When then-Mayor Marion Barry was arrested after an FBI sting at the Vista Hotel on Jan. 18, 1990, it didn’t just provide an opening for editorial cartoonists, late-night comedy writers, and peddlers of “Bitch Set Me Up” merchandise. It also created a world where publishers were suddenly very interested in the idea of a book about the intricacies of post–Home Rule government in the District. The humiliation of seeing the city’s mayor smoke crack on video would provide D.C. with the most enduring book about itself.
That tome—Dream City, by reporters Tom Sherwood and Harry Jaffe—came out 20 years ago this month. A look at Barry’s life, from his rise in the civil rights movement to his decline as the drug-addled mayor, the book also follows the District’s development over the same decades. As the allure of Barry’s administration falls away amid graft and high living, the city in Dream City goes from the promise of Home Rule and civil rights in the early 1970s to waves of crack cocaine and violence in the 1980s.
Twenty years later, though, the District that Sherwood and Jaffe wrote about in 1994 looks very different. The city that earned its “murder capital” moniker with a high of 479 murders in 1991 had only 103 homicides last year. The Barry-era deficits that helped bring on the federal takeover of the District government in 1995 have been replaced with regular annual surpluses in the hundreds of millions of dollars. And a population that was overwhelmingly African-American during Barry’s rise and fall is only about half black now, according to the latest census.
Despite the changes, though, Dream City persists. Out of print for more than a decade, it’s somehow become a fetish object for aspiring local political cognoscenti, regularly selling for more than $80 online. It’s the favorite book of politicians as diverse as varied as mayor-turned-Silicon Valley mogul Adrian Fenty to disgraced D.C. Councilmember-turned-federal prisoner Michael Brown.
The book’s authors are also still around. Sherwood, who was so new to his job at NBC4 when he started working on the book that he fumbled a broadcast from Barry’s crack sting, is still at the local station. Jaffe writes for Washingtonian, where he covers the District’s mayors and would-be mayors, just like he did decades ago for the now-defunct Regardie’s magazine.
As for Barry, what does he think of the book that—aside from an HBO movie he’s trying to foil—looks set to be the most significant record of his four terms running the District? “Not much,” he says.
As 1990 began, Pennsylvania native Harry Jaffe wrote a real estate column for Regardie’s, a Washington business magazine that would close in 1992. Tom Sherwood had left the Washington Post for NBC4, a move from print to TV that had been made easier by the fact that the station offered to double his salary. And the city’s press corps was on watch for a bust of Barry, after rumors that the feds had been chasing him for months.
Marion Barry, Ward 8 councilmember, former four-term mayor: It’s not going to be very flattering, but I’ll talk to you about it.
Tom Sherwood, Dream City co-author and NBC4 reporter: I got a call from my editor, who said, “Barry’s been arrested at the Vista Hotel.”
I thought they were messing with me. Because a couple weeks earlier, [NBC4 reporter] Pat Collins had had the flu or something like that, and he was sick on the sofa in the back room. They said, “Let’s go play a trick on Pat. Let’s go tell him that there’s been a plane crash at National Airport.”
He jumped up out of the sofa and was in the car driving downtown with his crew and they said, “Aha, that was a joke.”
When they called me, I said, “I know what you guys did to Pat Collins, but I’m going to give you one more chance to tell me that this is not a joke. If it is a joke, then I won’t be able to work for the TV station, this is not funny.” The editor said, “Tom, this is not a joke.”
Harry Jaffe, Dream City co-author, Washingtonian reporter: When Marion was arrested at the Vista Hotel, it just so happened that [literary agent] David [Black] was coming down to Washington that weekend. David called me the next day and said, “There are editors here in New York that are interested, all of a sudden interested in a Marion Barry book. Do you want to do it?”
I was interested, but I knew that I didn’t have the depth of reporting, that I didn’t have the sources that I would need to write about the D.C. government and D.C. politics. I thought about who knows this the best, who could I work with.
Sherwood’s name came up, and it was just me thinking about it. I thought, “Well, Tom Sherwood is the best reporter when it comes to D.C. government.” And so I called Tom up and said, “Are you interested in cooperating with me, collaborating with me on a book?”
I didn’t know Tom that well. We were not good friends.
Sherwood: I didn’t know Harry. I still don’t know Harry.
