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Economic Summit Takes On Anacostia

Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, left, and Operation Hope founder John Hope Bryant attend the Anacostia summit.
Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, left, and Operation Hope founder John Hope Bryant attend the Anacostia summit. (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)

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By Neil Irwin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 4, 2006

In three months as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Ben S. Bernanke has learned how his words can affect global markets. Yesterday, he turned his attention closer to home.

Bernanke gave his take on how to ease poverty in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River in the District. So did World Bank President Paul D. Wolfowitz, a half-dozen Bush administration officials, and top leaders of several banks and other financial groups. It happened at the Anacostia Economic Summit, an event that aimed to engage some of the nation's financial leaders in discussing how to improve the lot of residents in the District's poorest neighborhoods and similar parts of other big cities.

Their message: Improve residents' access to banks, financial advice and homeownership, and broader prosperity will ensue.

Participants did not announce any specific new plans in that area. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said he hoped the event would help more residents of wards 7 and 8 to feel connected to growing prosperity in the city and to improve their financial literacy. An aide to the mayor said that the event helped build connections between small businesses in Ward 8 and growth around the city and that having speakers such as Bernanke and Wolfowitz can signal to the world that Anacostia and surrounding neighborhoods are on the upswing.

"I'm hopeful that this reinvigorated a community of small local businesses," said Stanley Jackson, deputy mayor for planning and economic development. "They may have felt disconnected when the first wave of billions of dollars of opportunity began to swirl, but this might help them realize there's still an opportunity to play a role."

By many measures, the area east of the river is experiencing a resurgence. More than 8,000 new housing units have been built there since 2000 after decades in which construction was sparse. A Giant Food store is under construction at Camp Simms, a site that has been vacant for decades. But the area still has the highest concentration of poverty in the region, considerable crime and an unemployment rate that has risen in the past five years.

Among the 500 attendees were businesspeople, activists and government officials. To some longtime residents of the neighborhood, the discussion seemed hollow.

Few of the speakers had deep ties to Southeast Washington. The event was held by Operation Hope, a Los Angeles organization devoted to improving financial literacy among inner-city residents. It has operated a center in Southeast for the past year.

"You look at who they have involved, and it's not those of us who live here and have been working to make Southeast a better place," said the Rev. Anthony J. Motley, a founder of Redemption Ministry, which works with ex-offenders in Southeast, saying that people more familiar with the community might have a better sense of how its problems might be solved.

Then there's the matter of geography. "Anacostia" refers to a historic neighborhood in Southeast; many residents chafe when the term is used to refer to the entire area east of the river. The Anacostia Economic Summit was, in fact, held a couple of miles from historic Anacostia.

"I just cringe every time they refer to the whole area east of the river as Anacostia," said Mary Cuthbert, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in nearby Congress Heights, between sessions.

It didn't help when the emcee, a Delaware native, pronounced the word "Acostia" a half-dozen or so times until someone corrected him.

There's also politics. John Hope Bryant, founder of Operation Hope, read aloud a letter from President Bush celebrating the summit, and several Bush appointees were on hand. Bush won 3 percent of the vote in Ward 8 in the 2004 election.

"This is not about partisan politics," Bryant said. "This is about the business of getting it done." Bryant was appointed by Bush to a Treasury Department advisory board but also has ties to prominent Democrats; he co-taught a class on financial literacy in Harlem with former president Bill Clinton. Civil rights leader Andrew Young, who spoke yesterday, is a mentor.

Bryant founded Operation Hope after the 1992 Los Angeles riots as a way to invest in America's inner cities. Financial sponsors of the group, and yesterday's event, include financial firms ETrade Financial Corp., Citigroup Inc. and GE Commercial Finance. Bryant describes the group's work trying to help African Americans become more financially successful as a successor to the civil rights movement -- the "silver rights" movement, he calls it.

He rejected the notion that yesterday's event amounted to a bunch of out-of-towners telling Southeast residents how to do things. The group isn't telling anybody how to do anything, he said -- merely offering help for residents who want to become more financially successful.

"Until you can get the right people to focus on your issue and show up and get vested in it, you don't have a snowball's chance in hell of creating any change in the issue," Bryant said. "But getting the Federal Reserve chairman to show up in Anacostia helps turn the corner in the way our leaders see Anacostia and every other poor community in the country."


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