Under Barry, Promise Unfulfilled
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 1, 1999; Page A1 Ahwaneda Brown remembers the hot August day in 1978 when a young, tireless D.C. Council member named Marion Barry Jr. stopped by her red-brick town house off Georgia Avenue NW and told her to reject the city's staid political leadership and elect him mayor.
Even before Barry finished the cold glass of juice Brown offered him, this tough-talking, handsome former civil rights activist had her sold.
"This was the man. This was the man," said Brown, then 50, recalling Barry's mesmerizing visit. "This was the man who was going to make our city flourish. There was no doubt about it in my mind."
Thousands of others shared her excitement. And Barry, after a surprise upset in the Democratic primary, fanned the giddy expectations. "Let this day signal our drive toward greatness," he exhorted a cheering crowd at his Jan. 2, 1979, inauguration.
In the two decades since, 16 years of which saw Barry at the District's helm, change has indeed come to Brown's Petworth neighborhood. But it was not what she had hoped for. The once-vibrant commercial strip along Georgia Avenue with family-owned service stations, groceries and dry cleaners is now dominated by check-cashing outlets, liquor stores and takeout restaurants. Clerks cower behind fenced-in windows and bulletproof glass.
The crack-fed crime wave of the 1980s and early 1990s turned the tree-lined streets of this predominantly black middle-class community into killing fields. Declining schools and poor city services only added to the list of reasons residents in Petworth and other District neighborhoods gave as they packed up, one at a time, and moved to the suburbs.
"I just shake my head," said Brown, now 70, whose children are grown and whose husband, John, a onetime youth counselor, has since died. "You wonder what on earth has happened here. It is just so depressing."
The sentiment is a common one. Again and again, as the 62-year-old Barry nears the end of a political career unmatched in the city's history, longtime residents and former allies bemoan the lost promise of a mayor who once inspired so much hope.
"Somehow, things went to hell," said Philip M. Dearborn, an early financial adviser. "It's a pity what happened. But unfortunately, the mayor got interested in things other than running the city."
When Marion Barry entered the mayor's office in 1979, Washington was a city of 640,000 residents and dominated the region as the center of jobs, shopping and culture. Its unemployment rate in 1980 was near the national average, the tax base was growing quickly, and the District had a handful of well-run agencies, including a police department that had expanded dramatically after the 1968 riots and cut reported crime nearly in half.
But the city clearly had its problems. Barry inherited a deficit of more than $350 million when he took office. D.C. had an extremely high infant mortality rate, a massive backlog in delinquent water bills, a school system already in decline and a downtown and other neighborhoods still scarred by the riots.
There were "too many programs that don't work and too many people who don't work," Barry declared.
In his first term, the new mayor replaced dozens of administrators, set up a task force to combat infant mortality, moved to collect delinquent water bills and began a campaign to renovate hundreds of blighted, abandoned homes.
Barry balanced his first budget and cut more than 1,000 city jobs, yet found extra money for public schools and programs for the elderly. And, four years in a row, he ended up with a budget surplus which helped the District bolster its financial standing on Wall Street and sell its first municipal bonds.
Downtown Washington like other urban centers in America experienced an unprecedented boom. Some 16 million square feet of office space were added in just five years. New hotels, shops and restaurants opened, as did the Washington Convention Center in 1983.
The resurgence extended beyond the city's core to Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle, the West End and Adams-Morgan. Barry, trying to speed the recovery of riot-scarred communities, boldly built a new office complex, the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Office Building, at the corner of 14th and U streets NW.
"We really took a great pride in the reforms," said Dwight Cropp, a top aide during Barry's first term. "We were making the city a better place."
In Barry's second term, however, the news coming out of the District Building turned decidedly sour.
The city started to run annual budget deficits again. And while city employment expanded with the addition of 10,000 workers between 1983 and 1988, the quality of services began to decline.
Former D.C. Council chairman Sterling Tucker, who lost to Barry in the 1978 mayoral primary, said part of the new mayor's troubles stemmed from a lack of cooperation from federal government and suburban leaders, who resisted a commuter tax to help boost D.C. finances.
"It was not possible with the system of government we had to achieve all the wonderful possibilities [Barry] had set out," said Tucker, now a management consultant.