Three months after Barry’s first arrest, Sherwood and Jaffe received a book contract and a $60,000 advance they split evenly (the contract didn’t include any provisions for royalties, according to Jaffe). They worked on reporting for the book around their day jobs. Sherwood covered the District government, while Jaffe reported on development and the police investigation into Barry.
Brian Kelly, Regardie’s editor: You had this great combination with Harry and Tom. So to make that point, the two guys who really understood what was going on in the city were not working for the major newspaper in the city.
Sherwood: We talked to a lot of people, but a lot of people I talked to within the Barry circle obviously didn’t want to talk for attribution. But I talked to a lot of them.
So I didn’t have to do a lot of formal interviews. I would just call them up, say, “We’re doing this book, what about this, what about that?”
Barry didn’t want to participate in the book.
Jaffe: Neither of us ever spoke to Barry ever about the substance of the book, never. Our reporting standards were public record, two-source rules. If we were going to write about a conversation or an event, a couple of sources at least.
Sherwood: I have a long relationship with Barry, and all the people around him knew that. They would, in fact, complain that Barry told me too much stuff. Barry would complain about who leaked something and they would say, “You did.”
While some Barry loyalists spoke to Jaffe and Sherwood, others, like Pride Inc. organizer Rufus “Catfish” Mayfield, didn’t. Despite lending the book its opening quote, Mayfield backed out of further interviews, saying there was a double standard over how African-American politicians are treated in reporting.
Rufus “Catfish” Mayfield, Pride Inc. organizer, in Dream City’s epigraph: We better understand something. The white folks want their city back. That’s why they took down our mayor.
Mayfield: I did not say anything, I did not participate. Like any other story, there might be some shit in there that was true and factual, but overall, no. When I backed out, they just said, “Fuck it, I’m going to put something in there anyway.”
Jaffe: I didn’t feel racially compromised or defined at all in writing the story. And we never, certainly I never, heard from any of our subjects or sources or characters, “What are these white guys doing writing this book?”
Mayfield: I do believe that there’s a double standard in the reporting. When black folks make a mistake, we are added with an extra layer, because what they tell us is we have to be more white than them, because they anticipate that we are fuck-ups. Well, hey, I don’t agree with this here. So that’s why I didn’t do it.
Barry, on Twitter, May 2, 2014, after Washington City Paper reported that the HBO film, which has hired Jaffe and Sherwood as consultants, had signed on author George Pelecanos as a screenwriter: You ought to be ashamed of yourself @tomsherwood. How does it feel to profit off of my life? Off of my service? My struggles?
As for you Tom, please don’t ever call me again for anything. You’ve coopted my life enough.
Jaffe: When Tom took over the City Hall beat at the Post, they actually were moving offices, rearranging offices, and somebody asked Sherwood if he wanted a file cabinet, and he didn’t know what was inside of it.
But he took a look, and there was just a lot of notes going back by other reporters, reporters who had covered the city before him, [Post reporter, now deputy managing editor] Milton Coleman among them.
And Tom said, “I definitely want to keep this,” and that was a treasure trove for us, because it had a lot of verbatim comments, press conferences, public comments by Marion Barry and others that became the foundation for a lot that we wrote about.
Sherwood: I had a lot of old stories, old press releases, old everything. And they would help us reconstruct what had happened, because some of the stuff was just carbon copies of stuff that the Washington Post had left there, that the previous reporters had left there. It was just a lot of file stuff which I used to read just casually to know what was going on.
So that helped us a lot. If the previous reporters had been neater and thrown that stuff out, we wouldn’t have gotten a lot of the stuff.
Sherwood: I was brand new to TV, I was trying to figure out what the hell to do on TV, and then during the nights and weekends we were doing interviews with people and trying to put the book together. I’ll never do that again.
Jaffe: The whole Rayful Edmond [crack dealing] story tangentially involved Marion, but you know, I think that what was interesting and fun for me was to tell a story about the city and the characters in the city aside from Marion. He may be the dominant character but he’s not the only main character.
Convicted on one misdemeanor cocaine possession charge unrelated to the Vista Hotel sting in August 1990, Barry didn’t run for re-election as mayor that year, though he did seek, and lose, an at-large Council seat after his conviction and sentencing. Beginning in October 1991, he served six months in federal prison. Would-be reformer Sharon Pratt Kelly replaced him in the mayor’s office, in what Kelly supporters thought would be the end of the financial mismanagement that had marked the Barry years. They were wrong.
