‘Dream City’ revisited: D.C. then and now

Correction: An earlier verion of this column referred to "a mayoral campaign and two D.C. Council members under federal scrutiny." Although the column did not mention any council members by name, Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown's 2008 re-election campaign is being scrutinized for previously undisclosed payments and expenditures, but there is no indication that Brown himself is under scrutiny. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), is under scrutiny for allegations that he used more than $300,000 in city funds for personal purposes. This version has been corrected.

Mike DeBonis
District of DeBonis October 18, 2011

Seventeen years ago, reporters Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood published the essential account of contemporary District politics. There’s no milestone anniversary or other artificial reason to revisit “Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C.,” but there are some good reasons to look back at the influential book today.

That was proved Monday night by the scores who packed into a library meeting room to hear Jaffe and Sherwood discuss and engage with their 1994 tome. I was pleased to moderate the forum, organized by the Greater Greater Washington blog.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays. View Archive

“Dream City” was released in the closing months of Sharon Pratt’s disastrous single term as mayor, as Marion Barry was on the cusp of completing the unlikeliest of political comebacks less than three years after leaving federal prison. The present moment in city history — with a mayoral and a council campaign as well as a D.C. Council member under federal scrutiny — is nearly as dramatic. Doubt in our political institutions, to say nothing of our politicians, is at a generational high tide.

But Jaffe and Sherwood agreed that the city itself thrives in a way that it did not two decades ago. “ We couldn’t write this book today,” Jaffe said. “ The city that we wrote about I don’t think exists any longer.” It is now, in Sherwood’s words, “wealthier, whiter and whinier.”

But the book’s deepest theme and greatest ambition speak to the present. “Dream City” is not a book about a particular politician or a particular campaign — although Barry’s first three mayoral terms dominate its pages — but a valuable attempt to explain the District’s great civic cliche. That is the trope of the “two Washingtons,” the federal and international power center juxtaposed with the too-often poor and violent neighborhoods it contains. Those contrasts are the tired leitmotif of so many newspaper and magazine articles, but like so many cliches, they refer to a reality that’s indisputably true.

Starting with the final decades of Congress’s rule over the District in the 1960s and ’70s, “Dream City” chronicles how the city was handed in 1973 the ability to run itself, but incompletely and in a way that was hampered by the legacy of congressional rule, setting the stage for the decline referenced in the book’s subtitle.

So what can the book tell us about a city in “un-decline”?

More than you’d think. The folkways of District politics persist, and many of the key characters remain active in city politics today — starting with Barry, the book’s hero and antihero, who shows no sign of leaving the civic stage anytime soon.

But newer generations have yet to meet the challenge of managing the tension between the old political demands and the realities of a changing, growing city. That challenge has already claimed one mayor — Adrian M. Fenty, who moved as “fast as humanly possible,” as he was fond of saying, without convincing a swath of the city that they were actually along for the ride. And it threatens to claim another: Vincent C. Gray, whose “one city” campaign pledge hasn’t been enough to animate his administration toward bold action in its first nine months.

And the city will continue to change, even if its politics do not.

It’s important to note that Monday’s event was held in the sparkling new Watha T. Daniel Library in Shaw, part of a decade-long public building boom funded by the private building boom that has continued downtown but also in once riot-scarred city neighborhoods — U Street, Columbia Heights, H Street NE — that have become some of the region’s most desirable places to live. Jaffe — a new resident of the 14th Street NW area that his old Ward 3 neighbors would have considered uninhabitable two decades ago — rode his bike there, as did I and dozens of others.

One topic of Monday’s discussion: How much progress was attributable to our political leadership and how much in spite of it?

Just as the District was the victim of national trends of urban disinvestment and population flight from the 1960s through the ’80s, the city has been the beneficiary of reinvestment and urban population growth in the past 15 years.

“The politicians can make things go faster or slower,” Jaffe said. “But I think the markets and the demographics are going to rule.”

That threatens the demographics of power in a city that has been a seat of black power for four decades. “Economic power is going to change this city,” Sherwood said. “I just hope we don’t do it in a way that African Americans are left out. But I fear that’s going to happen.”

The authors are considering whether to reissue “Dream City,” long out of print, as an e-book soon.

Much has changed, Sherwood acknowledged, but one thing has not: “We’re like an aquarium,” he said. “Congress can change the water any time it wants to.”

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