In the digital age, will a statue outlast a search engine?
That’s the question facing the guardians of the uniquely complicated legacy of former D.C. mayor Marion Barry, who veered between dominance and disgrace in a remarkable half-century political career.
Two years after Barry’s death at 78, his partisans in the nation’s capital just unveiled a proposed design for a life-size statue to be erected outside city hall, one of the public totems — from street art to street names — they hope will cement his place in the Washington pantheon for generations to come. They want to steer the memory of a fast-changing city toward the brighter chapters of the Barry Chronicles, his years as a civil rights hero and champion of the poor.
But when the city’s many newcomers type “Marion Barry” into their phones, they get the dark part. Google’s second hit is a newspaper headline: “Barry Arrested on Cocaine Charges.” The first is his Wikipedia entry, where the 1990 arrest comes in the second paragraph.
Merrick Malone, a developer who was Barry’s deputy mayor for economic development, rejects the caricature of Barry as a late-night punchline.
“I know there are people who want to dwell on his misdeeds and his flaws, but he was frankly a brilliant person who gave up a lot of his career on behalf of others,” Malone said. “We do need a dedicated effort to remind people that there is reason we should remember him positively.”
That effort began in earnest last week with a ceremony at the Wilson Building, where the proposed statue was unveiled. Cora Masters Barry, the mayor’s fourth wife and the chief keeper of his reputation, nodded approvingly at the portrayal of Barry as boldly astride a map of the District, one arm raised, a snappy fedora on his head.
She liked the likeness. But the hat? No so much.
“He was really known for his hairline,” Barry said as city officials, including Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and many council members, crowded in for a look at her husband’s bronzed image. “The hat will go.”
The design is the result of a two-year effort by the 13-member D.C. Commission to Commemorate and Recognize the Honorable Marion S. Barry Jr., which was formed by Bowser a few months after her predecessor’s death. That committee, which included Cora Masters Barry and former mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, has recommended the striding figure of Barry and an accompanying bas-relief panel depicting scenes from his early career.
“That’s him, that’s Marion,” murmured one of the crowd of supporters packed into the Wilson Building atrium when the African ceremonial cloth was pulled off the statue.
While the mayor’s hat and other details may still be tweaked, the effort now shifts to finding a final site in or around city hall for the life-size version of the work. The final cost of the project is expected to be between $350,000 and $400,000, according to D.C. Commission on the Arts Director Arthur Espinoza, who is overseeing the work. Bowser and the council will have the final say on the location, along with what mix of public and private funding will pay for it, he said.
Bowser hasn’t taken a position on other efforts to stamp Barry’s moniker on the city, including renaming a high school or a stretch of Good Hope Road in Southeast after him.
Barry remains a hero to many residents east of the Anacostia River. They remember his youth jobs program, his appearances at countless block parties and graduations, the face-to-face relationships with thousands of constituents of a self-described night owl prowling the city in his decrepit old Jaguar.
In the months before his death, he was viewed favorably by 81 percent of black Washingtonians, and just 7 percent of whites. This week, at a community meeting in Barry’s home turf of Ward 8, attendees broke into raucous applause when a speaker noted that the day would have been the mayor’s 81st birthday. Many of them also knew his son, Marion Christopher Barry, who died last year of a drug overdose at 36.
In these neighborhoods, Google or not, Barry’s legacy lives on in part because people too young to remember Barry hear about the man still known as “the mayor” from those who do.
“It’s part of an oral tradition now, people talk to their kids at the dinner table,” said Jeneba Jalloh Ghatt, a lawyer and blogger who grew up in the Shaw neighborhood. She mounted a spirited online defense of Barry after she felt many of his obituaries reduced his history to his worst failures. (“Crack Mayor Dead at 78” read a TMZ headline.)
“We longtime D.C. residents of old will not and cannot let the mainstream media and outsiders dictate what Marion Barry’s legacy was and will be,” Ghatt wrote. “They don’t know our story.”
That story includes Barry’s early history as a civil rights activist, his dogged commitment to employing teenagers each summer, his opening up of government jobs to African American professionals and government contracts to African American business.
“A lot of people believe he was the creator of a robust black middle class in this region,” former mayor and current Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) said after viewing the statue he hopes will be erected in front of the Wilson Building on Pennsylvania Avenue. “He certainly deserves a monument. The things he did for this city were monumental.”
Elaine McCrary got her first job — working at recreation center — thanks to Barry’s summer program in the 1970s.
“They should name a park after him like they did with Marvin Gaye,” McCrary said.
But other District residents say it will take more than a memorial to replace their abiding impression of Barry as the mayor who served prison time after being caught smoking crack on camera in a 1990 FBI sting at the Vista Hotel.
“I know he did things for Washington, but how much damage did he do by doing drugs like that?” said Ann Johnson, who moved to D.C. soon after Barry’s conviction. She would have an easier time forgiving him, she said, if he hadn’t come back for a star-crossed fourth term as mayor and then another 10 years on the city council. “People are just going to make jokes if they put his name on everything.”
Johnson was shopping at the gleaming new Giant in Shaw, one of the neighborhoods transformed by the influx of new residents in recent years. The grocery store now full of organic produce and chai teas is located inside the old O Street Market, where gangbangers shot eight shoppers and killed one of them in 1994. That was a year that saw 399 homicides in Washington, and the year that Barry, out of prison, ran successfully again for mayor.
It’s a different Washington, one younger and whiter than the “Chocolate City” of Barry’s heyday, that will remember him in years to come. Or not.
“I’ve never heard of him,” Matt Gherity said on being asked about Barry as he shopped for bananas at the Giant. The 25-year-old moved here from Minnesota almost two years ago.
Barry frequently railed against the gentrification that has made the District a magnet for young newcomers, worried that they were displacing older and poorer residents. But the recent boom is also part of the Barry legacy, according to Malone.
He cites the example of 14th Street, now a playground of ritzy restaurants and high-end condominiums. When Barry took power, the street was an urban disaster zone, still trying to recover from the 1968 riots and lined with liquor stores and prostitutes. Barry pushed for the Franklin D. Reeves Center, a major city office complex, to be constructed amid the bleakness.
“It had to start somewhere, and that ugly building was a source of jobs when private investment wouldn’t touch that area,” Malone said. “What finally happened on 14th Street is what Marion Barry intended to happen.”
The city’s vibrancy is part of what makes Washington so appealing to Gherity, even if he hasn’t learned much yet about its local political history. After acknowledging he hadn’t heard of Barry, he knew what he would do to educate himself about the seminal D.C. figure: “I’ll look him up when I get home.”