D.C. Residents Hope Obama Administration Will Bring Improvements to City
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
On the campaign trail, he was all about changing Washington. But for the most part, Barack Obama was using the symbolic shorthand that "Washington" has come to evoke: a place where powerbrokers prevail, lousy laws are made and the little people don't really stand a chance.
What about the Washington where schools fester, the cops erect checkpoints worthy of war zones, young men gun each other down and where the bodies of four girls were found in a rowhouse guarded by their mother? An Obama administration can't work miracles, but local activists are optimistic; they see Obama as one of their own, given his background as a community organizer.
"The last eight years, in terms of engagement, D.C. has just been a photo op for the president, or a foil," says Tommy Wells, a social worker turned D.C. Council member. "I really do believe that I have a partner in the new president, someone who understands what it means to change a city to a safe, healthy place to grow up and grow old in."
The president-elect has signaled that he will engage more forcefully than his predecessors on the city's obvious disparities of class, color and income. "We stand not 10 miles from the seat of power in the most affluent nation on Earth," Obama said in a speech in Southeast Washington in July 2007. ". . . And yet here, on the other side of the river, every other child in Anacostia lives below the poverty line."
The then-senator made his campaign stop at a gleaming, $27 million showcase in Ward 8 called THEARC (for Town Hall Education, Arts and Recreation Campus), whose community services range from dance classes to dental care. There, Obama laid out proposals to "change the odds" for families mired in intergenerational poverty, an alternative to just hoping that some kids will "beat the odds" and emerge as miracles.
"He went to Anacostia for a reason," a presidential transition aide said last week. "He wanted to highlight the fact that he felt the federal government could play a role, specifically on intractable urban issues. . . . He and Michelle intend to be citizens of Washington, D.C." Obama's team has not entertained "specific requests" for help, according to the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not an authorized transition representative. But the president-elect has heard from Mayor Adrian Fenty on the city's needs, among them jobs and repairs to bridges, roads and school buildings.
Obama couldn't ask for a better test laboratory, a city where nearly 19 percent of the 588,000 residents struggle below the poverty line. If he were to walk the streets well beyond the inaugural route, Obama would find no shortage of people presenting petitions for what they think he must do for their Washington.
* * *
A mile and a half from the theater where Obama spoke, two old friends sit upstairs in a drug-and-alcohol rehab center, talking about problems that no amount of money or political rhetoric has ever banished from this corner of Anacostia. Crime, AIDS, addiction, guns, gangs. No president alone can solve them, they agree.
"Go right back to basics, brother," says Sam Foster, 69, leaning forward in his chair. "You have to go back to the parents. It's the family environment we're missing."
"These young folks having babies today," says Roscoe Jackson-El, 52, with a head shake.
"You've got a woman raising kids -- no man in the house!" Foster says.