At age 91, Benjamin E. Thomas Jr. has been watching the antics of the people running the District longer than some current officeholders have been alive. He served 15 years as a member of an Advisory Neighborhood Commission, waged a 10-year fight to get a traffic light in his Southeast Washington neighborhood and is said to be the oldest neighborhood watch block captain in the city.
His eyesight is still good, but his insights are even better.
Asked recently about the state of the District heading into next Tuesday’s Democratic mayoral and D.C. Council primaries, he spoke with the frankness of a senior citizen who has seen it all.
“It saddens me to say it, but this is the worst city government I’ve ever witnessed,” Thomas said.
He wasn’t just talking about the two-year federal investigation of D.C. government corruption, which has netted 20 convictions, sent three council members to jail and left a cloud of suspicion over Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s reelection bid.
There’s another scandal, perhaps even worse than the one dominating recent headlines: a city flush with cash catering to its most privileged residents while treating the most vulnerable — children and elderly alike — with contempt.
“When we won home rule and the right to elect our own leaders back in the 1970s, the goal was to build a city where everybody was treated with dignity and respect,” Thomas said. “I don’t know when all that began to change, but nowadays it looks like we are building a city for buildings. People getting pushed out to make room for buildings. Buildings going up, but nobody from the city getting jobs. All these buildings and they’re putting homeless people in recreation centers.”
You’d think that a recently launched effort by Gray (D), called the “Age-Friendly City” campaign, would have tempered Thomas’s harsh judgment. The plan calls for making the District safer and more socially inclusive for seniors by 2017.
Volunteers started last week canvassing streets, block by block, and compiling reports on what improvements need to be made. Gray joined one of the groups Saturday for a brief walk in the Deanwood neighborhood, where the most obvious hazards were said to be cracked sidewalks.
Thomas was not impressed. He and his neighbors have been complaining about crime, abandoned cars, illegal dumping and other age-unfriendly acts for years.
The same day that Gray made his cursory neighborhood tour, Thomas showed me around the nearby Benning Ridge neighborhood, where he has lived since 1958.
“That’s one of the recreation centers where they house the homeless,” he pointed out. “Can you imagine herding human beings into a place like that? Making everybody sleep on mats? It’s shameful.”
A few blocks away, he pointed at a house and said, “That’s where a woman was watching television upstairs and did not hear the burglars downstairs.” The woman, a senior citizen who lives alone, plays bridge with his wife.
D.C. police eventually showed up but the burglars were long gone. The fear, on the other hand, lingers.
Making matters worse, there is a huge, dying tree leaning toward the woman’s house. One just like it had fallen and severely damaged the house next door to hers. “She has been trying for three years to get the city to cut it down,” Thomas said.
As we drove on, Thomas pointed to where the air-conditioning compressor had been stolen from outside a house. All that remained was a concrete foundation and severed hoses protruding from a wall. The resident was an elderly man who lived alone. He had gone without heat during much of the winter.
“The third one stolen in this neighborhood that I know of,” Thomas said.
The tires from a neighbors’ car had been stolen. “They came out to go to church and no wheels,” Thomas said. “That’s why I try to park under the streetlight.”
On a street that runs alongside Fort Dupont Park, Thomas showed me the charred ground where an abandoned car had been set on fire. There have also been two fatal shootings in the neighborhood.
“We used to be able to leave our doors unlocked at night,” said Thomas, who worked as a Pullman porter and retired after 30 years with the Coast Guard. “We never dreamed that we would end up being scared to live in our house.”
Nowadays, almost everyone locks themselves in at night. Many of Thomas’s neighbors rely on security bars on windows and doors, making their homes look like prisons.
It is unlikely that the city’s “age-friendly” canvassing will pick up on such despair, let along result in senior citizens living out their golden years in peace.
On Tuesday, Gray sweetened his appeal for the senior vote by signing into law a property tax relief bill just for them. The measure had been sponsored by council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), who is also seeking reelection.
No doubt the new law would make it less expensive for some seniors to stay in the city. But who wants to stay in a house where dead trees are threatening to kill you? Where burglars don’t just steal your belongings but whatever peace of mind you have left?
“You can tell when an election is coming up,” Thomas said. “First come the promises, then come the buses to take us to the polls.”
After that, he’ll be surprised if a politician even mentions “age-friendly city” again. Or that he’ll be alive to see it if one of them actually kept his or her word.