A City in Transition
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 18, 1995
How did it happen? How did self-government stumble in the capital of the most powerful democracy on earth?
It has been two decades since Congress granted residents of the District of Columbia the right to elect their own leaders. Rep. Charles C. Diggs Jr., then-chairman of the House District Committee, proclaimed that Washingtonians had become "masters of their own fate."
A generation later, Congress has snatched back power from the mayor and the D.C. Council, dropping it into the lap of an appointed financial control board. Many of the privileges of local self-rule have been put on hold until sometime in the next century.
The breakdown of home rule is not merely the result of ineffective local government, although that played a pivotal role. Nor was it caused by Congress denying the District the right to tax the income of those who work in the city but live in the suburbs—although that, too, was an important factor.
Self-government has stalled, in large measure, because the population of Washington has undergone an astounding transformation. A huge middle-class exodus in the last 25 years has drained the city of 186,000 inhabitants—a quarter of the city's 1970 population. As a result, Washington has been left with an affluent upper crust that is both black and white; a vastly reduced middle class that continues to shrink; and a deeply troubled underclass that is mostly black and continues to grow. Home rule, in a sense, is a casualty of the missing middle.
White flight had largely run its course before the coming of home rule, leaving the city 70 percent black in 1970. The architects of home rule assumed that the District's large black middle class would be the primary beneficiary of self-government.
Yet, in a wave of urban flight that started after the riots of 1968, middle-class blacks—married couples with jobs and children in public schools—marked their democratic breakthrough by breaking out to the suburbs. The first decade during which District residents were allowed to elect their own leaders turned out to be the first decade in which the black population of the city declined. A majority of the region's African Americans now live in the suburbs.
Washington has been left with the same sicknesses that afflict nearly every U.S. city with a poor urban core: unemployment, drugs and violence, disintegrating families and unsuccessful public schools. Without the stabilizing spine of a large middle class, the distance between poor blacks and affluent whites has widened into a cultural chasm. In the home rule era, that chasm has proved a breeding ground for racial suspicion.
"In the District, there is a sense of racial identification with elected leaders. When that leadership is bad, it is excruciating for blacks, causing paranoia and conspiracy thinking," said Jim Gibson, a senior associate at the Urban Institute.
"The converse of this is that there is a lot of stereotyping [by whites], so much so that there is virtually no recognition of the deep structural problems that helped cause this situation."
The political peculiarities of Washington, of course, have contributed to the city's woes. Congress chose to dress the District in a revenue straitjacket that limits its taxing power. And during the long reign of Mayor Marion Barry, racial attitudes hardened and Congress grew antagonistic. But fundamentally, in Gibson's words, "the story here is the classic fall of an American city."
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