Marion Barry’s vision for redrawing the boundaries of Ward 8

Every legislative body in the country is now pondering redrawing their boundaries, and the process typically goes like this: Legislators get together with their buddies, and they draw lines that have one aim above all: to keep as many friendly voters in their own districts as possible.

The D.C. Council’s Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) is going about things in a different way. He is dead set on annexing into his bailiwick citizens who have very little interest in voting for him.

“We don’t need in 2011 an all-segregated ward,” he said Wednesday. “That’s anti-democratic.”

He represents an area whose name has become a shorthand for social and economic decay. In D.C., “Ward 8” has long had the same ring as Skid Row in Los Angeles, Roxbury in Boston or the Lower Ninth in New Orleans — a shorthand for poverty, unemployment, fatherless families, bad schools and poor health.

Barry would like to polish the Ward 8 brand by going west — redrawing its boundaries to include what are now revitalizing parts of Ward 6, just across the Anacostia River. Call it manifest destiny, Marion Barry-style.

“What we need is diversity,” Barry said. “We need economic diversity; we need racial diversity.”

There’s a reason he mentioned “economic diversity” first. Barry is eyeing the portions of Ward 6 that he’s eyeing — the Southwest Waterfront and the area in Southeast near Nationals Park — in part because they happen to be home to some of the largest-scale development efforts the city has ever seen.

“As soon as this bill is signed, the Akridges and the Deborah [Ratner Salzbergs] and others, they’ll be part of Ward 8,” he said, referring to two prominent developers who are active in the ballpark area. “So when they go to a meeting somewhere, they’ll talk about the Yards” — a major project by Salzberg’s Forest City Washington — “and they’ll say the Yards are in Ward 8. People will get an instant change of perception.”

Have no doubt that Ward 8 has been left behind by the wave of development that has swept the city in the past decade. But the first wisps of investment are plain to see. Shuttered housing projects have become middle-class oases in what had been deserts of poverty. New homeowners in Anacostia are sprucing up a neighborhood every bit as quaint as Capitol Hill. And the massive redevelopment of St. Elizabeths Hospital now underway stands to pump untold dollars into the ward economy.

Barry is more preoccupied with his ward’s dismal present than its promising future, quick as always to rattle off all the unsettling statistics that illustrate Ward 8’s marginalization. “Since I represent a 98 percent African American ward with 55, 54 percent poverty, with 82 percent female head of households, then I have to advocate for that strongly,” he said, though census figures show that his ward is actually 93.5 percent black. “But when I have some diversity, then I can reflect some of the views of the diverse population.”

Bring a small chunk of Ward 8 across the river, he says, and things will change fast.

“When I talk about Ward 8, I’ll be able to talk about how we went from $25,000 average family income to $35,000 or something like that. . . . I can talk about poverty rates that are going way down. I can talk about this being a very diverse community.”

Will Barry’s boundaries become reality? Ward 8, having lost population over the past decade, has to grow somehow. But there are less controversial ways to make that happen. Barry has no direct role in the council’s line-drawing — three of his colleagues are charged with coming up with a map, which all 13 council members will then vote on.

Michael A. Brown (I-At large), who is chairing the redistricting panel, says it is “too early to tell” whether Barry’s proposal has any legs. Other council members privately doubt that Ward 8 will ever cross the river. But Barry says he will not vote for a redistricting plan that keeps Ward 8 completely east of the Anacostia. He also says he will consider suing his colleagues if he doesn’t get his way.

Barry has mustered dozens of residents to come down to the John A. Wilson Building and testify in support of a bicoastal Ward 8 (including a couple, it turns out, that don’t even live in the city). But his would-be constituents in Ward 6 have been just as vocal in denouncing Barry’s expansionist ambitions.

Mary Williams, who lives across from Nationals Park on South Capitol Street, joined many of her neighbors in speaking out against the move at a hearing this week, saying it would “dilute our political voice.”

“If we are absorbed into Ward 7 or Ward 8, we will not solve Ward 7 or Ward 8’s problems,” she said. “It will not overcome the poverty of Ward 8 or Ward 7. It will not contribute to the . . . reduction of unemployment in that area. It will not educate the people of Ward 7 or Ward 8.”

 
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