In D.C., a booming city shrugs off new allegations of political corruption


Sharon Bell waits for a bus along Minnesota Avenue NE on March 11 in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Within a block of the spanking new public library in downtown Ward 7 where Tracy Lipscomb sometimes passes the day, a 376-unit apartment complex is nearing completion, its putty-colored exterior and sharply angled lines already spiffing up an intersection long known best for its scruffy look and rampant crime.

Things are looking up at the intersection of Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue NE, and in a neighborhood where the median income is just $27,000, that’s welcome news, even if Mayor Vincent C. Gray turns out to be yet another in a long line of municipal miscreants.

“The neighborhood’s getting better,” Lipscomb says. “Poor Gray, he’s kind of crooked. But here, it’s safer, busier, all kinds of people moving in.”

Lipscomb, 58, remains bullish about the District despite the latest surge of corruption cases involving city officials — a dichotomy that residents rich and poor alike seem to have made peace with. In a city where the skyline is framed, as Gray often notes, with more than 50 construction cranes, and bidding wars for houses are back in fashion in the most desirable neighborhoods, the decades-old problem of ethical shortcomings in D.C. government strikes many residents as a sideshow — depressing and annoying, but not devastating to the city’s economic boom.

“The city’s reputation does take a hit,” says Michael Stevens, executive director of the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District, which works to market and develop the area along the Anacostia River near Nationals Park. “But it doesn’t impact the growth and development of the city. Developers and business people look at corruption in the city and they shrug and say, ‘Well, it’s just the District.’ ”

Despite this week’s allegations by prosecutors that the mayor schemed with a prominent businessman to finance an illegal “shadow campaign” in 2010, business leaders and residents seem confident that corruption in high places does not jeopardize the District’s position as one of the nation’s most magnetic cities for highly educated millennials.

Dan Berger, founder and chief executive of Social Tables, a tech start-up that serves the hospitality industry, says the city can be useful to entrepreneurs; for example, his chief of engineering came to his company through a city program that subsidizes companies willing to train unemployed residents.

But Berger says that most of his 30 employees don’t vote in city elections and that the District’s politics often seem almost beside the point: “There’s so much momentum now that the government probably couldn’t stop the growth of digital D.C. even if it wanted to.”

On the streets of tough neighborhoods that are starting to turn the corner and in areas of town where buildings spring up as suddenly as March crocuses, voters express deep disappointment in Gray and the three Council members — Michael A. Brown, Kwame R. Brown and Harry Thomas Jr. — who were forced to resign in the past two years after pleading guilty to corruption charges.

“The leadership in this city has always been a little suspect,” says Angela Dow, 45, a federal worker who was visiting the Benning Road library. “But I still like the way the city is going. New businesses, property values going up. Sometimes the development does displace people, but other than that, I like how we’re going. I wish we could have somebody other than Gray — it’s always bothered me the way he tainted the last election — but what a politician does would never embarrass me for my city.”

“Gray’s innocent till proven guilty,” says Deon Jenkins, 35, an unemployed Ward 7 resident who is looking for work in retail or construction. “But whatever he did, these new buildings are still going up, and that brings more money to the city and opportunities for the people building them. The problem is there’s less opportunities for the working people.”

Five miles west, in a mixed-income townhouse community in Southeast built at the initiative of former mayor Anthony Williams, some of the city’s newer residents are barely aware of the wayward behavior of some elected officials. Here, near Nationals Park, six of the first seven residents asked about the mayor’s latest problems had not heard anything about the allegations. Most had no plans to vote in the April 1 Democratic mayoral primary, either.

Norma Verona, a 36-year-old administrator at a D.C. elementary school who moved to the city 12 years ago, follows the Gray story closely but can’t vote in the primary because she’s a Republican — “stuck without a vote in a one-party town,” she says. Verona and her family stay in the District because they love their walkable neighborhood and see the public schools improving, though her husband sometimes agitates for a move to Virginia.

Verona says the city was more clearly on the rise during the mayoralties of Williams and Adrian Fenty, but she’s willing to stick it out because she’s optimistic that growth will continue “despite the government. And I think the new residents will demand less corruption. As parents, we unite and bombard the chancellor, and that’s how we get things done.”

The affluent and those just scraping by agree that the city’s newcomers — about 1,100 people a month are moving into the District — are putting new pressure on politicians, holding them accountable and maybe even forcing unethical behavior into public view.

“New people come in, and they’re very shocked by the inability to get anything done in the city,” says T.D. Stanger, a 30-year D.C. resident who bought a house in the ballpark neighborhood in Southeast three years ago. “The levels of corruption are just disgusting. But our young blood, they’re educated and liberal, and they expect accountability. The crooks can’t hide anymore; look how many are getting indicted and going to jail.”

“What has helped D.C. grow is having a generation come in and think they can fix it,” says Amanda Jones, 35, a lawyer at the Justice Department. When Jones moved from San Diego to the Navy Yard section of Southeast in 2009, she says, “My impression of the city as an outsider was Marion Barry, and why do they keep electing that man?”

Then she lived here for a few years and had two children, which prompted her to pay close attention to the quality of the city’s schools. Now Jones is cheered to see her fellow newcomers demanding — and getting — improved services and amenities. “I certainly don’t like living in a city where the government is corrupt,” she says, “but there are tons of things about living here that we love, and we’re not going to give up seeing the Capitol every day and living with all this history just because the city government isn’t what it should be.”

Corruption has been a mainstay of D.C. politics for decades; by the end of Barry’s third term as mayor in 1990, 14 administration officials had been convicted of or pleaded guilty to crimes related to their official duties.

The Barry-era corruption “drove people out,” says Stevens, the economic development director. “The Barry administration made Montgomery, Fairfax and Prince George’s three of the richest counties on the East Coast because of the flight from the city. But the Williams and Fenty administrations turned things around, with balanced budgets, attracting retail and neighborhood revitalization.”

Since the opening of the Fresh Fields (now Whole Foods) store on P Street NW in 2001, 28 supermarkets have opened in a city where many residents used to have to travel to the suburbs for basic grocery shopping. Target and Wal-Mart have opened stores in the city, and more are coming. New movie theaters are slated for Shaw, NoMa and near Nationals Park.

Despite the overall economic improvement, many low-income residents say the city has become a harder place to live. In Gray’s home ward, Lipscomb has decided that he can’t support the mayor this time — “Gray’s shady, man,” he says — but he need only walk around his neighborhood to see new housing, retail and city facilities. “The city’s getting better,” he says, “just not for us.”

Marc Fisher, a senior editor, writes about most anything. He’s been The Post’s enterprise editor, local columnist and Berlin bureau chief, and he’s covered politics, education, pop culture, and much else in three decades on the Metro, Style, National and Foreign desks.
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