Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. often said that in the District, any issue can take on a racial dimension. Hizzoner’s observation, from back in the ’80s, predated the eastward march of gentrifiers through D.C.’s inner city—and came long before the ongoing turf wars in Shaw and Columbia Heights. But subsequent demographic changes have altered his truism not at all.
In Shaw, there was a time when the dispute involving the Metropolitan Baptist Church and the Garrison Elementary School field was simply a matter of weighing the interests of local children against those of a venerable D.C. congregation. Considerations included how much Metropolitan should pay to use the school’s field as a parking lot each Sunday, whether the church could limit the parking to a portion of the field, and whether Garrison students—unable to use a field chewed up by a weekly parade of automobiles—could find other green space to play on.
But at last Sunday’s service, Metropolitan’s Pastor the Rev. H. Beecher Hicks stepped up to his see-through pulpit and held forth on what he saw as the real conflict at hand: race.
“This conflict has to do with whites who come into black communities and who desire to take over,” said Hicks, who announced that his church will abandon the field as a parking area. “If the arrangement doesn’t suit white folks, it has to go.”
The villains in Hicks’ sermon are the handful of white activists who have made a headline issue out of the disposition of the Garrison field. As first reported a year ago by Washington City Paper (“Sunday School,” 10/16/98; not, as widely reported, by WRC-TV Channel 4), Metropolitan has paid the District a nominal amount—$5,000 per year—for its parishioners to park every Sunday on the Garrison field. In recent weeks, a group headed by local advisory neighborhood commissioner Glenn Melcher lobbied D.C. Public Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman not to renew the agreement with Metropolitan—clearing the way for a re-sodding project to render the field kid-worthy.
Ackerman and her deputy, Elois Brooks, balked. In search of what they termed a “win-win” solution, the schools brass crafted a compromise that would have carved out part of the Garrison field for the church—a solution that Hicks said would have “halved our parking opportunities.” The notion of compromising on playground space for area children was yet more unacceptable to the activists, who filed for and got a 10-day order from D.C. Superior Court Judge Ronald Wertheim prohibiting parking on the field.
Like any resourceful flock, Metropolitan handled the parking crunch with aplomb on Sunday. Following a citywide practice, worshipers double-parked on surrounding streets and rode church-provided buses back and forth to reserved parking at the Reeves Center. “God will work it out,” said churchgoer Stephanie Jones Pinckney. Said another of the effort to push the cars out: “It’s bogus. What’s one day out of the week?” Well, plenty when it makes the field unusable the other six days.
None of the parishioners, however, blamed racism for the parking shortage. They left that to their pastor. In a fiery presentation punctuated by several standing ovations, Hicks blamed the church’s short shrift in the courts and the media—which he says have ignored Metropolitan’s student mentoring programs, church-sponsored field trips, and other community assistance—on “the Man.” He hammered “white newcomers” and “carpetbaggers” who don’t “share the values of their African-American neighbors.” And he concluded with a warning to white community activists: “You’re gonna have to deal with this nappy-haired black boy.”
There’s just one little constituency that Hicks left out of his sermon: local children. For one thing, the kids who should be playing on that field aren’t exactly the L.L. Bean-clad offspring of those “white newcomers.” According to the latest figures supplied by the school system, Garrison’s white population is exactly zero. Its 506 students, meanwhile, consist of 415 African-Americans, 84 Latinos, and seven from other minority groups.
Still, says Hicks, white Shawites want to put the black church in its place. “This is their world, and they intend to take it back,” said Hicks.
To judge from a cursory survey of license plates on the streets surrounding the church, Metropolitan members reside in “their world” only on Sundays. Most of the cars bear Maryland tags, with a dash of D.C. and Virginia mixed in. The cars’ owners are no doubt classic Ward 9ers, people who have fled the District, yet maintain their bond with the city through their church.
To borrow Hicks’ rhetorical construction: This was their world, and they don’t intend to relinquish it.