During this general government malaise, however, charges of criminal conduct by current or former members of the mayor's administration attracted the most attention.
A city employee and friend of Barry's was caught selling cocaine. The former director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities was convicted of stealing District money. Two employees at the Department of Employment Services were fired for misusing D.C. funds.
The apex of this string of scandals came in 1985, when Barry's longtime friend and top political aide, Ivanhoe Donaldson, pleaded guilty to stealing about $190,000 in city money.
Corruption and bad management, not any shortage of funds, were the real sources of the District's troubles, according to former city auditors Otis H. Troupe and Matthew S. Watson.
Barry, they said, helped many African Americans move into the middle class by hiring them for city jobs. That, said Watson, city auditor from 1975 to 1981, built a political machine that repeatedly helped Barry win reelection. But too little attention was paid to the qualifications of the new employees or their ability to deliver services.
Police officers cheated on their time sheets, and painting and plaster jobs in public housing were put on indefinite hold, said Troupe, city auditor from 1981 to 1994. Millions in federal aid went unspent; countless no-bid contracts were handed out to Barry allies; and air conditioners, toilet seats and other supplies increasingly disappeared from government warehouses.
"In the long run, it harmed us all," Watson said. "The city can be a jobs program, but there was not an attempt to really demand quality service."
The problems inside the Barry government had clearly affected neighborhoods such as Petworth, an area in Ward 4 east of Rock Creek Park that is bounded on the southeast by the Soldiers' and Airmen's Home and on the north by Missouri Avenue.
Like elsewhere in the District, the mayor's early success was noticed in this once-quiet neighborhood, known for its community-centered churches, neatly kept brick row houses and Victorian homes and the exceptionally close ties among neighbors.
Barry's expanded youth employment program made more summer jobs available for Petworth teenagers, and it was easier for needy local seniors to get a city-sponsored hot meal, said Claude Williams, a Petworth barber whose cluttered shop at Upshur Street and Georgia Avenue serves as a sort of community center.
The Petworth Library was renovated. Many residents in the area and elsewhere applied for and got D.C. government jobs.
Barry is proud of the lives he changed.
"I have given help and hope to a lot of people [who] had very little hope," he said this week. "I'm not talking about just low-income. I've given help and hope to the middle-income people too."
But shortly after the start of Barry's second term in 1983, Brown, Williams and other Petworth residents said they saw the early signs of what became a long, painful decline in their community.
Street and alley sweeping occurred less frequently, then ceased. Ambulance response time, which had dropped in Barry's first years as mayor, began to rise again. Recycling was discontinued. Street paving came to a near halt, and sidewalks crumbled. Broken equipment sat idle on trash-strewn playgrounds.
City-owned trees went untended. Years of deferred maintenance came back to haunt the school system. Petworth's Roosevelt High School was periodically closed because of roof leaks or heating failures.
Concerns also arose about the fire department equipment and training in 1997 after a sergeant fell through the floor of a burning Petworth grocery store and none of his colleagues realized for at least 14 minutes that he was missing. By the time they found him, he had drowned in a six-foot-deep pool of water in the basement.
Through those years, family-style restaurants, once common along Georgia Avenue, were boarded up, and the Petworth Pharmacy shut down. Surviving stores along the depressed corridor had goods that were more expensive and less varied than stores in the suburbs or more affluent parts of the city.
When a dead tree was hit by lightning in front of Zillah Wesley's house on Illinois Avenue NW, it took nearly a dozen calls over several weeks to get the city to remove a massive limb that had fallen. When city crews finally showed up, Wesley said, workers trimmed the tree only slightly, leaving behind other dead branches that soon fell. And when the crews came back and removed the tree, she complained, they left the stump, which wasn't pulled out until after several pedestrians tripped over it.
Nationwide, Washington and other cities were losing large numbers of middle-class residents. In Petworth and elsewhere, that trend accelerated after the drug wars broke out in the mid-1980s.
Barry unveiled a citywide anti-crime campaign in the summer of 1985 dubbed Police and Citizens Together. Yet over the next three years, the city's homicide count exploded, jumping 150 percent to 369 by 1988.
Barry pledged that year to "never again" allow the city's homicide rate to reach such a figure. But the body count kept rising, peaking in 1991 at 489 homicides. That was the same year the mayor of the nation's capital left office sentenced to six months in jail for cocaine possession.
