The black doorman's uniform was outlandish: blue, red and embellished with buckles and brass. If memory serves, a plume dangled dangerously over one eye. Guarding the gates of one of those ritzy Massachusetts Avenue apartment complexes, he eyed me suspiciously, not as a professional-looking reporter, but as a possible criminal threatening the lives of the white people who lived in "his" building. The white guests I encountered while reporting on some centenarian's birthday party were equally shocked by my presence. And in a final insult, as I parted a dozen taxis whizzed by me before one finally stopped.
That was pre-home rule Washington in the mid-'60s. We've come a long way, baby. Today, after 10 years of Home Rule, I live only a few blocks from that apartment building. And although I don't have many black neighbors, Washington is "my town," a 70 percent black city, and I can live wherever I damn well please -- and can afford.
But too many other blacks find scant comfort in the psychological bonus of having a predominantly black government. They are still locked out and face closed doors wherever they go.
For the middle class, the business community and government workers, those lucky enough to have jobs and a decent education, this week is a time to celebrate. But if the next 10 years of home rule are to be as beneficial to all as the last have been for some, the District must more earnestly direct its attention and resources to the needs of the masses of citizens at the bottom. For them, home rule has so far been little more than a cruel joke.
As we celebrate the first decade of this city's elected mayor and City Council, we can't forget that too many citizens have watched the city's growth -- downtown Washington, Pennsylvania Avenue and the Convention Center -- from the sidelines. Even the subway system has bypassed many of their neighborhoods.
These men and women are still victimized by lack of training, joblessness and inadequate housing. Because poor housing and joblessness are so intertwined with many of our city's problems, their children are more subject to the related plagues of teen pregnancies and drug addiction. And some strike out in juvenile crime, usually against more affluent Washingtonians.
Although Mayor Marion Barry and some of the competent people around him continue to give lip service to the needs of less fortunate Washingtonians, there is scant evidence of any real improvement -- aside from a radical drop in the city's infant mortality rate.
If the lives of these Washingtonians are to be drastically changed for the better, and if home rule is to be truly something for everyone to cheer about, the Barry administration must develop innovative approaches to the problems of housing and the creation of jobs. Despite the fact that the District, like cities across the country, has been severely crippled by Reagan administration budget cuts, many things can still be done by the Barry administration in the areas of jobs and housing.
As to jobs, I'd like to float again an idea I presented a year ago: an urban version of the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Under the CCC, thousands of jobless people cleared forests, paved roads and modernized America's highway system. In a similar manner, the District government could put the city's hard-core jobless to work repairing streets, renovating houses or even planting trees in neighborhoods such as Anacostia and Congress Heights that haven't had the facelift that gentrification has brought to Capitol Hill and Logan Circle.
An urban CCC may not be a panacea for the problems of the Other Washington, but it is a fresh idea -- something the Barry administration can use. In the absence of any real creative ideas to improve the lot of the Other Washington, cynicism reigns. Indeed, a painful joke told to me by a citizen of the Other Washington captures the mood of his community: "All these politicians are just selling niggers; some just sell you at a higher price."
Perhaps if the Barry administration begins to develop pilot projects in housing and job creation, unpleasant jokes like that can be buried with the District's days of not being able to determine its own fate.