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Sometime in the next few months, the District of Columbia will pass an odd little milestone. Just about 15 years agothe exact date is lost somewhere in a hazy five-minute highcrack arrived in D.C.
The easily marketed, easily ingested cocaine derivative had already hit a handful of other American cities by the time it rolled down New York Avenue on buses from New York. But in Washington’s fragile ecosystem, the drug found particularly fertile soil. Well into 1986, crack roots had grown deep and strong.
Since then, nearly every aspect of life in Washington has been rocked by the tiny rock. If crack revolutionized D.C.’s robbers, it also transformed its cops. The drug shaped D.C.’s public image, manipulated its health-care economy, dominated its politics, and influenced its residential patterns. It gave us a whole new language. Think of all the phrases we’ve learned since the mid-’80s: “Crack whore.” “Crack house.” “Bitch set me up.” And it delivered roundhouse punches to thousands of individual lives, too.
Forget Marion Barry, home rule, urban renewal, and white flight: Crack cocaine muscled aside politicians, congressional fiats, and real estate schemes on its way to becoming the single most important historical phenomenon to hit the District in the last quarter of the 20th century. In an insecure city that’s constantly trying to show the world how it has evolved into a cosmopolitan metropolis from a sleepy Southern town, crack finally allowed hometown Washingtonians to lead the world in something.
No surprise, then, that now that crack has fallen out of the daily news, no one’s eager to remember it. Fifteen years later, crackthe most ephemeral of chemical experiencesstill awaits a historian’s reckoning here in Washington.
It’s hard to imagine that crack was ever a newcomer. Unlike others who move to D.C., it never had to choose just one neighborhood. It maintained a pied-à-terre in Park View, stately Victorians in Shaw, a whole street in Trinidad, subsidized units in Benning Terrace. It loved to explore the city’s leafy green parksbut wasn’t above hanging out on the city’s rutted sidewalks. Suburbanites by the thousands came to visit it, stopping off momentarily in town before speeding their Toyota Corollas back toward I-395.
Crack quickly became the most popular kid on the block, displacing former golden boys like PCP and heroin. Derided as an uncouth country cousin upon its arrival, crack set about proving the snobs wrong. The new ingénue had a date to every dance.
Crack’s effects were immediate. Old-line dope-dealing monopolies were no match for it. Soon, it had left its mark on the underground pharmaceutical economy and helped a whole new class of entrepreneurs show their marketing savvy. But with the new drug wrecking even the underworld’s version of stability, guns blazed. By the end of the ’80s, David Letterman and Johnny Carson could make as many jokes about D.C. as about Michael Jackson or Dan Quayle.
The erosion of the District’s image, indeed, was the least of crack’s effects. Name a District malady and you’ll find crack hanging aroundnot the exact cause, perhaps, but an unindicted co-conspirator at the very least. Thanks to crack, D.C.’s police force got a big cash infusionand used it to hire the worst class of cops ever, whose blunders the city is still trying to recover from. Thanks to crack, D.C.’s social services took on new burdens, even as crime helped drive from town many of the taxpayers who once subsidized those services. When the city’s budget collapsed, plenty of irresponsible politicians in the District Building and on Capitol Hill got the blame. But crack was somewhere in the picture, too.
Every industry was transformed by crack. Newspapers got great storiesbut debased themselves by buying into the era’s war-on-drugs hysteria. Clinicians got grantsbut trafficked in kooky theories. Something was in the air, all right, and it wasn’t just a chemical phenomenon. Crack, and the war against it, represented an economyand an ideology, too. And economics and ideology make people do even weirder things than drugs.
And then there was the mayor. Marion Barry consummated D.C.’s dysfunctional marriage to crack on a grainy videotape shot Jan. 18, 1990. The next few monthstrial, jail, and a stage set for Hizzoner’s triumphal comebackshowed how crack had worked its way to a privileged place at the center of the city’s nexus of race, power, and justice. Crack may have been taking the knife to countless other poor communities around the nation. But that spring and summer, only Washington was Crack City.
Nowadays, crack is supposed to be a thing of the past. Sure, the city still has its old crackheads, coughing their way through the streets. But to hear the next generation tell it, they’re lame old squares. The kidseven the bad kidssupposedly don’t want anything to do with that scene.
But if crack has been beaten back, that’s not necessarily because it lost the drug war. A market shrunk by demographic change, an image battered by a decade of very public lost souls, and a press bored by endless crack stories have as much to do with why you don’t read a lot about the drug these days as the collected sermonizing of drug czars, police chiefs, and politicians.
Crack, of course, is still here. Maybe it always will be. But just because it’s under controlor at least under the carpetdoesn’t mean the District should go forgetting. Washington has never been very good at remembering its history, embracing its living legends, or recounting its urban myths. And because crack leaves neither a charming plot line nor an uplifting lesson in its wake, it’s even less appealing to the booster types whose stories help define the city’s image of itself.
Well, here’s a start: a handful of vignettespast and present, sober and less sofrom the world that crack built. They will have to do until some esteemed scholar clears his or her throat and writes the definitive history of crack. Michael Schaffer