Marion Barry Jr. no longer welcomes youngsters to the colorful jungle gyms at the Lincoln Powell Multicultural Recreation Center near Irving and 16th Streets NW. The four-term mayor no longer greets aspiring ballplayers at the Turkey Thicket Recreation Center at 10th Street and Michigan Avenue NE. And he no longer says hello to striving swimmers at the Fort Lincoln Recreation Center in Northeast.
At this point, pretty much everyone in town knows that Barry’s second run as D.C.’s chief meeter-and-greeter has come to an end. It was hard to miss the transition: Speech after speech during the city’s low-key inaugural weekend celebrated the glory of democracy, the virtue of citizen government, and the promise of a bright new era.
Some aspects of the transition were even more symbolic. Two Mondays ago, a 4-foot-by-3-foot sign next door to the D.C. Department of Recreation and Parks headquarters underwent subtle cosmetic surgery. Without anyone’s noticing, workers draped a small piece of white material over the former mayor’s name. By the end of the week, the same fate had befallen the name at a handful of rec centers across town. At the Turkey Thicket ball field, only the wooden frame around the former greeting remained.
In most cities, the changing of a chief executive includes a ceremonial updating of signs to reflect the new regime. When Kurt Schmoke was elected mayor of Baltimore in 1987, he had city workers paint over former Mayor William Donald Schaefer’s name on city benches. To much ballyhoo, he substituted his own signature slogan: “Baltimore: The City That Reads.”
District officials, on the other hand, are planning a much less self-conscious signage switcheroo. The fall campaign may have featured hints that an Anthony Williams victory would mean a purge of D.C.’s recent past, but so far there’s no indication of any mass Soviet-style name erasure. Officials say there’s no wholesale plan to replace Barry’s name on public signs with that of his successor, or even with the Williams campaign’s signature red bow tie. “No one asked us to remove anything,” says Larry Brown, a spokesman for the Department of Recreation and Parks.
Brown explains that of the buildings under his watch, only the 17 city recreation centers designated as safe zones have a special message from D.C.’s mayor on their grounds. “They are learning laboratories for youngsters, so therefore they should have the correct name of the mayor, don’t you think?” Brown notes.
Williams administration higher-ups echo Brown, saying that civic vanity is not a high priority. “I’m not quite sure that there is a policy [on name changing],” says Williams spokeswoman Peggy Armstrong. “As agencies replace signs, they are checking in with us.” Armstrong says that various city departments have contacted the mayor’s office already, wanting to know how to refer to the mayor in print. (For the record, Williams will stick to his legal name, Anthony A. Williams, not a less formal Tony or Mr. Bow Tie.)
“The mayor doesn’t want to waste money removing signs from buildings that would be really expensive to replace,” adds Armstrong. No doubt Williams is particularly sensitive to parallels between him and the last mayor to succeed Barry, Sharon Pratt Kelly (then Sharon Pratt Dixon). Determined to erase her predecessor from memory, Kelly even appointed a point man to the job as head of the D.C. Government Graphics Information Task Force for Signage.
In June 1991, workers with the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW) removed Barry’s nameplate from the façade of the Frank D. Reeves Center of Municipal Affairs. The effort cost $500 and reinforced Kelly’s reputation for being petty and insensitive.
In fact, the Kelly administration’s controversial zeal to remove Barry from the city has had a longstanding impact. Eight years after her sign-changing campaign, the mayor has no say in greeting tourists from out of town at all. “The ‘Welcome to Washington’ signs [bearing the mayor’s name] were removed during the Kelly administration,” says Karen Benefield, chief of traffic services for DPW. “No sign ever went up to replace them.” Benefield adds that the city recently awarded a new contract to construct so-called gateway signs to the city, but they will not include the name of the new mayor.
And the overall absence of signs bearing the name of the mayoreither new or oldlikely means that another remnant of Barry’s second term might last longer in the public eye: Former DPW director Cell Bernardino, who resigned last month, still lends his signature to driver’s licenses issued by the city. Driver’s licenses get renewed every four years. But even a tight-fisted Williams should have all of Barry’s signs switched by then.CP