While Barry served his prison sentence, Jaffe and Sherwood worked on the book in an attic in Jaffe’s Chevy Chase home.
Sherwood: We went into his attic. I brought all of my files up there, we went through them. He interviewed me. He’d say, “What happened here?”
Jaffe: It’s like anything. You have to start really strong so people are going to read the book, and it was the first book I’d ever written. I remember weeping in my attic, feeling defeated that I couldn’t write the book. But once I was able to narrate the very first chapter, then the book started going pretty well.
Barry: I think the part that Tom Sherwood wrote was much better than the part what’s his name, Harry Jaffe, wrote.
Sherwood: He did 97 percent of the writing. I would edit, I would read it over for content, add stuff, write some stuff, but you’ve got to have one voice.
Jaffe: I think the tension of the book is that I was much more judgmental of Marion Barry. To me, I was here in 1978, living in Washington. I remember Marion Barry’s first election, I remember the promise of his biracial government.
I believed in integration, and I believed in Barry and his potential. I think that was the belief across the city. So I was disappointed as he succumbed to power and alcohol and drugs. I mean, that personally disappointed me and that came through in the book sometimes too much for Tom’s taste, and he dialed me back.
Sherwood: If there’s ever an example of good cop/bad cop with Barry, Harry and me are it, and not for any particular reason that Barry has ever said anything. Harry focuses more on what Barry did wrong, and I just focused more on what Barry has done.
Every time Harry would write about what a horrible person he was and how he did this or this, I’d say, “Yeah, but he did this and this,” so this kind of leavened out the story. It turned out to be a pretty decent book that stood the test of time.
The book’s title was essentially an attempt to fit something besides “District of Columbia” to the letters “D.C.”
Sherwood: The nation’s capital is the most un-American city in America, the way it’s set up, the way it’s run. We thought of Dream City because I saw the name and thought it had to be “D.C.” I just said, “You know, people come here, people come here for school and stay. They come here to lobby, they come here as elected officials. They all have some dream about what they’re doing for their careers, for politics,” and I had thought of it, and [Jaffe] said “Oh, that’s good.”
Jaffe: When we wrote the book, it was the highest murder rate in the history of the city. It was close to 500, like 489 murders a year. Crazy. No wonder the decline was in the subtitle [“Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C.”], because it was a huge decline.
Dream City came out in May 1994, right in time for Barry’s comeback. Years past his prison term for cocaine possession and by then representing Ward 8 on the D.C. Council, Barry was only months away from completing the reversal that would oust Pratt Kelly from the mayor’s office and land him another four-year term. For Jaffe, at least, it was a lucky coincidence he never could have expected when he started writing the book.
Jaffe: It was bought by Prentice Hall Press, and Prentice Hall Press literally bought the book and then folded, and got consumed by Simon and Schuster, so our book was basically an orphaned book.
There was a contract, but there was no editor. [Editor] Domenick Anfuso either was assigned the book or picked up the book. When we went to meet Domenick at Simon and Schuster, he was working on a Princess Diana book. We both realized that we were not on the top of his priority list of books. We’re not sure whether it even got a good read at Simon and Schuster.
Sherwood: When Simon and Schuster bought it, they did, I think, a run of 30,000 copies, something like that. I thought, “Is that all?”
But they said that’s pretty good for a public policy book.
Jaffe: Every book needs an editor who champions the book. This book didn’t have an editor, and it never really had a champion. I’m not sure that Domenick Anfuso ever really loved the book, and said “Wow, this is my book.’
That’s how things work. They’re better off when an editor is passionate behind the book. This didn’t happen, but we soldiered through.
Domenick Anfuso, Dream City editor: There is always concern when we publish a book, when we publish what could be seen as a local story only. But we thought because it was Washington that it could eclipse that.
Dream City received mostly positive reviews, except from Sherwood’s former employer, the Post.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 1994: “Reliance on dialogue-rich scenes sometimes sacrifices depth for drama, but this is a memorable and disturbing reminder of much unfinished urban business.
The New York Times, Tom Wicker, May, 22, 1994: In relentless detail, sometimes with almost novelistic drama, the authors describe the murder and mayhem, lawlessness and drug wars, addiction and despair into which a once placid, middle-class city has been allowed to descend.
