ONE NEED only walk the main streets of Washington east of the Anacostia River or those in the Northeast section of town to understand the frustrations felt by the people who dwell there and by the politicians who represent them. A supermarket closes here, another struggling business closes there, and what is left are poor, discouraged communities with little if any vitality.
A measure of that frustration surfaced at a recent budget meeting when the D.C. Council members from Wards 6, 7 and 8 assailed Deputy Mayor Curtis McClinton. The members were concerned that very little of the city's downtown redevelopment boom has graced their depressed communities. The frustration is understandable, but the hard economic fact of the matter is that few successful enterprises will be placed in areas with too many problems and too little income to support them. The manager of a major fast-food chain heard that argument from the corporate hierarchy when she wanted to open another franchise in far Southeast.
There have been success stories in major cities around the country in which blighted areas have been revitalized. The financial outlay, however, has been considerable. City government officials, community leaders, merchants and financial institutions also had to work together smoothly.
Just such a mix has apparently helped the people in the community around 52nd Street in West Philadelphia make gains in rehabilitating their neighborhood. Four years ago, it was an area where 20 percent of the business space was vacant and the crime rate was high. But residents remained there: the area was densely populated, enough so to support several small businesses.
The city hired a "corridor manager" to recruit needed businesses and to organize the merchants already there. The city also pumped in $2 million to fix streets and make other physical improvements. The YMCA was torn down and rebuilt. The private sector and lending institutions added another $3 million to put new facades on old storefronts. One merchant opened a shoe store. A McDonald's also opened. The area, after four years, has attracted lots of regular customers. The new situation is by no means perfect. The crime rate is still too high, and some residents don't like the style of development. True, neither I. Magnin nor Saks is expected to be locating there soon, but it is also unlikely that they will choose to open a branch on Martin Luther King Avenue here.
What is possible is that smaller businesses can be persuaded to locate in poor sections of town. Only, however, if the city is prepared to apply some financial muscle and work closely with the community and local merchants. Verbal sparring matches in budget hearings will obviously not help get the job done.