With population growth, the face of D.C. is changing

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, January 2, 2010; A13

The past decade has witnessed the remaking of the District . . . even as the mayor and the D.C. Council tussle among themselves.

From a Post story:

"The administration's attitude toward the council sometimes has seemed to be: Who needs them? Haven't they been part of the problem?"

" 'The mayor himself, when he is supporting important legislative initiatives, should personally talk with individual council members,' [Ward 2 Democratic council member Jack] Evans said. 'Up to now, using surrogates and having breakfast with the full council is not the way to influence the legislative process.

" 'Things are not always going to go smoothly,' Evans added. 'But a more personal touch will produce better results.' "

The article continued: "Many black community leaders east of the Anacostia River . . . are increasingly worried that their part of town might be left behind as [the mayor's] vision of an economic rebirth in the District continues to unfold, drawing whites back into the city."

Sounds like familiar criticisms about Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and his administration. Those statements, which appeared in an article published exactly 10 years ago, referred to Mayor Anthony A. Williams.

The current mayor and council still bug each other. But, after a decade, is it the same-old, same-old? Hardly.

Today's District of Columbia is not the city Williams inherited in 1999.

Case in point: the controversial snowball fight at 14th and U Streets NW.

More white people gathered during the snowstorm at that historically black intersection than the total number who ventured into the U Street corridor in all of the '70s. (Well, maybe not, but you know what I mean.) More to the point, the snowballers weren't outsiders. They were cavorting in their own newly acquired neighborhood.

That's change.

And we have grown in 10 years.

The District has added almost 28,000 residents since 2000, the Census Bureau reports. What's more, between July 2008 and July 2009, the city's population grew by 9,500 people. That phenomenal growth is attributed to a combination of births and new residents from other states and overseas.

Racial tensions, much feared in 2000, have not exploded into something worse.

The Post article warned Mayor Williams not to lose sight of racial polarization. "Race," a community leader said at the time, "is simmering just beneath the surface. You can't just turn the administration of this city over to young white boys and expect people to say all is fine and dandy."

Songs of praise may not have been sung, but racial changes at the top occurred anyway. And not just in one direction or in one place.

In the past 10 years, the District has become more ethnically diverse and, probably, less straight. Urban pioneers have become settled homeowners and are having babies. And the face of Washington is filling out, too. For the first time in nearly two decades, the District has nearly 600,000 residents.

The 10-year growth spurt has brought in residents with more income and education. Over that same time, two once-influential D.C. institutions -- labor unions and black churches -- have been relegated to marginal positions in city life. Both are casualties of black flight to the suburbs.

Union and church members, once rich sources of votes in the city's eight political wards, are now in "Ward 9": the domicile of former D.C. residents who work and worship in the city by day but live, vote and play in the suburbs by night.

It's not far-fetched to say that the city's power center is shifting from longtime residents to the newly arrived, meaning those who have moved in over the past 10 years or so.

The political story of the decade, largely unreported, is how a succession of mayors has recognized and tried to accommodate the changes they saw coming -- changes driven more by economics than by race. The simple truth: People moving in have the bucks to buy.

Williams never tried to stand in the way. Fenty hasn't either. Instead, both mayors, without saying so, have sought to prepare residents, especially the younger generation, for what's to come: a more racially diverse and more competitive District where education and skills will matter more than the cover of a protective racial blanket.

Hence, the near feverish emphasis in both administrations on upgrading public schools.

Both have also tried to accommodate change by working to improve the quality of government, by making neighborhoods more hospitable and by building a vibrant, income-generating downtown to sustain growth.

Fenty said during a news conference that the population gains "reflect a significant vote of confidence that the District of Columbia is moving in the right direction."

That, I hope, comes without leaving the soul of the city behind.


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