By Cindy Loose
Snow blanketed the city. Plows were nowhere to be found. Major thoroughfares were closed to all but skiers and the most valiant drivers with four-wheel-drive vehicles.
It was the hottest rumor in the storm-plagued town: Everybody else was trapped, but west of Rock Creek Park in Ward 3, the streets were clear. As one 90-year-old woman from Petworth in Northwest Washington put it, over there, everything was "clean as a whistle."
"It was such nonsense," recalls Shay O'Neill, who at the time had volunteered to drive her Jeep all over the city to transport kidney dialysis patients. God had not spared Ward 3. Nor had the mayor dispatched equipment to remove God's handiwork.
This is an election year in a city that some have described as racially polarized. At times, Ward 3, overwhelmingly white and much more affluent than much of the District, seems to be the odd man out. It is geographically distinct, bounded by the park to the east, Maryland to the north, Georgetown to the south.
If the neighborhoods of Ward 3 were newly constructed suburban towns, many would be hailed as innovative, exciting models for the nation. They incorporate many of the so-called new ideas in town building:
Front porches and rear garages encourage communication among neighbors. Leafy streets invite foot traffic, as do shops and businesses built within walking distance of homes. And there is a mix of income levels, ages and races.
Apartment buildings along Connecticut Avenue, for example, offer housing to the elderly and to recent college graduates settling into their first apartments -- just blocks away from multimillion dollar mansions.
A few steps from the stately historic homes of Cleveland Park, where old money clusters, are apartments housing primarily poor immigrants just getting their start. The ward is 79 percent white, 21 percent minority.
Many residents are what tax collectors fondly call "cash cows." With no need for welfare or other social services, and with no children in public schools, the cash cows submit to high taxes with relatively little expected in return.
But despite the appearance of some neighborhoods, Ward 3 is not a suburban town. Its inclusion in a troubled and largely impoverished city makes its riches stand out as something just as easily envied as admired.
Residents of the ward last year had a median income of $64,800 -- or nearly three times the income of Ward 8, the city's poorest and predominantly African American. Whether some politicians create resentment against Ward 3 or merely exploit it, it is rarely far beneath the surface of any debate.
Ward 3 seems pleased with its council representative, Kathy Patterson (D), who is up for reelection. But the approaching elections generate less interest than discussions of Congress and the D.C. financial control board, whose creation three years ago was largely welcomed here.
Today, however, about the best anyone says is that they are cautiously optimistic. They express hope in Camille C. Barnett, the city's chief management officer, and Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, and they note seeing more street cleaners and fewer potholes. But they express disappointment that things haven't moved faster, or deeper.
"I welcomed the control board, but I didn't expect them to be so, so undemocratic," said Marilyn Myerson, of Forest Hills. "But they've made some good hires, and hopefully things will improve a little."
A widely held resignation in the ward echoes the moment in the movie "As Good as It Gets" when Jack Nicholson surveys his psychiatrist's office and asks the other patients, "What if this is as good as it gets?"
But that's the prevalent attitude among residents without children in the public schools. Public school parents are unhappy campers.
Yet home sales in the area are booming, and to a person those interviewed said they love this city and wouldn't want to trade it for any other place in the metro area.
"People tell me that if I moved to the suburbs, I'd have all these wonderful services," Myerson said. "The problem with that is, that then I'd be living in the suburbs."
If Ward 3 schools were getting more than their share, as some politicians have alleged, then why, asked Kate Hill, would her children sometimes have to wear coats and mittens in the classroom at Lafayette Elementary?
Hill, president of the Chevy Chase school's Home School Association, said that year after year, the system has promised a new boiler. It was in this year's capital budget, and the latest promise was that work would begin in May. But as of May, there was no sign of action.
Like many parents, Hill is infuriated at the system's broad failures, both here and elsewhere in the city.
"Am I angry? That's putting it mildly. Because it's the kids who are getting jerked, not just my kids but every kid in the city. At best, D.C. is an equal opportunity abuser."
It doesn't help her blood pressure when leaders make a scapegoat of Ward 3. Every school in the ward has the problems that plague schools citywide -- schools with bad gutters that could be simply fixed but instead are left to threaten the entire foundation, schools that would lack books unless parents made weekly runs to public libraries.
Sometimes it seems, she said, that city leaders are more concerned about making sure everyone fails equally than about making sure the tools are there for everyone to succeed.
Hill said Ward 3 schools are among the most crowded in the city, and she is fed up with the divisive talk.
"You can't blame people in the city who believe Ward 3 gets more -- they've been fed this by people who promulgate it for political gain," she said. "The misconceptions on both sides mean people can't find common ground, and that works to the politicians' advantage. It give them more power and less need to be accountable."
Accountability would benefit every resident of the city, she said, and she wants the system to start by producing a line-item budget and by getting accurate counts of personnel and students.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company