"What's going on with those folks in Ward 8?" That's the question I've been hearing ever since Sept. 14, when "those folks" returned the outcast Marion Barry to D.C. politics, choosing him in the Democratic primary over incumbent council member Sandy Allen. People living west of the Anacostia River can't seem to fathom the motivations that might have led voters to choose an ailing 68-year-old man with a less-than-stellar record of delivering municipal services and programs to represent them once more.
Indeed, the tale of Barry's rise from the ashes (yet again) has less to do with him than with the people who voted for him. And if their actions seem self-defeating to those on the outside, there is nonetheless a meaning in their seeming madness, if not precisely a method.
In discussing the foundations of Barry's latest foothold, residents and others cite a confluence of socio-economic issues, a political culture that still hews to the old ways, the "Cool Hand Luke" mantra ("What we have here is a failure to communicate") and what you might call the "four D's" -- disconnection, dispossession, disillusionment and distrust of the current mayor.
"There is an alienation from the council," says Howard Croft, an Anacostia neighborhood resident who says that some of his neighbors see how council members serve voters in other parts of the city and wonder why they can't be treated the same way. "Some people think things are almost hopeless, and just to have someone who says he cares is enough," adds Philip Pannell, a Congress Heights resident and president of the Ward 8 chapter of the AARP. "People who feel they really are dispossessed will latch on to almost anything."
But where does this sense of dispossession come from? After all, in the last three years, according to the District's Department of Housing and Community Development, there has been nearly $400 million in investment in Ward 8. Teen pregnancy, infant mortality and crime are all down -- although there are still far more homicides committed east of the river than in other parts of the city. Economic development projects are queued up, and there has been an unprecedented amount of new housing built.
How is hopelessness shaped from such statistics? In much of Ward 8, it seems, facts frequently become the stepchildren of perception.
"What we would perceive as progress and development is not seen that way by everyone," says Vincent Gray, who upset incumbent Kevin Chavous to become the Democratic nominee for the council seat in neighboring Ward 7. He is also executive director of Covenant House Washington, a nonprofit organization serving troubled youth and their families that's based in Ward 8.
It's the "not everyone" in this case that matters. In other parts of the city, the middle and upper class generally command most of the political attention; but in Ward 8, the plight of low-income people consistently takes center stage. Many of them are the ones who voted for Barry. They see themselves as ignored and under siege by both economic forces and the government.
For example, many look at the new housing in their neighborhoods and remember the old public-housing dwellings that once stood on the same spots. Federal funds transformed those old developments into mixed-income complexes that have brought in middle-class residents. As a practical matter, this meant some low-income folks were forced to move.
Consequently, "the housing is seen as not friendly to people on the lower economic end," says Gray. These perceptions remain even though the District government has created several loan programs, some with interest rates as low as 3 percent, to help residents purchase homes.
Then there's the issue of economic development. People in Ward 8 have been waiting more than six years for a supermarket, even longer for decent retail outlets and family-style restaurants. They look across the river and see fancy eating places throughout downtown -- even next-door Ward 7, which shares some of Ward 8's plight, has a Denny's. They see Home Depot in Ward 5, and hear stories of a Target coming to Columbia Heights in Ward 1. They stand on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and wonder when their turn is coming -- if it is coming at all.
"A lot of people are not benefiting from the economic boom," says Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, a longtime resident of the Bellevue neighborhood in Ward 8 and former president of the ward's Democrats. "Or if they are benefiting, it's not fast enough. The expectations are greater right now based on what is seen in other parts of the city."
Yet development is coming to the ward. It has begun on the Anacostia Gateway project, a town center with D.C. government offices located at the intersection of Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. Plans have been finalized for Camp Simms, a former military base at the southern end of the ward that will provide retail stores and a 63,000-square-foot Giant supermarket (a plan first proposed by then-Mayor Barry in 1984). Throughout the spring and summer, officials with the Office of Planning have been meeting with residents to fashion a collective vision for St. Elizabeths Hospital that could include a renovated mental health facility, housing and retail development.
