The white SUV slowed to a stop in front of a row of brick townhouses in Southeast Washington, and the back window slid down to reveal a famous political face.
The sight of Marion Barry was enough to prompt Calvin Turner and Ivan Driver to interrupt their conversation and smile as if they were greeting an old friend. Then they unleashed a litany of complaints about life in Ward 8, the rolling swath of poor and blue-collar neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River that Barry will represent on the D.C. Council beginning next week.
Arnita and Chris Smith, with their children, Christopher Jr., 5, and Cheyenne Victoria, 1, say they are concerned about Marion Barry's attitude toward Ward 8's emerging middle class. The Smiths live in Wheeler Creek.
(Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
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Their grievances included a lack of playgrounds and recreation centers for children and the new housing in the area that is selling for what they regard as sky-high prices.
"Who . . . has $300,000 for a condo?" asked Turner, 56, a van driver.
Barry nodded and grinned, as if the men were reading from his script about the emerging class divide in the District's poorest ward. "We don't need Mickey Mouse down there anymore," said Driver, 46, who is unemployed, referring to D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). "We need you back."
Over the past decade, Ward 8 has undergone dramatic changes: Its population has declined by 15 percent, and mixed-income communities have replaced sprawling public housing complexes. Barry has remained a constant, revered as a voice for residents who believe their neighborhoods have been failed by the political establishment, the same establishment he commanded as mayor over four terms.
As he prepares for his swearing-in Sunday, Barry, 68, envisions an ambitious agenda, from lobbying for the end of the elected school board to continuing to oppose the plan to build a publicly financed baseball stadium that he derided as the greatest robbery "since Jesse James." For Ward 8, Barry said he will press for the construction of 10,000 units of low- and moderate-income housing and for the restaurants and supermarkets for which residents have long yearned.
"You have to give people hope," said Barry, sporting a gray beard that he grew after the election, as he ate a chicken sandwich at Cole's Cafe, a cafeteria-style restaurant that is one of the ward's only sit-down dining spots. "They're walking with their heads down."
For all his plans, however, Barry probably will be judged less by legislation than by his ability to speak for those who fear that Southeast's revival has left them behind. That Barry's administration, particularly in his last two terms, failed to spend millions of federal dollars earmarked for housing and health care in the city's poorest neighborhoods appears to be of little consequence to his supporters. And if in the rest of the city the mere mention of his name evokes memories of fiscal mismanagement and his 1990 misdemeanor drug conviction, that only seems to add to his populist appeal in many parts of Ward 8.
"Voting for Marion was a statement from us to them," said Eugene DeWitt Kinlow, the former president of the ward's Democratic club. "We put a person in who remembers us. We put someone in who would tell the Man the way it is. People in Ward 8 don't often get to make that kind of statement. You put Marion back in office, and we will be heard."
Not all the ward's residents are confident that Barry represents their interests. Chris and Arnita Smith are among a new wave that has moved in, paying $100,000 in 2001 for a three-bedroom house at Wheeler Creek, on the site of the former Valley Green public housing complex, once among the city's most violent. In recent months, the couple said, a neighboring house sold for $200,000.
Chris Smith, 35, vice president of a social services organization and the head of Wheeler Creek's homeowners association, said he is well aware of Barry's reputation for setting up summer jobs programs for youth and for showering attention on senior citizens and the poor. But he questioned whether Barry's agenda will include new homeowners concerned more about property values than finding employment.
"Will he be for those of us who are aspiring to be middle class?" Smith asked on a recent Sunday, as his wife and two young children arranged holiday lights on their porch.
Arnita Smith, 34, looked up from the decorations. "This is not the same ward it once was," she said. "The people he used to know, they're not here anymore. He has to move with the change."