In Washington's Anacostia communities, where promises, rhetoric and neglect have shaped economic development, struggling small-business owners and residents can be forgiven if they are a little skeptical about the opening of a storefront revitalization office last week by city government.
The statement of a neighborhood advisory official seems to sum up the feeling east of the Anacostia River. "We are waiting. We haven't seen anything yet," said Frieda Murray, chairwoman of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6C.
Murray, according to a story in The Washington Post, expressed hope that Anacostia residents "will see some revitalization before November."
D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, amid much fanfare, according to the same Post story, promised a new variation on an old theme: "We are coming east of the Anacostia River -- not just in name, not just in rhetoric, but with programs."
Can the mayor, whom Black Enterprise magazine describes as the "architect of the District's rebirth as a business center," transform Anacostia's depressed commercial core or initiate some meaningful revitalization before November, as Murray and others hope? Leaving aside the significance of November in an election year, can the Barry administration -- from the District building or through its storefront office -- attract investors and developers to Anacostia?
The Black Enterprise profile, "Washington: District of Commerce," may offer a clue. There, in eight pages of text and color photos of downtown Washington, the mayor and his aides unabashedly take credit for a building boom that has driven the revitalization of downtown Washington during the past eight to 10 years. "The mayor's efforts are apparent throughout the city, as new office buildings, luxury hotels, trade centers and neighborhood department stores seem to be springing up everywhere," the magazine reports in the June 1986 issue.
Photos of D.C. government officials and new development projects reinforce the idea that downtown's renaissance as a commercial center is being directed by the mayor and his staff. Pennsylvania Avenue "pulses with energy and power," says the caption under a familiar photo of the famous thoroughfare. There is no mention, however, of the critical role that the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. -- created by Congress in 1972 to direct revitalization of a deteriorating avenue and blighted streets nearby -- has played in the redevelopment of downtown. Nor is it made clear in the Black Enterprise profile that market forces and real estate -- independent of government action -- are directly responsible for a resurgence of downtown Washington as a business center.
Instead, the mayor is given credit for devising an economic development plan that has reshaped Washington's stodgy image as a city where government supposedly was the primary business. "My economic development plan is focusing on bringing a variety of businesses to the District that will provide our citizens with new opportunities," the magazine quotes Barry. What's more, Barry is portrayed as a can-do mayor who "works directly with company executives, accommodating them with building sites that are best suited to their businesses" and as the official primarily responsible for an economic development program that has attracted large department store firms such as Zayre Corp., the Hecht Co. and Sears, Roebuck & Co. to the downtown area.
For the record, Sears' only stores in the District are on Wisconsin Avenue NW and on Alabama Avenue SE, where they've been for 20 years or more. To be sure, the city deserves credit for persuading Zayre to open a store not in downtown but in Northeast. And District officials certainly played a pivotal role in Hecht's agreement with developer Oliver T. Carr to move the chain's flagship department store six blocks west to the prestigious Metro Center complex.
But those are only minor discrepancies. The point that the mayor and his aides are trying to get across in the Black Enterprise profile is that business growth under his leadership has prospered, especially under his Comprehensive Plan for the National Capital. The comprehensive plan and others notwithstanding, it's taken nearly eight years for the Barry administration to go to Anacostia "not just in rhetoric" as he put it.
As the purported architect of a rebirth of business in the District, the mayor ought to know that it will take more than a storefront office and public relations campaigns to revitalize Anacostia's commercial areas. "We have come to realize that, if you leave development to the market forces of the city, some areas would never be taken care of by developers or businessmen," Black Enterprise quoted the mayor.
Perhaps Anacostia residents eventually will learn how the mayor "works directly" with company executives, accommodating them with building sites, etc. But even the best architects' plans are useless without willing investors and builders to implement them.