D.C.'s Eternal Mayor Watches Over His Ward

D.C. Council member and former mayor Marion Barry says good schools are key to revitalizing his Ward 8, one of the poorest areas in the city.
D.C. Council member and former mayor Marion Barry says good schools are key to revitalizing his Ward 8, one of the poorest areas in the city. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
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By Marc Fisher
Thursday, July 31, 2008

T hree mayors have sought to remake Ward 8, home to many of Washington's poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods. One, Marion Barry, got nowhere but is widely beloved, hailed on the street as a champion of the needy. The next, Anthony Williams, utterly transformed the landscape yet was treated as an arrogant outsider from Day One right up until his departure. The third, Adrian Fenty, eschews grand visions and emotional bonds, promising only to make things work.

When Fenty shows up on a Ward 8 street corner, he speaks mainly to the TV cameras and the scribblers; when Barry, the ward's council member, drops by, residents' attention quickly slides over from the current mayor to the eternal one.

Even now, in the waning years of the Barry era, the man who once dubbed himself The Situationist is playing his pragmatic brand of politics with consummate craft. The same politician who railed against the evils of gentrification when Williams was replacing old housing projects with hundreds of new homes embraces those developments as the heart of "the new Ward 8."

Barry is an evangelist for a plan to transform national parkland at Poplar Point into a high-end retail and residential community, a project not unlike those he used to deride during the Williams years as the vanguard of a yuppie takeover of working-class black neighborhoods.

He used to open any discussion of his home ward with a litany of metrics that spell out human misery -- the poverty, crime, health and literacy numbers that once showed Ward 8 at the very bottom of not only the city but also the nation. He still recites stories about "the old Ward 8. Didn't have one supermarket. Didn't have one sit-down restaurant." But they serve only as prelude to a new tale, one of rapid change, even in the sputtering national economy.

As Barry took me on a tour of his ward the other day, he pointed proudly to pricey houses ("I never thought in my lifetime I'd see a $450,000 house in Ward 8," he said), to suburban-style model homes that replaced public housing projects and to families who've been introduced to the joys and responsibilities of homeownership without taking on loans they cannot sustain. (In contrast to many surrounding areas, Ward 8 has had relatively few foreclosures, largely because many working-class families entered the ranks of homeowners through government subsidies rather than adjustable-rate mortgages.)

In public settings, Barry still says that "if we are not careful, we are going to become a city of the very, very rich and the very, very poor." But alone in his car, he sounds like a developer, touting the idea that bringing in residents with stable jobs and a stake in the community will do more to stabilize neighborhoods in Southeast than any government giveaway.

The sheer number of housing units under construction and planned for Ward 8 is staggering, especially in light of the For Sale signs spreading like a bad infection through many Washington suburbs. Add the long-promised and finally opened Giant store at the former Camp Sims military base and a locally owned pancake house about to open in the same complex, and there are more reasons than there have been in half a century for families to choose this close-in piece of the District over suburban communities requiring much longer commutes.

Except, of course, for one big obstacle: the schools. "For a long time," Barry says, "they tried to bring developers here, and nobody wanted to come because of the crime. But they took down the housing projects, and the demographics just changed." Now, he says, the sky's the limit -- if parents can find good schools.

"Anthony Williams wanted 100,000 new residents in the city, mostly single and childless," Barry says. "That was his philosophy. My philosophy is try to keep people here, and the charter schools is the way to do it. If it weren't for the charter schools and the Catholic schools becoming charter schools, we'd be in very bad shape. If people have good, safe schools, they'll want to live here."

He has not turned his back on his traditional constituency, the people he has long referred to lovingly as "the last and the least." He's riding herd on Fenty to fix payroll problems with the city's summer jobs program for teenagers, and he's planning two charter schools of his own -- in a sense coming full circle, returning to his roots as a community organizer.

But he has changed his rhetoric, talking less about channeling public dollars directly to the needy and more about the power of growth and mixed-income developments to lift up those on society's lowest rungs.

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