The District has vastly improved basic services, spruced up neighborhoods, and is much safer, according to participants in the fourth D.C. citizen summit. But they remain deeply concerned about public schools, affordable housing, increasing homelessness and what seems like an uptick in youth violence.
More than 2,000 people gathered at the Washington Convention Center yesterday for Citizen Summit IV, the latest installment in what organizers described as the nation's largest ongoing town hall meeting. Initiated by D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams shortly after he took office in 1999, the day-long, biennial summits are designed to elicit public input on the state of the District.
This year's topics were youth development, job creation, public libraries and affordable housing. But before diving into those categories, participants had a chance to talk generally about what has gotten better or worse in the city.
Sitting 10 to a table, they used special keypads and computers to send information to the "theme team," a band of analysts trained by AmericaSpeaks, a nonprofit organization that orchestrates participatory meetings. The results flashed on giant screens suspended from the ceiling in the center of the exhibition hall.
Because of the technology, organizers could quickly parse the crowd's demographics: Mainly young (51 percent under 34), black (52 percent) and of moderate means (59 percent said they earn $50,000 or less annually). More than half (57 percent) were attending a summit for the first time.
The consensus: Basic services such as trash collection, street paving and motor vehicle programs are no longer dysfunctional. An appealing array of new commercial and residential developments have transformed the city into a place where people want to live. And more police have made the nation's capital much safer. But public schools, housing costs, homelessness and localized youth crime remain big problems.
Stephanie Nixon, who moved to the city a year ago and lives in Ward 6, was typical. "I really like the development on H Street Northeast, but we really need to do something about crime," she said, noting that her neighborhood has been the site of "four or five different shootings" since September.
Next, the crowd answered questions designed to help Williams (D) craft his final budget before he leaves office in 2007. For example, in an effort to reduce high unemployment rates, should the city focus on drug treatment and other services to people who are a long way from being employed? Or should the focus be on helping people who are "job-ready or currently in low-wage jobs"?
The format frustrated Table 56, where housing activist Janet Brown, who lives near Dupont Circle, complained that the city needs an "overall strategy for job creation," not piecemeal programs. "These are not the right questions!" she protested.
Noel Tieszen, a former D.C. public school teacher who lives near the Convention Center, seconded that. "They're structuring the conversation so much that there's no place for our ideas."
The table's participants then veered into a lively but unrecorded conversation about the difficulty of starting a business in the District.
Despite its drawbacks, the summit concept won unanimous endorsement from five Democratic candidates vying to replace Williams. Invited to take the stage, D.C. Council chairman Linda W. Cropp, Council members Adrian M. Fenty (Ward 4) and Vincent B. Orange Sr. (Ward 5), lobbyist Michael A. Brown and former telecommunications executive Marie C. Johns all said that, if elected, they would continue the tradition.
Vera O'Connor offers suggestions for improving the District's public libraries at the D.C. citizen summit. Organizers say the summit is the nation's largest ongoing town hall meeting.