Returning to Washington after a three-week visit to my hometown, I was reminded how fast this big town can change. One week K Street is bustling with vendors hawking jewelry, incense and cheap sunshades and the next week they are virtually all gone.
"It cuts out the flavor of the city," said Rich Halifax, one of a few vendors remaining downtown since last week when a federal judge decided that a city vending license law prohibiting the sale of such items as appliances and machine-made apparel and requiring a $500 license fee for out-of-state vendors was okay.
"It looks like we've been spit out by computer," he said, pointing to the orderly rows of sparcely topped tables along a street that used to resemble an international bazaar. "People will just start working out of their homes or suitcases until the heat blows over."
Indeed, the new downtown scene didn't look right to me. Too neat. And with the new license fee, the surviving street salesmen had begun to act like real hustlers, some starting to beg potential customers. It didn't feel quite right.
But part of that could have been due to weather. When I left town a few weeks ago, the weather had been simply great, with crisp air and clear skies. Now it was muggier than in a bayou, where I had been. Humidity was in the air, a seasonal signal to let the summer exodus begin. Talk about change: Within a few weeks Washington will be a half-baked ghost town on the Potomac.
At first glance, it appeared that the greatest change the city had undergone was physical, with buildings being demolished and rebuilt at a rate so fast you couldn't tell what used to be what and where. Gentrification of the downtown areas was almost complete, and, in some instances, actually seemed like an improvement.
But equally impressive were changes in the minds of the populace, and especially city officials.
One-time staunch statehood supporter Mayor Marion Barry declaring that if the District cannot become a state, city residents should be exempt from paying federal taxes. One week, everybody wants statehood for the District. The next week, the fight is all but over. "I used to be for statehood," said Isiah Woodson, a National Park Service employe who lives in Northeast Washington. "But why have a state when we have so many conveniences? When you think about it, who wants to start paying for all of the things the federal government pays for now."
This change in attitude was reflected in talks with several residents, but at the grass-roots level that kind of nonchalance is expected.
More surprising were changes in the thinking of politicians like Rep. Julian Dixon (D-Calif.), a longtime suppporter of the city, who says at first that he has "no position on statehood," but quickly adds with some reluctance that if it came to the House floor for a vote, he supposes he would vote for it.
D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy, who never really favored the statehood referendum approved by voters in 1982, is now trying to "tone down" the statehood constitution in hopes that the city may one day become a state. All the while Barry proposes an exchange: reduced taxes for maintenance of "America's last colony."
And the changes continue. Last year, City Council Chairman David Clarke threatened to withhold the real estate tax-exempt status for the Daughters of the American Revolution, amid allegations that the organization had refused membership to a black woman. Last week, he had teamed up with the DAR to announce that all were supporting construction of a $2.5 million memorial to black patriots in the Revolutionary War.
Back on the mean streets, drug dealers, who had moved to Northeast and Southeast during the big drug crackdown in the early months of the year, are now back in Northwest hawking their wares.
It's weird and often hard to keep up with, all of this back and forth, tit for tat and 'dis for 'dat that goes on in this city. No wonder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.