A year of living locally

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Readers take stock of the 2009 events that changed our region.

Toast of the town



Our friend Guy took the train from New York, and somehow we got in contact with friends we had not seen in years, each person leading to another. We were celebrating. I learned late in the afternoon that 21 adults and children were coming to dinner. My daughters agreed to baby-sit for the little ones, anxious to do their part.

It was like a reunion, only better. We were looking forward.

We toasted the inauguration.

"I thought this day would never come," said Guy. Clink. Old friends and new -- and strangers -- came together peacefully and joyfully in the hope of what this man could do for our city, country and the world . . . and to say goodbye to the dark years since Sept. 11, 2001.

My husband and Guy biked in from Rosslyn early the next frigid morning. Millions thronged the Mall -- a sea of people from all over the world dwarfing our grand white marble monuments, creating a living global monument. My daughters, my mother and I watched from my warm family room, salty tears streaming down my face. "Look at that, girls, can you believe it?"

Ed and Guy returned much later, faces red and hands cold but invigorated, telling tales of how unusually kind everybody had been in difficult conditions. Maybe the Nobel Prize that came months later seemed premature. But not in the gut, the place that tells the world that Washington and America are back, trying to reconnect. That night, we lit the last of our Fourth of July fireworks, thrilled by the idea of a new city and country.

Whatever happens in the next three years, Jan. 20, 2009, was one of those glorious moments when individuals, cities and countries unite and from which they go forward, better than they were before.

Grace in hard times



During 2009 in our area, government stumbled along, our sports teams disappointed, the weather was never good enough, Metro tanked and traffic remained impossible. No news in any of that. But there was a new spirit in the air that affected almost everybody.

All year, people spoke of hard times, of people they knew who were unemployed, who had lost their homes or who had to do without some luxury. People talked of budgets, working harder, helping others who were worse off. Was this a good or bad spirit? Its origins were in the greedy and selfish deeds of people who already had plenty of money. What they did certainly caused a great deal of suffering to largely innocent citizens. Those were two bad things. But the spirit itself, one of lowered expectations, personal resolve and more concern for others, was one mighty good thing.

Our neighbors and friends had to step back and reassess, to live more wisely and to guard the important things -- home, job and family -- more closely. They were going to see it through by taking more personal responsibility for their lifestyles. The little pains they felt made the greater suffering of the less fortunate more palpable. Now the new cars, McMansions, electronics, exotic vacations and gourmet food that seem indispensable and a God-given right two years ago were not only dispensable but maybe bad habits that could not go on forever.

One saying defines "grace" as being grateful for what you have, rather than spiteful about what you don't have. A little grace fell over the Washington area in 2009 and has lingered. I hope it lasts a long time.

Full circle in Columbia Heights



To me, the most important thing to happen in the region this year might seem small to someone else: the unveiling of permanent heritage signs in the Columbia Heights neighborhood.

In October, 19 new signs reflecting the many improvements in this neighborhood were unveiled by the group Cultural Tourism D.C., which has erected such historical markers throughout many city neighborhoods. Having attended Central High School at 13th and Clifton streets NW, and having owned and operated Smith Pharmacy at 2518 14th St. NW from 1959 to 1968, I found that the event brought back many memories -- some happy, some not so happy. I was personally honored when one of the Cultural Tourism signs displayed a photo and the history of my pharmacy, right across the street from its former location.

During the riot triggered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968, my drugstore was one of the many businesses that were burned down. In the aftermath, many merchants, including myself, decided not to reopen, resulting in many residents moving out of the neighborhood.

But time passed. Immigrants moved in. Social services and political organizations developed. Some rebuilding occurred. The opening of Metro's Columbia Heights Station in 1999 speeded things up. Now, former 14th Street retailers such as Kay Jewelers, Lerner's, Standard Drug and G.C. Murphy have been replaced by Target, Best Buy, CVS and Giant.

Thus, to me, 2009 represents the moment when a great neighborhood in the nation's capital came full circle. Despite the persistence of occasional crime (and the notorious recent snowball fight at 14th and U streets NW), with increased police supervision, this neighborhood will thrive for years to come.

McDonnell shows the way


Montgomery Village

Robert McDonnell's election as governor of Virginia could prove a pivotal event in 2010. Not only does it signal a revival of the Republican Party in that state, it could have a spillover effect into the politics and policies of neighboring areas, particularly Maryland, which holds its own governor's race this year. Attentive politicians and voters will take note of what happened.

