‘Dream City’ connects D.C. students to city history


Marion Barry holds a news conference at MedStar National Rehabilitation Network on March 5. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Two decades ago, after then-D.C. Mayor Marion Barry’s infamous arrest for smoking crack cocaine at the Vista Hotel, local journalists Tom Sherwood and Harry Jaffe published a book that chronicled Barry’s life and the history of the District of Columbia.

Long out of print, “Dream City” has remained a defining account of the District’s struggles for civil rights and self-governance and against crack and violence. Now it’s available as an e-book, and there is a push to get it into the hands of high school students to help them understand the roots of the fast-changing city they call home.

“There’s no way you’re going to be a teenager reading this book and not have questions, or have something hook you,” said Cosby Hunt, a native Washingtonian and former D.C. history teacher who now works for the Center for Inspired Teaching.

With help from a D.C. Humanities Council grant, Hunt wrote lessons to accompany “Dream City” and then recruited history teachers at traditional, charter and private schools to teach the book. The effort culminated last Thursday evening at Martin Luther King Jr. Library, where dozens of students gathered to hear from the authors of the book.

“I’m gratified by you all, the teachers and the students,” Jaffe said. He added that he is “blown away and in awe” that they are reading the book.

Jaffe and Sherwood wrote “Dream City” to explain local Washington, a city with a history and a culture apart from official Washington. Jaffe calls it the city behind the monuments, and Sherwood calls it the most un-American place in America, thanks to the District’s lack of voting power.

“Americans across the country don’t see you, they don’t know you, they don’t know you’re voteless, they don’t know you have lives,” Sherwood told students in the audience Thursday. “I was hoping that our book could help give a sense that this is a place.”

Bernadette DeSario, a history teacher at Coolidge High, said that the book triggered a “level of outrage and inquiry” among students, who felt a personal connection to many of the events they read.

That sentiment was echoed by Bill Stevens, a teacher at SEED, a residential charter school in Southeast Washington. Students knew aunts, uncles and grandparents who had gotten their first jobs thanks to Barry’s administration and initiatives.

“It’s great to say, ‘That’s history. What your family experienced is history,’ ” Stevens said.

Brianna Cook, a senior at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Anacostia, said she was surprised to learn that Barry’s story was bigger than his arrest. She hadn’t known of his civil rights work or of his early accomplishments in politics.

“It gave us more insight into the leaders of the city, especially the black leaders,” Cook said. “Usually you only hear about the bad, but you got to see the good.”

Students from high schools including Coolidge, Roosevelt, Ellington and E.L. Haynes quizzed Jaffe and Sherwood during a question-and-answer session, asking about everything from the authors’ views on gentrification and race to why they thought Barry was able to win reelection after spending time in federal prison.

One student asked what the authors thought the government should do to keep teens from dropping out of high school.

“I always say that local Washington is only as good as the people active in it,” said Sherwood, urging students to register to vote and figure out how to get involved in issues they care about. “It’s really up to you.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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