The freshly laid concrete glistens under the street lamp as Thomas Stewart surveys his work on an almost completed driveway. A final section must be poured, but Stewart says he can't do it because the sidewalk that the city government promised to install five years ago still has not been completed. So Stewart stands dejected in front of his house in the city's Marshall Heights neighborhood in Southeast Washington, watching his lawn erode.
The gripe may not sound like much, since most District residents take their sidewalks for granted. But across town, over on Bates Street NW, many residents know just how Stewart and his neighbors must feel.
There, Chester Galbert mulls over the rank smell of mildew that permeates the home that city officials were supposed to have fully renovated. His basement floods every time it rains, and he fears the whole house may collapse.
These are just two neighborhoods where residents know what it's like to be neglected by the government -- even one run by a mayor who once held out immense promise for improvement in the forgotten or devastated areas of the city. While others around town are inclined to give this fledgling home-rule government the benefit of the doubt, don't look for sympathy in Marshall Heights or on Bates Street.
In the minds of many residents, the bungling or mismanagement of projects that would have made an enormous difference in their lives has cast home-rule politics in a dim light indeed.
The Bates Street project, which began almost a decade ago, was an effort by the city to create a model community for low- and moderate-income residents out of the burnt-out shells left in the wake of the 1968 riots. While some residents are happy with what they ended up with, many continue to complain about shoddy workmanship.
Some Bates Street residents, used to media reports about problems with their neighborhood, weren't all that surprised last week when a former developer of the housing project pleaded guilty in federal court to failing to report more than $90,000 of income from the project, while another former project executive was indicted on charges of evading taxes on more than $400,000 he received from the venture.
Galbert, 39, who has lived on Bates Street since 1950, says he figured somebody was illegally pocketing money, based on what he was paying for work that was not being done.
"People were coming in who clearly didn't know what they were doing," said Galbert, pointing to a row of kitchen cabinets that slant downward along a crooked line. "When city inspectors came in and approved it, I said, 'Whoa. Something's wrong.' "
The Marshall Heights project was supposed to bring paved streets, alleys and sidewalks to the isolated little neighborhood near the District-Maryland border. Some streets were paved and some sidewalks were installed, but, again, nothing near what was promised.
City officials acknowledge that the project is behind schedule, but last week residents of the neighborhood found out more was going on than met the eye. A report issued by the D.C. auditor's office showed that city officials simply decided to spend some of the $5 million appropriated for the street and sidewalk project on other things -- such as high-priced consulting contracts.
Stewart, a retired construction worker, first began making plans for his driveway not long after Barry was elected mayor in 1978.
With assurances from the Barry administration that his neighborhood would at long last get streets, Stewart felt his problems were over. He would no longer have to buy truckloads of gravel to stem erosion of his property, and his wife no longer would have to worry about ruining her Sunday shoes when leaving their home.
But just as quickly as the surveyors showed up, they left, never to be seen again.
In Marshall Heights and on Bates Street, residents' frustrations have reached a boiling point.
Galbert says he can't even find a contractor to come into his Bates Street home, because "nobody wants to touch this mess." Stewart says he's going to complete his driveway temporarily by connecting it to the street with asphalt. If the city gets serious about pouring a concrete sidewalk, he says, the "blacktop will be easy to remove."
The city government should take heed of misery it has caused. It is possible that if city officials don't learn how to connect themselves better with the people they have promised to assist, they may find that come election time they won't be much different from Stewart's blacktop -- easy to remove.