The only us-and-them in the conflict are the competing parties: adults v. children. Despite their rhetoric about making D.C. a child-friendly place—the school system motto is “Children First”—the powers that be sided with the adults for the paltry figure of $5,000 a year. While Ackerman tried to cordon off as many parking spaces as possible, Mayor Anthony A. Williams, Ward 2 school board representative Westy Byrd, and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans stayed away. “We never got contacted by either side, so we didn’t intervene,” says Evans.
As Hicks blamed the Man on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, the field nearby sat idle and barren, populated only by trash thrown over its fence. The only evidence that it had ever served anyone other than car-dependent churchgoers was the backstop in the northeast corner. But Hicks still hinted at punishment for the District’s sin of not allowing Metropolitan to continue ruining the Garrison field. “I told Mayor Anthony Williams that unless Washington takes a stand for the faith-based community, Washington, D.C., will become the city that God left.”
That may be, Pastor Hicks, but Washington, D.C., is already better known as the city that children left.
The warring sides in the Columbia Heights development brouhaha don’t need a firebrand like Pastor Hicks to inject race into their clashes. Anyone who attended last Saturday’s Metro opening saw the divide open up on sidewalks outside the new subway entrance. Various protesters had come to strut their loyalties in the development rights competition that ended Sept. 9 with a decision by the Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA) board to OK proposals by D.C.-based Horning Bros. and Grid Properties Inc. of New York.
Before Mayor Williams arrived for the event, a band of his supporters—almost all of them black—chanted their support for the RLA award: “Columbia Heights, on the move,” they shouted.
The opposing cry came from a larger band, of about 200 mostly white protesters who favored a losing bid for the neighborhood’s development compiled by Forest City Enterprises of Cleveland. Protesters claimed the RLA decision ignored a two-year process of community input that favored a project closer to Forest City’s proposal, and didn’t address several key lots—leaving them to be potential neighborhood blights. “Reverse the decision,” they said, before breaking into another line: “Tony Williams, you should know: cronyism’s got to go.”
The cronyism allegation is charged with racial content and derives from the protesters’ interpretation of events, which works out as follows: Horning Bros. and Grid, which together plan a Giant Food supermarket in the historic Tivoli Theatre and a huge entertainment complex nearby, are unproven firms that won the competition by partnering with Bob Moore, the controversial director of the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights.
Cries of racial favoritism in 1990s D.C. have a way of coming from the losers—and in Columbia Heights, it was a largely white group that felt defeated. The protesters claimed that Moore, Barry’s former housing director, and Ward 1 ANC commissioner Lawrence Guyot, a longtime Barry acolyte, used racial politics to swing the five RLA members in favor of the Horning and Grid proposals. “Guyot has the board and the Williams people scared of the racial fallout,” said a protester who requested anonymity.
That line of reasoning explains the protesters’ signs attacking Williams: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
But another thing that’s stayed the same is whining from activists. But for all his stumbling over the protocol and substance of big-city politics, Williams played the RLA affair just like the clean, fair politician he projected in last year’s campaign. First, he bucked the meddling tradition of his predecessor and let the RLA board make an independent decision. “The only message was to get it done,” says Mary Rudolph, an aide in the mayor’s economic development office. Then he stood by the board’s decision.
“If everything I’ve been told is true, I think he should be applauded,” says D.C. attorney Michelle Bernard, “because it shows that this really is the dawn of a new day in the District of Columbia.” Bernard, of all people, would appreciate the contrast—she chaired the RLA board in the mid-’90s and fought off Barry’s harmful prying over the MCI Center deal.
Nor do the charges against Moore and Guyot account for the racial disparity between the two poles in the Columbia Heights debate. True, Moore did mobilize a group of poorer, black Columbia Heights residents to back his projects—and thereby served the laudable goal of widening political participation in the District.