For Petworth, the headlines became almost commonplace: cabdriver shot to death while passing through; two aspiring rap singers killed in a Gallatin Street apartment; a 21-year-old son of the owner of a Petworth variety store gunned down; a 29-year-old man slain on Halloween evening while out with his niece trick-or-treating; a Baptist minister's foot amputated after a carjacking in which he was dragged along the pavement as the carjackers fled.
For families like the Wesleys and Browns, those events were more than statistics. Brown no longer felt safe sitting on her front porch or walking in the neighborhood after dark. In the early 1990s, she canceled her traditional July 4 barbecue after gunshots rang out nearby during what became the last party.
"Teenagers in the neighborhood say, 'Hey, Mrs. Brown, aren't you having the barbecue this year?'" Brown said. "I told them I was sorry, but I really did not feel comfortable having it with what was going on."
Over at the Wesleys, who live nine blocks north of Brown, a stray bullet came flying through their home one night, lodging in the wall near the upstairs bathroom. No one was hurt, but Wesley and her three children were terrified. The police, she said, were unimpressed and never got back to her after she filed an initial complaint.
Her son, James Wesley II, now 22, was solicited by drug dealers as he left the bus on his way home from high school. He and his younger brother and sister stopped playing ball in the family's yard.
"You wanted to run away from it. You wanted to hide, to move," said Zillah Wesley, who resisted the urge and still lives today in Petworth as she has for 21 years. "It took me a long time to get over it."
Gradually, the Petworth neighborhood lost many young families with children. Distressed over the declining quality of education in the public schools and the dangers on the streets, they left town. So many young families moved out that the city recently shut down Petworth Elementary School.
In the closing years of Barry's last term he was elected again in 1994 the District's crime wave has to some extent subsided.
The number of homicides has dropped in five of the last seven years. Yet even with that decline, the District is still a dangerous city, with a homicide rate in 1997 higher than that in any of the nation's other big cities. Since the congressionally ordered takeover by the D.C. financial control board in 1995, city finances have again stabilized. And city services, from street paving to tree trimming, are being restored slowly.
But unlike many other cities, which have flourished in recent years with the nation's economic boom, the District is struggling to recover. Unemployment in November 8.3 percent was twice the national average and higher than in most other major U.S. cities, including Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia.
Since Barry first came into office, the District has lost 115,000 residents, or 18 percent of its population, leaving it today with 523,124 residents, its lowest number since 1933. Tens of thousands of apartments are vacant or boarded up.
The loss of residents between 1980 and 1996 was exceeded by only a small number of severely depressed U.S. cities, such as Flint, Mich., and Newark, N.J.
The end result, urban planners and longtime city observers say, is that while some affluent District neighborhoods have thrived, large swathes of the city have experienced a slump far more intense and unrelenting than in most American cities.
Petworth, Shaw, Columbia Heights, the eastern end of Capitol Hill, Ivy City and large parts of Anacostia never had the kind of resurgence Barry sought to achieve.
Troupe, the former city auditor, calls it the "Barry Recession."
"While most of the rest of the country and the world was experiencing the benefits of a worldwide economic boom, the District was in the midst of a Marion Barry recession," he said. "It is unfortunate, but to me that is Barry's primary legacy."
Residents in Petworth, regardless of the many setbacks, remain hopeful that the long-awaited recovery is still on the way. There are signs that it finally may be happening.
A new Metrorail station will soon open; the city pool at the local recreation center was recently renovated; two new pharmacies have set up shop; and Grant Circle, once the domain of crack addicts and drug dealers, has been refurbished.
Streets and sidewalks are also being rebuilt. And some younger families have started to move back.
For residents who remain in Petworth, as another new mayor is about to be sworn in, hope persists that the community will rise again. For the thousands who left for suburbia, the improvements have come too late. But they haven't forgotten about their old neighborhood.
"I am a Washingtonian. I was born and raised there. And I still feel connected to Petworth. I still have family there," said Dorothy Taylor, 57, who moved to Silver Spring in 1991 to keep her youngest son, then 13, away from the drug culture. "It really deserves somebody who cares about it and will do something to fix it up."