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I thought Brian Montopoli’s article “The Chain Gang” (2/8) was superb in its description and analysis of the desecration of neighborhood shopping in Dupont Circle and Cleveland Park. I have only a couple of minor criticisms.
One is the failure of this article, and practically all other articles on issues of this type, to provide the necessary strong voice for the dispossessed. As an exiled Washingtonian and a fan of the District, I have made the acquaintance of some of the merchants in these neighborhoods. I have known some who support children and pay for college from the proceeds of small stores—stores that are run out of business because an organization like Starwood becomes their landlord and jacks up the rent. Nobody knows what happens to these small-shop owners: Do their kids stay in college or drop out? Do they wind up on the streets in middle age? Do they retreat to some vastly lesser place than the District? It would be illuminating if faces and human consequences could be attached to this saga.
Second, the Starwood MO is pretty clear, notwithstanding what its apologists say. It buys low and sells high, and the heck with any sustainability of neighborhood businesses or people. If Starwood and other real estate developers want to revitalize parts of the District, they should contribute to the well-being of the people who live and work there. That means, first, allowing shopkeepers to survive as such. It means keeping the money in the neighborhood rather than exporting it to some corporate office. It may mean imaginative regulation that compels national chains to listen to the communities where they wish to do business. Commercial overlay requirements might be a start in this direction, and so might commercial rent controls. If some people denounce such regulation as “oppressive,” so be it.
It is nutty to pretend that “the market” can reasonably determine proper public policy. “Market forces” make some people rich and impoverish others; they must not be allowed to substitute for governance of human affairs in a democracy. Where corporate greed makes people jobless, homeless, or hopeless, it becomes a public policy matter warranting a public response. The same is true where it warps city planning, corrodes economic and social vitality, or degrades the quality of life. These things must not happen in Washington.
Thanks again for “The Chain Gang.” Keep up the fine work.