The protesters’ slipshod traction in black Columbia Heights stems mainly from their preoccupation with full restoration of the Tivoli, an objective that would have been fulfilled only by the Forest City proposal. Like nearly all historic preservation imperatives in town, the Tivoli stirs wealthier whites to acts of civil self-torture while working-class blacks who’ve long lived near its darkened screen react with angry indifference. Likewise, the potential for vacant lots means a lot more to a homeowner interested in the value outsiders place on a property than it does to renters worried about having their monthly payments hiked.
“A lot of black people look at historic preservation with a jaundiced eye,” says Ward 8 politico Phil Pannell. “They feel that when an area gets designated as historic, it drives up property values.”
LL hereby directs the staff of At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil to compile a list of controversial liquor establishments around the District. That way, Brazil, who will seek re-election next year, can avoid his third straight pre-campaign-trail embarrassment.
The three-term councilmember’s first mistake was to schedule his Aug. 30 Ward 2 community meeting at H.H. Leonards’ Mansion, the target of litigation spearheaded by the moneyed Dupont Circle Citizens Association. After learning of the community’s feelings about the banquet facility, Brazil changed locations to Hunan Chinatown, a site that has drawn community complaints only when fortune-cookie forecasts fail to materialize.
Last week, he repeated the drill for his Ward 1 gathering, which had been scheduled for Wednesday night at Madam’s Organ, the flashpoint of a now-resolved noise dispute and a row over the club’s mural of a bare-chested woman. Perhaps Brazil was hunting for the banjo-player vote by deciding on the Adams Morgan watering hole, but he got another earful from the community establishment. On the same night, it turned out, three neighborhood associations—from Kalorama, Lanier Heights, and Reed-Cooke—had planned a meeting on a liquor license moratorium.
“I wonder who’s advising him,” sniffs Kalorama Citizens Association member Peter Schott. “Madam’s Organ happens to be a restaurant that a lot of us feel is not in compliance.”
Madam’s Organ proprietor Bill Duggan said his club hasn’t kicked up a complaint in years and attributes the cancellation to a taste gap: “I guess our name gives old Democratic ladies a bit of heartburn.”
Brazil spokesperson Mike Morgan confirmed that the powwow at Madam’s Organ had been canceled and will be rescheduled—most likely at another establishment.
Mayor Williams swears that he maintains a “positive and cordial” relationship with Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson. If so, Williams’ staffers should make him appear before Patterson’s committee on government operations. Last Friday, that duty fell to Interim City Administrator Norman Dong, who endured a seething hourlong inquisition over the administration’s July ouster of former procurement chief Richard Fite.
Patterson views the putsch as a violation of the procurement office’s statutory independence and has announced her anger over the move in every exchange with Dong. When Dong, for instance, said he was too busy to meddle in the agencies’ personnel decisions, Patterson applauded him: “I couldn’t agree more, and I hope that you follow that principle more in the future than you have in recent months.” And when Dong mentioned that his phone was “ringing off the hook” with inquiries about procurement difficulties under Fite’s tenure, Patterson shot back, “I hope someone was there to answer it.”
*Schools Superintendent Ackerman and school board President Wilma Harvey both deserve demerits for the recent hubbub over Harvey’s request for a car and driver. Instead of simply approving or rejecting Harvey’s Sept. 8 bid for transportation to 10 schools in Ward 1, Ackerman sent it to the board’s inchoate “executive committee” for consideration—a move tantamount to leaking it to the press, calculated to embarrass her leading board critic.
Of course, Harvey has plenty to be embarrassed about.
After Ackerman sat on her request, Harvey canceled appearances for Sept. 14 at Cardozo Senior High School and Lincoln Middle School. “If I had taken a cab and went from school to school, I would have had to have them wait for me, and they charge $1.50 for every five minutes…” says Harvey.
Walking, though, entails no such expense. On LL’s map, Cardozo is but seven blocks from Harvey’s home. Lincoln, her second appointment that day, is just another seven blocks away. After her stroll, the prez could have hopped onto a professionally chauffeured Metrobus for the return trip straight back home down 16th Street. “Nothing’s going to stop me from representing the children of my ward,” says Harvey. CP