The two sides of Washington, D.C.

In his new book, “This Town,” New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich does his best to explain Washington, D.C. to the outside world. And to him, “Washington”  means what many know as “official” Washington or “federal” Washington – those who work and play in national politics and on Capitol Hill and its many adjoining environs.

Indeed, according to a review by The  Post’s Carlos Lozada, Leibovich chronicles the foibles of NBC news reporter Andrea Mitchell, superlawyer Bob Barnett and media consultant Tammy Haddad, among others referred to in some circles as Washington elite. It’s a chronicle of the lifestyles of the rich and shameless, if you will.

But what is barely mentioned in the book is anything about the city so many of us grew up in and now live-  a once primarily-black metropolis with more civic pride than you can imagine. That’s not a world anyone has to know or learn about if they choose not to. Many live for years in and around the city without ever really acknowledging it exists. It’s a division that many who have lived her for years call the difference between “Washington” and “D.C.”

And that identity disparity of ‘us’ and ‘them’ is illustrated perfectly early on in the book. 

“To be sure, the ‘real’ city of Washington has an actual elected mayor: black guy, deals with our city problems. But that’s just the D.C. where people live, some of them (18.7 percent) even below the poverty  line, who drag down the per capita income to a mere $71,011,” Leibovich writes. “Yes, Washington is a ‘real city,’ but This Town is a state of belonging, a status, a commodity.”

The place that’s “just” where people who are dragging down the economy live is also the only place many of those people will ever get to call home. It’s still amazing how easy it is to marginalize an entire group of people’s importance, even if somewhat fairly for the purposes of his book.

For the uninitiated, this divide is particularly evident on two nights of the year. The White House Correspondents’ Dinner and the 4th of July. Living here your whole life, you get used to certain things around town. The evolving demographics and plurality of identities across the city are what makes it fun. But recently, the WHCD crowd can make you feel like a place even you don’t know at all. It feels more akin to Vegas than anything else.

A couple years back, an after-WHCD event at the Ronald Reagan Building was my only first-hand account of being completely on this “other” side of Washington described in Leibovich’s book. It’s one thing to live and work in Washington, moving between both sides as needed to stay afloat. It’s another to break bread with those folks knowing full-well that they’ve been ignoring the rights of this city forever.

And, with social media ablaze about ‘This Town’ versus ‘the real D.C.,’ an event at the Capitol last month came to mind. There, national officials unveiled a statue of Frederick Douglass. And after so many mentions of voting rights in a room called Emancipation Hall,  it was hard to watch. When the ceremony was done, local council members and the Mayor flocked to the statue to take photos while the band played ‘God Bless America.’ What struck an odd tone was that the men and women elected to fight for the citizens of the District, were posing with a crowd who time after time have blocked D.C.’s efforts to gain full rights under the Constitution. All this, in front of a statue of one of this nation’s greatest-ever freedom fighters.

It felt like a scene from “Animal Farm.” If D.C. leaders continue to participate in moments like this one – which appeared to be only for the good of the cameras-   at what point will people not be able to differentiate us, the proverbial pigs in George Orwell’s allegorical 1945 novel, from the humans? In that great tale, it happens. Maybe some animals really are created more equal than others.

You can argue about which side of the city is more real. The scary truth is that without both in existence, neither would be able to survive.

RELATED: Bold-faced names dished in ‘This Town’

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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Tom Jackman · July 9, 2013