Fenty's legacy, like his tenure, may be marked by polarizing views

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 25, 2010; 9:28 PM

In one term, the administration of D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty completed massive construction and renovation projects - 120 schools, recreation centers, parks, playgrounds and athletic fields, according to city statistics.

In some areas, Fenty outperformed his predecessors, including two-term mayor Anthony A. Williams, whom many credit with pulling the District back from the brink of financial collapse. Fenty is credited with driving the transformation of several neighborhoods, securing mayoral control of schools and ousting perceived critics of reform.

Dan Tangherlini, who served as Fenty's city administrator for 2½ years, said he thinks the mayor's political epitaph is indelible. "He will be remembered in many ways as the mayor who built off the reforms begun under Mayor Williams and took them to the next level," he said. "I don't know if there's any one school or park or recreation center. . . . He should have his name chiseled on an awful lot of them."

Others see the departing mayor as a polarizing figure, a cocktail of ruthless hypocrisy (he turned his back on some neighborhoods and wasn't transparent, some thought), misguided loyalty (he awarded million-dollar contracts to fraternity brothers and unconditionally backed former schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee) and imperious leadership.

Some Fenty supporters felt pushed away, said Anwar Saleem, a founder and director of H Street Main Street, a group that has guided changes in the Northeast corridor. "They want more inclusion in government. They want to be heard," he said. "Adrian, in my view, had the opportunity to be mayor for eight to 12 years. The way he handled himself to a certain degree, his communication skills, really hurt him." Fenty "didn't communicate with the common man."

Ben Soto, a close friend of Fenty's and his campaign treasurer from his 2000 run for D.C. Council to his unsuccessful reelection bid in September, said: "When he meets resistance, he presses harder . . . It just made him push harder. Adrian's the type of guy - you're either with him, or you're against him. There is no gray area. No pun intended." Fenty's successor is D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray.

But for Fenty, this is not a time for reflection.

The triathlete in him won't allow it - not until his run as mayor ends Jan. 2.

"If anything, it's just sort of running through the tape," he said, "to use a sports metaphor."

It's too soon to gauge how Fenty will rank among 21st-century mayors, but he has often urged those who would judge him to look beyond his brash - if at times autocratic - governing style and examine the results. He declined to give an interview to discuss his legacy.

Perhaps one of the best ways to try to ascertain Fenty's imprint on the District is to study the transformation of the H Street corridor, a project that won him both praise and criticism.

H Street renewal

The revitalization of H Street - an area, like others in the District, that was ravaged by the 1968 riots and decades of neglect - began before Fenty. Williams sought to inject life into the battered boulevard and create mixed-income communities, goals that Fenty adopted despite suspicion by some in the black community that the project was an effort to price them out of the neighborhood.

If Williams laid the foundation for the H Street project, Fenty put down the tracks for what will eventually be a 37-mile streetcar line worth $1.5 billion. "He had a commitment to making sure the streetcar really happened," said Derrick Woody, coordinator of the Great Streets Initiative under Williams and Fenty. "I think it's going to be up and running by 2012, at the latest."

It has been a mixed blessing that has spurred mixed feelings - common denominators of Fenty's term.

"I don't see anything he's done for me except tear the street up," said Sheila White, 52, a contracting officer for the U.S. Department of Labor and lifelong resident of the H Street area. "If they don't hurry up and do something, these businesses are going to disappear."

Saleem, 56, closed his hair salon and gym after a dwindling customer base said that it was difficult to find parking and navigate around bulldozers. It didn't help that his taxes rose from about $2,000 to $8,000 because of rising property assessments.

"We used the streetcar to attract businesses. It motivated people to come here," Saleem said.

David Bowers, 40, said he has looked out the window of his home at 13th and D streets NE since 1999 and watched groups of young men gather on a blacktop. The blacktop, too, is about to be transformed with a new basketball court and dog park, and Capital Bikeshare has installed racks there. "It's going to be interesting to see when the dog park opens, the new clientele," said Bowers, who facilitates affordable housing deals for Enterprise Community Partners.

He said there has been no conversation, no direction from the Fenty administration about how different communities can mesh at that spot. Bowers, who is serving on Gray's transition team, said that the D.C. government has an opportunity to guide communities through the changes. "How can we be intentional?" Bowers asked.

Right now, H Street is segregated at nightfall.

During the day, African Americans generally frequent established hair salons, barbershops and clothing stores that survived the riots.

At night, mostly white patrons hit a string of faux-dive bars that brush H Street with an edge similar to that of Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood.

The influx of bars is ironic, said Sharon Ambrose, a former Ward 6 council member. "I spent years getting rid of bars on H Street. Now, they open a bar a day," she said.

The nightlife has created some tension as black bar owners and customers have complained about subtle and outright discrimination, Saleem said.

"I've told the owners to stop that," he said.

Woody mentioned a number of new minority-owned businesses, including Philadelphia Water Ice, as examples of the corridor's diversity. But Saleem said that of 148 businesses that have opened in the area in four years, only about 25 percent have been black-owned.

'A lot of changes'

Gray, 68, grew up on Sixth Street between K and L streets NE in a one-bedroom apartment. His older brother still lives in that same rent-controlled apartment for about $600 a month; the average home sells for more than $400,000.

That's an affordable price for couples who have flooded the area with babies in tow. At the new playground at J.O. Wilson Elementary School at Sixth and K, toddlers' giggles accompany the roar of the streetcar line construction.

In addition to the new playground and a modernized building, rising test scores also created a buzz among white and black middle-class parents who began thinking twice about moving to the suburbs or sending their children to private schools. But tension brewed among some residents.

J.O. Wilson was already an attractive to neighborhood parents and newcomers, partly because of outreach efforts by the principal, Cheryl Warley. But Fenty and Rhee gave the school a big push.

Fenty "was encouraging of positive changes the neighbors and Ms. Warley wanted," said Kimberly Hart, a 36-year-old mother of two who has lived in the area since 2004. "I don't know how much credit Fenty should get, but I've seen a lot of changes in my neighborhood in four years."

To see Fenty go "makes me a little nervous going forward," said Hart, whose 3-year-old son Jack is the only white student out of 18 in his Wilson preschool class.

But other longtime city residents, such as Sheila White, thought they had been unnecessarily excluded.

"I don't think you saw many people in the administration who looked like me and were my age," White said. "At a community meeting, you're talking to someone who's 30 and has been here a year."

Critics said that Fenty failed to absorb the concerns of longtime residents because he wanted to run the city - as he told The Washington Post shortly after taking office in 2007 - "like a business."

Supporters and critics say that the city got results but that not everyone was inspired.

"A city's not a business. It's a collection of people that work and party and live together," Bowers said. "There is a civic consciousness that also has to be nurtured."

Restaurateur Joe Englert, known for helping to revitalize H Street with a mini-monopoly of hot spots, said he does not know how much credit Fenty should get for the transformation. But "he's probably the second-best mayor we've ever had," Englert said.

Give it time, said Soto, Fenty's campaign treasurer.

He compared Fenty to Alexander Robey Shepherd, who headed the city's public works in the 1870s and served as governor for two years. During his tenure, horse-drawn streetcars became the city's first public transportation system, sidewalks were constructed, roads were paved, and sewer and gas lines were laid.

But he left his post amid accusations of cronyism - and the nickname "Boss Shepherd."

Historians later called him "the father of modern Washington."

"At the time, he was a dictator," Soto said. "Now, they look at him as someone who sophisticated the city."

Shepherd's legacy lives on in a school and neighborhood: Shepherd Elementary and Shepherd Park.

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