McDonnell's election showed that the everyday concerns of voters, such as transportation, education and the economy, matter more than ideology. He campaigned -- and won -- as a moderate. (Of course, the proof will be in the pudding. Let's see whether he governs as a moderate).

As a result, Virginia has reaffirmed the importance of a strong two-party system, in which neither party is dominant for long and voters are willing to replace a party or candidate if it underperforms. Will the same thing happen in Maryland? For many years, the Democrats have been the dominant party; in some years, the Republicans have had trouble fielding credible candidates. But perhaps the Maryland GOP will be emboldened by McDonnell's victory to run someone as formidable as McDonnell. I say this as someone who is a registered Democrat, who consistently votes for Democrats and who probably will do so again this year.

The region is better served with a vibrant two-party system fielding strong candidates of contrasting views and giving the voters a real choice -- and an outcome that most people can feel comfortable with regardless of party. And that's why McDonnell's victory mattered so much.

The biggest show on earth



In 2009, Washington became an imperial city with centralized power and total control of the nation's agenda. Sorry, Wall Street and Hollywood. You don't count anymore.

Cranes dotted the D.C. skyline as the building boom continued in spite of the national recession. Young, single professionals flocked here to work, and U Street, H Street and 18th Street have been revitalized to cater to their lifestyles. Homeland security, health care, defense and government top lists of employment opportunities. Even though we deal with above-average crime rates, a Metro system that crashes just when it's most needed, stifling traffic, substandard schools and unplowed streets, this is the city on which our nation is focused, the way the French regard Paris.

Washington is the hub of life for decision-making and for affecting our plans and dreams. Is it any wonder people look at me incredulously when I say I live downtown, in the heart of the city, only 20 blocks north of the White House? They know I have a front-row seat to the biggest show on earth!

The Burgundy Revolution



This was the year of the Burgundy Revolution. The Redskins began the season as usual, deluding themselves into thinking they were one or two high-priced free agents (Albert Haynesworth and DeAngelo Hall) from a championship. Haynesworth reported out of shape and spent most of the season sucking wind on the field or the sideline while fighting with his coaching staff. Hall missed key tackles in games against the league's lesser teams, doing his part to contribute to a highly disappointing season.

Meanwhile, to help pay for these acquisitions, the Redskins sued longtime customers hit by the recession. Leaders of the revolution emerged, including Danny Rouhier, the official Comic of the Burgundy Revolution; Dan Steinberg, Post blogger extraordinaire; John Riggins, running back of the revolution and You Tube video producer; and Alan Poho, organizer of the Facebook group "Redskin Fans Against Dan Snyder." Most important, everyday fans rebelled -- until signs and T-shirts such as "Dumb and Dumber," "Fire Vinny" and "Snyder Sucks" had to be banned from FedEx Field and ESPN-980 events. (The signs were a "safety issue," yet the Redskins required fans in the Gray parking lot to ford a creek on the way to the stadium.)

Fans left games early, sold their tickets to supporters of opposing teams and reduced their purchases of concessions and merchandise. They also took to Web 2.0 outlets to revolt. The Redskins were forced to fire their incompetent vice president of football operations. This has given fans some hope for the future -- but a new ownership team would provide everyone with a much happier New Year.

Metro's horrible year



The June 22 Metrorail crash that killed nine people highlighted the region's worst problem in 2009: lack of trust in the Metro system and more automobile congestion. The accident underscored not only Metro's mismanagement but years of misplaced national and regional priorities in offering insufficient funding for mass transit while overemphasizing expanding or building highways.

It's hard to take when Metro's trains experience constant delays or continually go out of service. To be sure of arriving at a destination on time, it's safer to take a cab. More people, frustrated with Metro's inefficiencies and higher fares, are going back to driving to work. The folly of building the intercounty connector in the Maryland suburbs demonstrates again the misguided view that expensive new highway projects will relieve traffic jams on the Beltway and elsewhere. Virginia lawmakers who propose widening Interstate 66 offer no proof that such construction will relieve bottlenecks. If anything, this chasing of good money after bad will bring more gridlock, with its attendant environmental harm.

More than 10 years ago, I remember reading about Northern Virginia residents who were so daunted by traffic congestion on weekends that they refused to leave home unless it was an emergency. Things have only gotten worse. The joke now is to allow more than an hour for a ride to the supermarket that should take five minutes. Putting more resources into the Metrorail system might encourage better ridership and fewer cars on the road. Otherwise, the unbelievable gridlock that area drivers encountered during this Christmas season will be a running nightmare into 2010.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company