The Washington Post, Paul Ruffins, May 1, 1994: Dream City claims to explore “how the nation’s capital, often a gleaming symbol of peace and hope, has become the most un-American city, a colony in the midst of democracy.” Let’s be honest. Dream City is really a biography of big, bad, black Marion Barry that uses the sandwich technique: Take the meaty story of someone’s life and slap it between whatever layers of history you know best.
Jaffe: We had not the kindest review from the Washington Post. They called it a “sandwich book.” I didn’t know what he meant.
Sherwood: I was kind of disappointed because it’s local. It’s the Post.
Bill Regardie, former owner and publisher of Regardie’s : That book didn’t sell that many copies. They took far too long. It took far too long. But even if they had been able to get out in 12 months, which I think was the goal originally, I don’t think it would have sold that many more…Let’s say that they brought the book out 12 months after he left office or whatever, sometimes people just get so tired of a story.
Sharon Pratt, former mayor: I wouldn’t say it grabbed me as the book that I would’ve wanted to see written, but it was OK.
Carol Schwartz, former councilmember, Republican candidate for mayor against Barry in 1994: I think when it came out, I think most of us were glad to see a lot of what we had lived through put in print.
Jaffe: The book comes out. Marion never really reacted publicly.
Sherwood: I was talking to Barry, and I said, “Do you want a copy of the book?” He said, “Yeah, I want it—so I can throw it in the trash.”
I said, “Aren’t you going to at least read it?” And he said “No, I’m not reading that book.” I’m sure he read it. All his friends read it. I’m sure he looked through every page where his name was. I’m sure he went right to the index.
Anfuso: That was the main thing, to make it a national story. That was the main thing we tried to do, because it was Washington.
Barry: The book didn’t sell that well.
Sherwood: The sales weren’t good for us? Sold ’em out. But you know, Barry sees the world through his eyes.
If District readers were suffering from Barry fatigue when Dream City was published, they aren’t now. Twenty years after its publication, thanks to a constant churn of new D.C. residents (some of whom weren’t even alive in the first Barry administrations) and a reliable stream of scandals in the District government, Dream City remains the go-to read for understanding the city’s politics. A 2011 panel about the book at the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Library, organized to coincide with nothing in particular, drew a standing-room-only crowd.
But people who wanted to read the out-of-print book face a problem: actually finding it. As of this writing, the D.C. Public Library’s copies are tied up behind 50 holds, and used copies regularly go for more than $80 online.
Soon, though, having a copy of Dream City might no longer be a path to eBay riches. To cope with the shortage and to make it easier to teach the book in schools, Jaffe and Sherwood finally released a long-planned Kindle edition with a new afterword last month. Other electronic formats are due soon.
Sherwood: People are bitching that it costs $100 on Amazon.
Jaffe: I think that one of the frustrations that we had was that the book didn’t come out in [paperback], and it got crazy expensive. It’s nutty. It’s really ridiculous.
Sherwood: A lot of colleges wanted to use it as a textbook and couldn’t get it.
George Williams, D.C. Public Library spokesman: This book is really in a class by itself, because it’s a book particularly about D.C. history. We were trying to find something to compare it to, and there’s really nothing in our catalog that’s similarly about this.
Eric Fidler, Greater Greater Washington writer: I looked at D.C. Library, and every copy was either checked out or lost. I kept running into dead-ends, constantly, and I looked on eBay and there was this guy who was selling only one copy.
Williams: It’s really unique in that it is one of those books that we have never had a lull in demand for.
Sherwood: People thought I had a warehouse of books in my basement. It was ridiculous. “Oh, Sherwood, you’ve got a copy of it. I said, “No, I’ve got two copies: one for my son and one for me, and I think both are missing.”
I had one book I found in an alley in Mount Pleasant. I thought somebody put it for me as a joke, but if they did, they never said anything.
Cosby Hunt, creator of a Dream City lesson plan used in D.C. public and charter schools: There’s no way it’s not going to grab seniors in high school now teaching D.C. history. The idea is for them to read as much of the book as they want and find some aspect of the book that intrigues them.
Jaffe: It’s just to understand Washington, D.C. It’s not a city like Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas. It has weird politics, it is limited. It’s home rule, it’s not independent.
How does that all work? What is Congress doing in our business? Well, if you read Dream City, you’ll get all that.
So I think as a basic kind of primer, with a lot of sex, drugs, and corruption, that’s why people are always interested.