D.C. to poor: Take a hike

Courtland Milloy
Columnist November 27, 2012

As an increasingly elite D.C. begins walling itself off from the masses, the rough outline of an architecturally restored yet soulless city emerges. Redlined school boundaries around wealthy neighborhoods keep out less-privileged students. Closed streets and parking restrictions make for a “walkable city.” For the low-income resident who must travel longer distances to get to work and stores, a better description would be “trudge town.”

In the new D.C., the rich take a stroll. The poor take a hike.

“Wilson High drawbridge to students east of the park is going up,” read the headline on Ken Archer’s Nov. 9 post on the Greater Greater Washington blog. The park being Rock Creek, that great wall of trees and moat of rocks and running water dividing Northwest Washington — the west side, where Wilson is located, being mostly wealthy and mostly white.

No middle school students from outside the Wilson boundary were accepted this year, raising the specter of a “new line between educational haves and have-nots,” wrote Archer, chief technical officer of a software firm who lives in Georgetown.

You’d hope that striving for the common good would continue through a building boom, that the economic gap among District residents wouldn’t grow so wide that the well-to-do would lose sight of those on the other side.

“What I think is missing is a vision of what we can do to preserve affordable housing, maintain diversity by helping those who are struggling to stay in the city as housing costs go up,” said Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. “The number of families with children in the city is going down, and they are largely African American families, low- and moderate-income families who aren’t just moving to other parts of town but actually leaving the city.”

This month, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) unveiled an economic development plan that he says will create 100,000 jobs and generate $1 billion in tax revenue over the next five years. But who will get those jobs?
D.C. residents hold less than 30 percent of the jobs in the city, and readiness programs tried so far just haven’t worked.

But what if the city got as serious about creating jobs as making bike lanes? A study by Lazere found that if every adult living below the poverty line who was able to work had a $15-an-hour full-time job, then 80 percent of poor families in the city would be lifted 150 percent above the poverty line.

Jim Dickerson, founder of Manna and an advocate for social justice in the city for more than 40 years, said: “The bottom line is building community, getting people in Ward 3 (west of the park) to see that their future is tied to wards 7 and 8 (east of the park) and that’s a real hard connection for some to make.”

Until there is a crime, of course, such as the recent fatal stabbing at the Woodley Park Metro, which serves the National Zoo and the upscale Adams Morgan neighborhood. With the suspects believed to have come from east of the Anacostia River, some are calling for even more separation — with a blue line of police patrols as the divide.

The fight brewing over school boundaries highlights a more systemic problem.

“If there is one system that serves rich neighborhoods, and another serving the poor neighborhoods, would well-meaning parents in the wealthier and more politically powerful neighborhoods lobby for more funding for traditional public education and inadvertently disadvantage less affluent areas?” Archer wrote on the Greater Greater Washington blog. “Or would politicians from the poorer wards of the District end up opposing DCPS’s needs? A battle for resources between the haves and have-nots is not what we need, regardless of how it turns out.”

District officials recently announced a plan to promote bicycling and mass transit, with changes that could affect 10,000 parking spaces. How about making the creation of 10,000 decent-paying jobs for working-poor residents more of a priority?

“That is the sign of the future. That discourages car ownership,” said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), referring to the aggressive campaign against parking spaces.

Meanwhile, the basic rush-hour fare for a Metro bus and rail ride is up to $1.60 and $2.10, respectively, making public transportation more expensive than some car trips.

“Stay out.” That’s what the sign of the future really says.

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