In D.C., Faith in the City and Its Future
By Michael Powell and Hamil R. Harris
Richard Westbrook was a boy, a newcomer to Washington in 1940, when he spotted the glimmer of ice on the Reflecting Pool near the Lincoln Memorial.
He strapped on his skates and took off. The image is no less crisp today for residing on the distant edge of his memory.
"It was a magical moment," recalled Westbrook, 67. "Right there, I fell in love with Washington."
Not once did this retired city planner lose faith, even during the city's darkest days of fiscal failure. He lives in a Southwest waterfront town house and awaits the renaissance. "I'm sure that we will get this thing fairly straight," Westbrook said.
As the city readies for another mayoral election this fall, the question of Washington its past glories, tenuous present and unknown future was put to four dozen residents in four neighborhoods: North Michigan Park in Northeast, the American University neighborhood in Northwest, the waterfront in Southwest and Washington Highlands in Southeast.
Even as they spoke optimistically of the city's strengths and their confidence in its future, they recognized that the election comes at a precarious time. The schools chief has resigned, the D.C. financial control board is preparing for new leadership, and Mayor Marion Barry seems genuinely undecided about seeking a fifth term.
Some wondered aloud whether the heavy hand of Congress has undercut the value of the ballot box. They recognize that the D.C. Council members and mayor elected in November will have little more than an advisory role in running the city for several years, and even Barry's supporters fear that Congress will not restore power to elected officials as long as he remains mayor.
Nearly everyone interviewed by The Washington Post spoke of the turmoil, especially in the schools and police department, with a concern edging toward anger. They rendered a profoundly ambivalent judgment on the presidentially appointed control board.
Few doubted that the board controls the city's fate, and many middle-class residents, black and white, say services are improving. But poorer residents were less inclined to believe that a refurbished city would hold a place for the dispossessed.
Indeed, many spoke of Washington's dual realities, aware that their views of the half-reformed city might be colored by race and class.
"The city is going to get better if you have cash and can make it," said Radie Junior Wright, 47, a city worker. "But for the poor man, you have many programs closing down."
That holds a truth, but it's not the whole story.
Even those most troubled by the arc of city reform expressed a palpable affection for the leafy, European-looking but quintessentially American city. They see a city with such underlying strengths that it has weathered the crises and missteps of the past decade without permanent harm.
They talked of a place overlooked in daily news accounts: the ramshackle Victorians and limestone and brick row houses, the longtime neighbors who share confidences over fences, and the azaleas and tulips that transform even the most tattered blocks in springtime.
They noted that streets often are cleaner than national legend would have it, point to their easy proximity to all downtown has to offer, and wonder why they ever would want to live anywhere else.
Milton Fowler, 68, peered through his bifocals and drew the measure of his predominantly black North Michigan Park neighborhood. He surveyed the clipped hedges that glistened after an early evening shower, the dogwoods pregnant with buds, and the well-tended brick homes and bungalows belonging to retired teachers and federal workers, taxi drivers and police officers.
"We take care of each other, clean our sidewalks and say hello," Fowler said. "So I'm going to be optimistic about this city. I'm going to say there's no reason this city can't get better and no reason I should leave."
Mary Stotts can chart the rebirth of Washington Highlands from her 12th-floor balcony: the clean streets, the police patrols and the sweeping view of the boarded-up, two-story former public housing complex known as Valley Green, which will be replaced by single-family homes and apartments.
But when Stotts, 48, an unemployed mother of four, turns back into her apartment in the Parkside Terrace Apartments on Ninth Street SE, she sees rats and roaches and broken windows. And the new homes rising across the street hold no hope for her.
"I can't afford it," she said.
Washington Highlands is a predominantly black neighborhood caught between the city that is and the city that's coming. If the sections of Southeast are often painted as places of poverty, crime and decrepit rental housing, then Washington Highlands is the portrait that doesn't fit in the Ward 8 gallery. It has pockets of low-income housing but broader swaths of neatly tended gardens and red-brick homes, quite a few valued at $140,000 or more.
For every poor resident like Stotts, who yearns for more affordable housing, there are the lawyers and government workers who favor a moratorium on new construction of low-income housing.
Levy Dewitt Johnson, 69, has lived on the 500 block of Foxhall Place since 1961. "I like Washington. It is a beautiful city," said Johnson, a retired federal worker. "But they need to stop building public housing. We need more private homes."
Few spoke with great enthusiasm of the mayor's race, and most believed that Congress will not restore home rule if Barry is reelected. They see the most pressing issues good schools and safe streets residing in the province of the control board.
Wanda Lockridge, who owns a home on a quiet, tree-lined block at Fourth Street and Valley Avenue, said she resents the lack of good schools. Like many residents, she harbors a suspicion that city officials would not tolerate such failure in white middle-class neighborhoods.