Still, people feel left out. Blame it on the river. It isolates, and thus assists in the perpetuation of a culture that makes Ward 8 a political relic. Many of its residents are acolytes of old-style African American politics, often analyzing candidates and issues through the prism of race. Except for current at-large council member David Catania and the late council chairman David Clarke, white politicians have never gotten an easy ride east of the river. The philosophy of government as the employer of first and last resort (and the panacea for all that ails) thrives there -- even as it faces almost certain death in other parts of the District. The physical improvements are palpable, but the culture offers testimony to a community not quite at the precipice of transition, to say nothing of a renaissance.
The District has a cosmopolitan patina, but beneath the surface, it's still mostly Southern. And as in the South, most residents to varying degrees like their politicians up close and personal. In Ward 8, that's more a necessity than a stylistic penchant. The area has one of the city's lowest literacy rates. Many people don't read the major newspapers. Others come home drained from work. They have little time for civic engagement; a politician has to come to them. "I bet you The Washington Post probably sells fewer papers here than anywhere else in the city," Pannell said to me. "And people in Ward 8 aren't watching Reporter's Notebook [on cable Channel 16]. They aren't listening to Mark Plotkin or you and Kojo [Nnamdi] on the radio."
Many Ward 8 residents get their news the old-fashioned way -- by word of mouth. So the bearer of the news becomes critical. They have to trust that person. Few people east of the river trust the government, the police, or Mayor Anthony A. Williams.
To many residents east of the river, Williams is a foreigner. I came to understand the importance of this perception after reflecting on some comments my sister made to me once when I went home to New Orleans to visit. She told me, "You don't even talk like you are from here." I knew then that there was a disconnect between us. People in Ward 8 feel about Williams the way my sister feels about me. He doesn't speak their language. "Anytime he comes to this ward, he has to read a script," says Pannell. "And it's a terribly written speech that doesn't connect with anyone."
That barrier is complicated by the perceptions of an unfriendly government handing out the economic spoils to everyone everywhere -- except east of the river. "Our current mayor is perceived as not being friendly to people," says Gray.
Barry, on the other hand, speaks the language of Ward 8. "A large number of people who feel disillusioned voted for Marion Barry because he makes them feel good," says Ward 8's Kinlow. "He makes people feel valuable -- a handshake, a conversation. He's a genuine old-style politician."
By contrast, some people believe that incumbent Sandy Allen lost her way, forgetting her roots and failing to communicate with her constituents. "It was just like Charlene," says Ward 8 resident Don Matthews, referring to former council member Charlene Drew Jarvis, who represented Ward 4 for 17 years. "She got up there with the big boys and forgot about the people." Something similar might be said about Kevin Chavous in Ward 7. Some residents there complained that he spent too little time in their communities. Like their neighbors in Ward 8 -- although with less intensity -- they complained about inadequate economic development, a lack of affordable housing and the government's failure to hear their voices.
None of this is new, of course. I recorded many of these same complaints when I covered Barry's 1992 council election. Then, it was council member Wilhelmina Rolark and Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly who were out of touch, unable to speak the language of the people, offering programs harmful to the low-income. Then as now, the poor and working-class saw their government as the enemy, not as an ally in their quest to rise to the middle class. Then as now, Barry was seen as the quintessential communicator, the person they could trust to articulate their needs and advocate for them, to rescue them from the stranglehold of poverty.
But he did little to alter the culture that handicaps the ward, preventing it from thriving and becoming the jewel east of the river that it could be. Perhaps even the people of Ward 8 recognize some of that now. A remarkable thing to keep in mind is how few actually voted for Barry this time around. Only 8,261 out of 31,516 registered Democrats in the ward even went to the polls. Of that number, Barry won 4,728 -- far fewer than he received in his two most recent primary races, for mayor in 1994 and council in 1992 -- and Allen received 2,061. The numbers reveal it all: both the extent of voter apathy that prevails in the ward, and Barry's diminishing popularity even among those who still embrace him.
This time around, if Barry really wanted to be serious about the job he's been given, he could become the Bill Cosby of Ward 8, preaching the bootstrap theology, advocating for more parental responsibility and less government dependency. He could serve as master translator, helping his low-income constituents express their needs to the government and helping the government clarify its programs effectively for citizens who need them. He could help them prepare for the 21st century.
Whether he does that will reveal which story Barry feels is more important: the politician's or the people's.
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