concerned the backboard. It was painful and tiring. But out of it came a compromise. Tennis players and neighbors would go along with a soundproofed wooden backboard, situated at a ninety-degree angle from the offending monster — with no fence around the playing surface so the kids could still sled, if with more difficulty. Everyone gave up something but when the matter came to the commission for a vote, with it was a petition signed by over 100 tennis players in support of the compromise. I couldn’t recall from my observations of more significant city controversies an occasion when people had actually petitioned for a compromise.
I retired with my fellow commissioners for our usual post-meeting reflections at the Zebra Room. I was happy. Not just because a compromise had been worked out, but because perhaps a few more people understood how differently things happen if they are decided by the people directly concerned. Downtown, the sheer use of political power was standard operating procedure; in a neighborhood it doesn’t work.
I’m glad we saved that open space, that the recreation department agreed to build the new wall in the right place and of the right materials, that Hearst School got a reprieve from being closed, that we were able to help get the city to reopen a food stamp office it had precipitously closed, that the curbs have been cut back down the block so you can turn the the corner without running into the oncoming traffic, that we would getting a new neighborhood park, that we were able to fund a community-drafted long-range neighborhood plan, that we perhaps helped slow the flood of development, that we were able to buy textbooks for our schools when the downtown system ran out of money, and that the planes from National Airport won’t be flying over our neighborhood.
And I was also glad to have participated in a politics that was conscientious, unassuming and productive, the kind you get when you keep politicians within walking distance of their constituents. The kind you get when pressure is neighbors demanding you vote against a license for an Irish bar when you’d rather be in it, when a special interest group is a bunch of irate tennis players, when you know you’ve made a mistake because the guy across the street tells you, and when the whole business is treated not as a career for a few individuals, but an institution for everyone. And I have to admit that I was especially glad, after just two years, to have my successor, the Honorable Gary Kopff, assume responsiblility for these pleasures.