Ten years ago the problems of the city were the problems of the poor. The city government was dealing with riots, drugs and crime. The city streets were lined with burned-out businesses, shabby housing, pregnant teen-aged addicts and cries for violent black revolution. It was enough to numb the mind. In the face of it the city government grew lazy, cynical and unresponsive. Still, poverty remained the prime challenge.
Today the poor no longer dominate the thinking of the city government. Mayor Marion Barry may have been an activist for civil rights and the underprivileged in the '60s, but he has created a late-70s city government that is preoccupied with the problem of the middle class.
The basis of Barry's thinking is the big fear of black Washingtonians: whites are going to take over the city with their growing numbers and there will be no more "Chocolate City" where blacks, like Marion Barry, run the show. To stave off the siege, Barry wants to make sure that the young middle-class blacks, now building families, stay in the city. He knows that would make him a popular man with fearful blacks -- both young and old -- in this still predominantly black city. And Barry sees something in that master plan for himself. He wants to build the young black middle class into a political constituency he can count on. The poor lose out because they don't always vote.
"They [the young black middle class] are the infrastructure of our community," Barry said recently while discussing how children from middle-class black families are leaving the D.C. public schools. "In our community you can't lose your middle-class support or involvement. Otherwise your public schools go to the poor."
Obviously Barry doesn't think the public schools or the city will improve with the poor in them. And his government reflects that attitude. In the Barry administration's master plan for the city, there is no housing program for the poor. The housing program is based on home ownership. The poor cannot afford to buy houses in the city's currently booming housing market, no matter what subsidy or aid the city government is offering. The city's helping hand is going out to the middle-class husband and wife, working two jobs to take home $40,000, who find they are hard-put to afford the down payment on a city house. The five-year wait the poor now have for public housing in the city is not one of the master plan's concerns.
But Barry is probably making a big mistake in following a master plan that averts its gaze from the problems of the poor while trying to be responsive to the needs of the middle class. Sudden caring for the middle class is not going to keep them here in large numbers. And neglect of the poor is only going to have the ultimate, indirect effect of pushing out the black middle class that is fighting to stay in the city.
The reason is that in the master plan Barry appears to have forgotten that the District's young black middle class, if it buys homes in the city, now lives with the poor. Inner-city neighborhoods are where the affordable middle-class housing is. And with the poor just around the corner -- literally -- the biggest decision for those young middle-class blacks concerns the quality of life in the neighborhood. If the nearby poor are living in tenements, bored by school, out of work, walking the streets, those neighborhoods are not going to be stable, inviting areas for young couples who want to build families. At that point, it really doesn't matter how many housing subsidies Barry's city government makes available to help the middle class get into the housing market.
Another factor to consider is that any plan directed at reversing the departure of middle-class blacks from the city may already be too late.
Barry's own middle-class city employees may be the best example of that. Most of the city's policemen and firemen already live in the suburbs, as do almost half of the teachers. In another attempt to keep the middle class in the city, Barry supported a law, which took effect in January, that will generally require all new city workers to live in the city. Another proposed law would ban promotions for city employees who do not live in the city. But this is a case of closing the city gates after the middle class has run away. Until the middle class can find the good life in the city -- good housing at good prices, good neighbors and good schools -- few are going to move back, including the small number seeking promotions in their city jobs.
With his current master plan for keeping the middle class in the city, Barry is doing nothing but calming the blacks' racial fear of a white takeover. And he is only doing that for the moment, because his plan will not alter the changing character and makeup of the city. To do that, it -- and he -- would have to work with the middle class and the poor to improve life in all neighborhoods and schools. If Barry wants to keep young, middle-class couples in the city, he needs to make the city better for the people who are already here and to stop worrying so much about those who are leaving.