Sense of optimism remains evident in D.C. despite 4-year shift in momentum

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 4, 2010; 10:03 PM

Four years ago, as D.C. voters went to the polls to choose a new mayor, the city was luxuriating in prosperity: Construction cranes were ubiquitous on the skyline; the murder toll was at a 23-year low; a new baseball stadium was rising along the Anacostia waterfront.

A famously buttoned-down town was turning cosmopolitan.

Now, as the electorate decides whether to grant Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) a second term, a national recession has vaulted the District's unemployment rate into double digits, the cranes have largely vanished and the once-giddy sense that Washington was becoming a humming, 24-hour metropolis has been constrained by a more-tempered reality. The setting for this year's election, and the city's mood, have shifted.

"We took a great leap forward; people began to see us as a big city, and what became apparent is that we had a city that could be measured by the best of national and global standards," said Richard H. Bradley, executive director of the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District. "We've had a big slowdown. On a physical level, it has stalled the expansion and changing nature of the city."

Nonetheless, a sense of optimism prevails, as suggested by a recent Washington Post poll that found that 56 percent of those surveyed applaud the city's direction. As host to the federal government, the District has fared better during the slowdown than nearly the rest of the country, adding jobs as other cities shed them.

Since 2006, a new president moved into the White House with his young family. A still-fresh baseball team inspired hope - and controversy - with its city-financed stadium. Washingtonians could applaud new multimillion-dollar recreation centers, rising test scores in public schools, a continuing decline in the murder rate and a population that rose from 585,000 in 2006 to nearly 600,000 last year.

The metabolism of the city changed, too. Singles occupied nearly half of the households, and new clubs and bars sprouted to entertain them, expanding the city's night life to once-riot-torn areas such as 14th Street NW and H Street NE. With the help of TV shows such as "Top Chef" and "D.C. Cupcake," Washington became known as a place to enjoy not just a half-smoke but also cutting-edge cuisine and faddish treats.

Yet even with the dizzying changes, some things remained maddeningly the same: Rush-hour traffic still crawled along the city's main corridors; the Redskins frustrated their fans on most Sundays; corruption scandals still burbled from within the bowels of the District government; and Metro's escalators conked out seemingly everywhere.

Constant tensions

Across generations, race and class tensions in the city have been a constant. The percentage of residents who are black fell to 54 percent last year - a 6 percent decline from the previous decade - while the white portion of the population rose from 31 percent to 41 percent. Yet the citywide unity that swept Fenty into office in 2006 soon frayed, as whites largely supported and blacks mainly opposed the methods and manner of the public school reform drive championed by the mayor and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.

Kevin P. Chavous, a former D.C. Council member from Ward 7, east of the Anacostia, said those diverging views have been exacerbated by the recession, which has been felt far more keenly by the city's poor and working-class population, most of whom are black. "We're clearly polarized," Chavous said. "There's less out there, and the people who have less resources are going to feel it. There's more tension. There's more frustration. We have a huge dependent-care population that's more dependent as the government can do less."

Still, optimism remains evident in areas such as Columbia Heights or along the H Street corridor, places teeming with new residential towers, shops, bars and restaurants that have redefined long-decrepit vistas. "On the whole, the city is going in a much better direction," said Christopher Smith, 39, a choral conductor, after eating a $12 corned beef, pastrami and potato latke sandwich at the Star and Shamrock, a new tavern on H Street NE that combines the menu of a Jewish deli with the liquor offered at an Irish bar. "Nicer places are opening up. People weren't coming here a few years ago, and now they are."

The optimism is shared by H Street's long-standing proprietors, such as Arthur Hillman, whose barbershop has catered to African American patrons for more than two decades. In recent years, he said, his clientele has come to include whites and Hispanics who have moved into the area. Yet Hillman said his enthusiasm is tempered by the knowledge that rising rents have forced fellow shopkeepers to close, a fate he avoided by buying his storefront in 1983.

"I feel bad for them," he said. "You lose friendships, camaraderie. You've got to introduce yourself to new people."

Adjusted expectations

In other neighborhoods, civic leaders have adjusted expectations as developers have retreated. From 2003 to 2006, more than 8,600 condominiums were built in the District, but that figure dropped to 1,300 between 2007 and the first six months of this year, according to Delta Associates, a real estate research firm. From 2003 to 2006, condominium prices rose 8 percent; since then, they have declined by 7 percent.

In Southwest, civic leaders celebrated the opening of a newly expanded Safeway and the remodeling of Arena Stage, due to reopen next month. But more than a half dozen major projects are on hold, including redevelopment of the Anacostia waterfront. Instead of eyeing vacant lots as future sites of residential towers, neighborhood leaders now talk of turning them into community gardens or playgrounds, at least until the economy recovers.

"We were the land of the crane," said Andy Litsky, an advisory neighborhood commissioner whose district includes the waterfront. "Everyone was holding their breath; the pace of change was astounding. What do you do when the economy falls? It gives us the chance to catch our breath. It's not the California gold rush. We can take a step back and do some proper planning."

There are pockets in the city where the economic boom passed without leaving a visible mark. In Ivy City, a black working-class enclave south of New York Avenue in Northeast, dilapidated homes and vacant lots still line the streets, as values that soared during the real estate frenzy have plummeted since. The 99-year-old Alexander Crummell School has been vacant since 1977 despite occasional chatter in civic circles about reopening it, perhaps as a recreation center.

"Ain't nothing happening over here," said Sadie Ward, 74, a retired federal clerk who has lived in the neighborhood since 1967. "I've been hoping for a new shopping center, or a new discount store. I feel like they don't do anything for Ivy City."

The District's overall economy has not contracted at nearly the rate of other cities. While Washington lost jobs for much of 2009, the decline was minuscule compared with cities such as Los Angeles and New York. In recent months, the District has added thousands of jobs - 10,000 in June alone - mostly because of the expanding federal workforce.

'A rich uncle'

"It's really helpful to have a rich uncle - Uncle Sam pours a boatload of money into the city," said Stephen Fuller, professor of public policy at George Mason University. "This is an oasis."

At the same time, the District's unemployment rate was over 10 percent in June, nearly double what it was four years earlier and a touch higher than the national average - evidence that most of the new jobs are being taken by non-District residents.

The unemployment rate has been especially pronounced among the city's black population, rising to nearly 16 percent in 2009, up from 10 percent a year earlier and nearly four times the rate for whites, according to a soon-to-be released study by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. In Ward 8, the city's poorest ward, unemployment reached nearly 30 percent.

"What's going on is we have an economy that's increasingly creating jobs only for people with advanced skills," said Ed Lazere, FPI's executive director. "People without those skills, even with a high school degree, are getting squeezed out of the market."

Michael Rich, 54, who grew up in the Brentwood section of Northeast, felt as if he was part of the economy years ago, when he worked for a printer. Then he spent three years in prison on a drug charge, he said, and after his release in 2008, he was astounded by the changes - the new buildings, reinvigorated neighborhoods, remodeled supermarkets, new big-box stores, all places he tried unsuccessfully to find work.

A friend found him a part-time job at a clothing shop on H Street NE, where he earns $60 a week and spends the rest of his time studying for his general equivalency diploma, sleeping nights at a shelter. "I feel shut out," Rich said, standing outside the shop during a work break. "I'm the last one anyone is going to choose."

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