Sixteen-year-old Deborah James isn't consumed with grand visions. She just wants more than the symbols of commercial abandonment that haunt her community. "I want to see bowling alleys, skating rinks, drive-ins and bookstores," she told Mayor Anthony Williams at a Northeast D.C. community forum this week.
Deborah James simply doesn't like having to travel outside the District just for shopping and entertainment. But she must. And she's not alone.
More than 235,000 residents, or 45 percent of the population living in the city's eastern quadrants, share a similar plight. Visit Southeast or Southwest and try to find a commercial movie theater. You won't. How about Northeast? You can't, except for the AMC Union Station 9, which, when you stop to think about it, is located as close to North Capitol Street, the east-west dividing line, as it can get. The rest of the District's movie theaters are found west of 16th Street NW.
Deborah James's entertainment deficit doesn't stop with movie theaters.
How about major retail bookstores such as Borders, Crown, Barnes and Noble or Chapters east of the Anacostia River or anywhere in Northeast (beyond Union Station)? They don't exist. Maybe a bowling alley? No dice. As for burgeoning technology firms of the type springing up in Fairfax County and making millionaires out of baby boomers? Fuhgeddaboudit! Shucks, in the entire District, there isn't what city economic development types call a "big box" store such as Wal-Mart, Kmart, Ames or Target.
Ah, but D.C. souls leaving this vale of tears don't face such problems. The city, especially eastward of 14th Street NW, has funeral homes galore.
You want a liquor store? Look no farther than the nearest corner. How about a barber, beauty, nail or wig shop? No problem. And let's not forget that old mainstay, the carryout. You see, when it comes to having small, non-goods-producing, consumption-oriented shops, the inner city's cup runneth over. And that is the District that many of the young people attending the mayor's community forum are stuck with.
Deborah James and her friends are worlds apart from the District that is both spurring and benefiting from the current economic boom. To find evidence of that kind of development -- and see who's in line to make a financial killing -- Deborah James et al. must travel downtown, where construction cranes dot the skyline, and money, power and politics meet.
But downtown's flashy success shouldn't blind the mayor to Deborah James's demands. She may be 16, but she speaks for thousands of residents. Like them, she is willing to pay her own way. What's lacking are places in her community where her money can be spent. As consumers, she and her neighbors are viable; it's their community that isn't. Statistics from the city's economic development staff back that up. The annual gross household income east of the river is $1.9 billion. Residents there shell out an estimated $90 million for clothes, $18 million for entertainment and $20 million for leisure products. All that money flowing out of their community!
And City Hall's response? In the past couple of days I caught up with Douglas Patton, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, and with Lamont Mitchell, the mayor's special assistant for east of the river. They point to a package of $1.2 billion of federal tax credits, deductions, exemptions and exclusions for capital projects and investments in the city. These provisions are designed to stimulate business in Deborah James's neighborhood -- and others like hers around the city, they said.
The mayor's top priority, said Mitchell, is to make the city's neighborhoods attractive places in which to live and do business. That means spending millions to renovate schools and increase homeownership, which are essential to healthy neighborhoods. It also means overhauling the machinery of government to create an atmosphere that is conducive to business. And removing drugs and violence from the streets. "What good is a theater if it's not safe for Deborah to go there?" Mitchell asks.
So, caught up in the spirit of the moment and their rhetoric, I asked both officials what changes Deborah James and the 300 young people assembled at the Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Club on Benning Road last Tuesday might expect to see in their communities six months or more down the road as a result of the mayor's economic development program.
I wouldn't say Mitchell and Patton exactly blinded me with their footwork -- but they sure danced up a storm as they unveiled some intriguing but gauzy plans: a major project complete with a supermarket, a "big box" store and a big-name home fix-up business to be located somewhere in Northeast; development of 100-plus acres into retail space with housing east of the river; the relocation of D.C. government agencies from downtown to stimulate economic development in areas of the city where the private sector doesn't want to be the first to go -- the so-called "Reeves Center syndrome"; building of state-of-the-art recreation centers, etc.
But when I asked -- in behalf of Deborah James, her neighbors and friends -- at what point on the calendar these Tony Williams wonders shall come to pass, I got this:
Mitchell: "This administration will work as fast and as hard as possible to address the challenges within her community that prevent her and her friends from enjoying the simple pleasure of viewing a Martin Lawrence film without the consideration of transportation or intimidation."
Patton: "Tell Deborah to `watch what they do -- not what they say.' "
And that, Deborah James, is the best I could do on short notice. Sorry. I'll keep at it.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.