Fifty years after fires destroyed portions of Washington, the city has undergone a rebirth. At Kenyon and 14th streets NW, shops and new housing have replaced the rubble and abandoned buildings left after the riots. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

How does one assess Washington’s progress since the 1968 riots? It depends on your point of view.

For many residents, commuters and tourists, life is dramatically better. Seen through this lens, 50 years after rioting left large portions of the city in ruin, the District is a great success story. Washington has advanced markedly in its revitalization. Its finances are on an enviable footing, its population continues to increase, investment continues to flow, and it is considered a front-runner for a new Amazon headquarters.

However, ask many African American residents, particularly east of the Anacostia River, and positive changes after the “rebellion” appear not so much to have stalled as to have never even started. Issues of access to jobs, low-performing schools, inadequate housing and high crime all paint a picture of city leadership more focused on quality of life for newcomers than on critical investment for longtime residents who want a pathway to inclusion in a newly prosperous city.

The violence in Washington 50 years ago laid bare divisions that still exist. To credibly evaluate our progress over these years, one cannot be expected to square a circle or reconcile irreconcilable differences. One may ask, though: How has a newly powerful economic engine been deployed to address chronic social ills and gnawing inequality?

The federal Kerner Commission, created to examine the riots that exploded across the country in the 1960s, pointed to disparate treatment of black and white citizens in the United States; the Brookings Institution in 1999 mapped a greater Washington region as divided as any in the country ; and more recently the Meyer Foundation issued a report detailing the challenges of unequal treatment and racism still facing our community.

Is this an old “Twilight Zone” episode where we have traveled so far, only to end up in the same place? Put differently, have we worked out a way to both grow the city and make it work for everyone?

To many Americans, the 1968 riots marked a turning point in Washington’s fortunes. As I see it, the riots marked a point of no return, after which the city would not, could not, return to the old ways of addressing issues of race and home rule. By the time of the disturbances, the city was already well into a new stage of its history, a dramatic post-World War II decline in its population, economy and overall vitality. Some 10 years earlier, The Washington Post published articles calling for steps to grow the economy and address horrible conditions in many District neighborhoods.

How did the city respond to these economic and social conditions? In the decades following the riots, the D.C. community addressed the economic decline and lack of representation, and realized positive changes: the formation of an elected District government and a growing cry for self-determination; the completion of the Metro system, an extraordinary example of regional collaboration; and revitalization projects large — Union Station — and even larger — the Pennsylvania Avenue redevelopment. Most notable, civil rights advances resulted in the desegregation of the federal and District government workforces, reversing discrimination that began, formally at least, more than 50 years earlier during the Woodrow Wilson administration.


Construction cranes hover above H and 8th streets NE, where 50 years ago rioting and fires left rubble in place of many buildings. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

But the seemingly inexorable decline continued apace. In 1990, the Rivlin Commission, initiated by then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon, drew a bleak picture of the District absent any change in policy. The city was overloaded with obligations, imposed by both the federal government (the pension system) and its own over-commitments (an unsustainable ratio of employees to citizens). It was a concierge setup without the service.

By the 1990s, a large percentage of middle-class African American families, supported by good jobs and contracting, had left for the Maryland suburbs. Closer to home, and inexcusably, practically every social-service agency was well on its way to court receivership.

As the District slid into insolvency in 1994, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D. C.) joined Office of Management and Budget Director Alice Rivlin and took a page from the financial-recovery playbook of cities like New York and Philadelphia, creating the often-criticized, much-maligned Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority, or Control Board. While it made its share of mistakes, the board did nothing less than save the national capital.

Operating under a suspension of limited home rule, the Control Board was independent of local political influence and accordingly was able to begin working toward something even more important than fiscal solvency: restoring an environment of success and accountability in the city, recognizing and rewarding outstanding leadership, and asking tough questions and searching for answers.

In policy terms, the board had its greatest impact in two areas: reconstructing the public finance and public safety arms of District government. Less coverage has been given to another critical area of the board’s work — the rebuilding of the D.C. police. With a new chief came a willingness to change the status quo, including entering into a voluntary agreement with the U.S. Justice Department to reform police-citizen engagement protocols.