"We shouldn't have to send our kids across the river for a quality education," Lockridge said. "We should be able to walk out of our doors and go two blocks and have the same quality education that you get in Georgetown."
Neal Johnson worried a bit about plunking down a plump down payment to buy a home in American University Park. After all, there was so much negative publicity about the city.
"It was kind of a roll of the dice and a bit anxiety-producing," recalled Johnson, a writer and researcher, sitting in his sun-dappled back yard. "But I see things improving. Sometimes the deterioration gets overblown."
Besides, Johnson added, he and his wife "are city people. And there are better real estate deals to be had here."
Along the tree-lined blocks that roll north from Massachusetts Avenue, in a predominantly white area where homes have a median value of about $350,000 and sell quickly, the city's problems can seem a bit distant. Garbage pickup is good, bus service is reliable, and the streets are no more rutted than anywhere else. The elementary schools are fine, but this upper-middle-class enclave sends many children to private schools.
Daphne Friedman, 21, grew up in Washington and waxes happily about the parks, museums and natural beauty of the city.
"People don't give me any respect coming from the city; everyone talks about Barry and his drugs and the potholes," said Friedman. "So I'm a booster I tell them how much I loved growing up here."
That said, quite a few residents are recent arrivals, and theirs is a tentative embrace. They like the neighborhood, but they're renting for now. They have faith in the control board, but they're keeping a wary eye on Barry's electoral prospects.
"We didn't want to move to the 'burbs," said Jay Kocack, 31, who arrived from Chicago recently with his wife. "We're renting, and we'll see where things go from here."
North Michigan Park is a middle-class neighborhood, with curling, hilly streets and tidy homes, that once seemed in danger of being pulled out by the roots and sucked into Washington's crack-fed whirlwind a few years back.
Thieves slinked away at night with lawn mowers and cars, muggers preyed on retirees, and shots echoed in the neighborhoods to the south. But a funny thing happened. Crime didn't go away, exactly, but the shooting stopped and the neighborhood survived.
And those who remained speak happily of refusing to join the thousands who fled to Maryland, which lies a few blocks to the east.
"Most Washingtonians are feeling hopeful. We have a lot of pride," said Helen Wall, 51, an office manager for a local doctor. "A lot of us still believe in Washington."
It's a realistic pride, however, tempered by what's been lost. Few travel to shop downtown anymore; the cuts in bus service make it an arduous journey, and the Maryland malls are closer. People are wary at night; porch furniture still disappears. And it's a graying community (23 percent of the residents are 65 or older, compared with 15 percent citywide); many of the homeowners' children have decamped for the suburbs.
Many, too, lack faith in the elected officials, not the least the long-reigning mayor.
"A lot of us are so disgusted. We've been fooled so many times," said Onnie Privette, 79, a retiree who came to Michigan Park for a year in 1948 and stayed on for 50 years. "Some in my group don't even want to vote."
Privette loves his neighborhood he spoke while surveying his azaleas but he worries about a city that can offer its youngsters so little.
"I tutor at my church, and the reading problems are just depressing," he said. "The control board went out and got Becton to be Santa Claus, and look what . . . well, I'm terribly disappointed."
The Southwest waterfront is a hybrid part riverfront Disneyland and part gritty urban neighborhood. Gloria Hamilton, 48, pays the incongruities no mind as she pads through the streets with her fishing rod, from the Syphax Gardens public housing complex to the mouth of the Anacostia River.
"I love that water and going fishing," said Hamilton, a mother of two. . "I love the District. ... Any goal you seek, you have the opportunity here in the District."
From federal lawyers on mountain bikes and Secret Service agents with cropped haircuts, to sweaty day laborers and single mothers, the residents of the Southwest waterfront an enclave socked between the federal city and the Potomac River represent as diverse a swath of Washington as one can find.
It's not clear whether it will remain that way. Rental prices are rising many landlords now insist on offering month-to-month leases and the average home is valued at $250,000.
Deidra McConnell, 37, a salesclerk at Waterside Mall, has watched life improve around her and hopes she and her five children can go along for the ride. "I don't want to be stuck in the projects," she said. "You want to be on your own."
Budget cuts have forced the local library to close at 5:30 p.m., curtailing the tutoring hours for McConnell's children. So she's not about to ladle up praise for the control board. And one name comes to mind for mayor: "Barry. They should stick with him."
Westbrook, the retired city planner, is not much enamored of the control board, either. He says it balanced the books but is leaving the citizens "out of the loop." And he sees no evidence of an overarching economic development strategy.
But he also suggests that the city's salvation does not lie with the board or a new mayor. "The real economic base of the city is the residences and the people who pay income taxes," he said. "I'm sure we'll get this thing straightened out."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company