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It looks as if D.C. is finally coming out of the woods never mind the fact that the woods are the best place in town to be. We have a budget surplus. We have a new police chief and cops who, at times, actually troll the alleys without having to be asked by 911. The infant mortality rate in Washington is dropping closer to that of an industrialized nation. There’s a new school superintendent, and classes actually opened on time this year. We have a higher municipal bond rating.
It’s all very bracing and threatening at the same time. The past tense of Marion Barry will be our own local version of that queasy time after the Cold War ended for the Soviets. In Barry’s place, we will likely get the Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt for mayor somebody we don’t know terribly well, but with whom we’re willing to deal anyway because, well, he’s not one of those guys. The faces of the D.C. Council are likely to change, too, and beyond that shift lie promises of new trolley buses and improved access to Little League baseball not to mention murmurs of restoring home rule. It seems that the D.C. we’ve come to know and loathe is poised to turn into Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, the D.C. that Fanny Trollope liked so well.
But failure, we have found, is a secure place. Deep down in our subconscious, the citizens of D.C. troopers who always seem ready for anything have developed a perverted fear of success, and we are totally unprepared for the likelihood that things actually will get better.
The sport of apocalyptic lament has blossomed into a profitable service industry employing thousands of people in the city and serving as a durable hobby for countless others. Look no further than the pages of Washington City Paper, a franchise fueled by dysfunction. What can we possibly produce without the reliable raw materials of scandal and discontent?
Over the years, municipal hopelessness has grown with each serial application of dull shocks the flow of drugs and blood, the militarized zoning of the neighborhoods, the nasty water, the snow-buried streets, the trash haulers’ seizure of downtown one morning, the jailing of our mayor another. The pain has turned chronic; it has fallen into the background of the everyday, and complaining about it has become as much a part of the city’s landscape as empty malt liquor bottles.
Discomfort often brings a measure of clarity to our senses D.C. keeps its collective psyche stable by inertia and snuffed expectations. The city’s relentless alienation has been dreadful in large ways, but nifty in little ones it frees you and me from blame for the decay all around us. What’s one more flicked cigarette butt into a sea of flotsam? Why not make that illegal left turn, seeing how gangs have sprayed graffiti on the traffic sign prohibiting it? Because our city is always getting over on us, we’ve all become small-time outlaws as a form of payback in the civics department.
The excuses and alibis of the it’s-bigger-than-we-are mind-set have long since insinuated themselves into the District’s popular blue-book valuation and become, for better and for worse, a way of living ooh, the noir glamour of a hardship post! Ah, the righteous confidence that one is superior to the system. All of that, it would seem, is about to roll over. And when you take away a people’s way of life, no matter how awful, and supplant it with something strange and dicey as any average Russian today can tell you the future becomes a genuinely scary place.
We resent people who pretend to do us favors, and we resent those who actually do us favors even more. Feel for the losers on Election Day, but save your deepest pity for the winners. They are doomed to be less than they would be or should be because we have again reserved the right to be
I remember feeling shades of unease one morning while sitting on my brother’s front porch in San Francisco, where I witnessed an amazing phenomenon: street-cleaning day. A parking cop came down the street in a little Cushman, a block ahead of the street sweeper. There were only two cars illegally parked; he ticketed them, and the sweeper edged around them. Like clockwork! I tried to imagine such a paradigm in D.C. and immediately dismissed the idea as too nicey-nicey. (At the time, I hadn’t seen a regular street cleaner since the late Dave Clarke, who lived up the street from me, first became D.C. Council chairman.) What do these San Francisco people who aren’t up every morning fighting for basic services or debating the merits of suffrage do with their time? I couldn’t wait to get home.
Well, now the streets here are being swept with the same sanitary efficiency that I saw by the Bay. With cleaner streets come other initiatives that whitewash our urban landscape: homeless crackdowns and the shuttering of corner bodegas.
The folks in New York thought they were waiting for order, too, and now look at those malcontents squirming under the “good government” of Rudy Giuliani as he closes down sex shops and socially engineers pedestrian behavior. Next, he’ll implement diction lessons. Manhattan has never been so safe or so boring.
The promise of new order inevitably means the threat of new capital, which has already begun to cross the formerly money-proof District line. It means that prospective homebuyers in my neighborhood wash their hair too much and tuck their shirts into their tennis shorts on Saturdays. It also means that speculative developers are gutting 1910 row houses, renovating them to look like condominiums in Burke and selling them for $400,000 east of Rock Creek Park. The kind of people who live in that kind of house expect services such as curbside recycling, which will inevitably lead to social breakdown in my neighborhood, Mount Pleasant. We will no longer be able to depend on the vigilante recycling center up the street, a de facto community forum where Green Party activists unfailingly tell us each Saturday why legalizing medicinal marijuana is the single most important issue facing D.C. voters this year. The type of people who buy such houses also like to run outside and start taking Polaroids when their neighbors’ noxious weeds pass the dreaded 9-inch mark.
Once the last vestiges of antisocial behavior are quashed, many of us highly trained professional complainers will find D.C.’s new civic spirit too much to take, and we will flee in a diaspora of panic the bitter, displaced Kurds of the mid-Atlantic surrendering the District to a tyrannical race of gentrifying clones. Remember that it was once our city: We kept saying we wanted a better life, but saying it was the point; realizing it is another thing entirely.