Thus began an ongoing rejuvenation of the public realm, beginning with public trust, and continuing through public safety to areas such as public education, public parks, public libraries, and public art and culture.

We have embraced ways to expand educational options, most notably, of our own volition, voting to reform our public school system. We transformed a failing D.C. General Hospital into one of the first state public health plans in the country.

We have deployed the police department to great effect, bringing crime to record lows while leading the country in the right way to engage citizens. Notwithstanding the distance to go, we have improved customer service, pressed forward with the revitalization of libraries and expanded parks and recreation activities. The city has seen its population go from 572,000 in 2000 to more than 700,000 in 2018.

Fifty years on, the first order of business, growing the District economy and its share of the regional economy, continues.

But what of the second question, ensuring that this newly created economic machine works for all people? To answer this question, one should stipulate that the enormous flow of investment into the city has resulted in displacement of poor and marginalized populations. Recall how the often-criticized goal of 100,000 new residents came to be. Policy leaders discussed the various strategies available to the District to buttress our finances, and the idea of bringing in additional residents — who would support the revitalization of our main thoroughfares and neighborhoods — was an attractive approach.


The corner of U and 15th streets NW has been rebuilt, and the area is now home to a more diverse population. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Did this approach come with costs? Every policy option does. But the growth in revenue and consequent growth in expenditures has largely gone to support services for our neediest citizens. Economic gains have been harvested for new schools, new parks, new libraries and relatively high support for social programs. It isn’t necessarily the level of spending, it’s how well the money is invested.

I am optimistic. I see the largest benefit of the District’s recovery as its capacity, properly marshaled and exercised, to attack poverty and inequality in a socially responsible, economically feasible way. The District’s recent progress on homelessness is no small achievement. How do we build on this in other areas of social impact?

First, continue and accelerate the effort to diversify and grow the economy. We’ve come a long way in 50 years, but success is not guaranteed, and indeed, there are warning signs on the horizon. We can meet our aspirations only if we have the economy to do it. I recall the sign on my mother’s beauty salon: “Remember ladies, you must have enough hair for the style you want. We are beauticians, not magicians.”

This translates into how we accommodate residential and business investors. Is the process still an ordeal? Is it fair to ignore the huge economic benefits that would otherwise go to social needs because we have an absolutist view of a neighborhood ideal, density, historic preservation, etc.? I’ve seen projects in which enormous economic value goes untapped in service to such absolutism.

Second, build on the recent success in long-term funding (and I pray, governance changes) for Metro with a bold embrace of regionalism. The District, now on the economic ascent, is in a better place to engage in productive discussions with regional partners on issues from the environment to health care to transportation to housing to job access. As then-Mayor Marion Barry often told me, “D.C. is 68 square miles, and 10 are underwater.” Are these issues simply D.C. issues in a modern metro region competing on a global basis? Of course not.

Third, for better or worse, the District is a wonderful, living laboratory of American neighborhood building. We’ve learned a lot about neighborhood building over the years. We know how to connect schools and services with neighborhoods. We know how to cost-effectively target scarce housing dollars.

Fourth, the District was doing public partnerships and innovative program investing long before the terms came into vogue. Practitioners are still only scratching the surface of the world of social impact and what it means to social policy. For instance, we need and can have a world-class community college system. Let’s invite the world to participate in identifying problems and investing in innovative solutions.

As for private commitments, we can build on the success of programs that enhance the impact of government initiatives, such as the 11th Street Bridge Project, the College Access Program, the ARC entertainment center in Southeast, the Summit Fund of Washington, new sports facilities and innovative student internship programs.

Finally, there are no excuses for holding back. Yes, inequality has been persistent; yes, the concentration of poverty in our city is daunting; but we have the capacity, we have the resources, and we’ve shown the willingness to tackle the big problems. We know how to do this. We really do.

local@washpost.com

Anthony Williams, who served as mayor of Washington from 1999 to 2007, is chief executive and executive director of the Federal City Council.