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In May 1965, the sweetness of my 10th year of life swelled before me like the peaches growing on the tree in our back yard. From the side window of the small bedroom I shared with my brothers, I surveyed our Southeast neighborhood with particular pride.
Nestled firmly in the bosom of Anacostia, the nearly identical two-story homes held behind their brick façades elaborate Sunday dinners, unfinished basements ripe for exploration, and kids like me who could hardly wait for summer, touch football, the ice-cream man, and late-night hide-and-go-seek. I simply could not imagine a nicer place to live.
Three years later, when the riots erupted, I watched on television as 14th Street burned. Closer to home, I listened as the adults debated politics and race. I saw them nod in resignation as the last white family on the block announced its intention to move. Still, for me, and for the other teens crowding the block, the years ahead remained sweet. We punctuated our days with parties and barbecues, free concerts on the Mall, and deep discussions about the merits of Malcolm X or Stevie Wonder.
There were weekend trips downtown to Cavaliers, or Flagg Brothers, or G.C. Murphy, or the Soul Shack, where brothers in berets sold Black Panther papers and preached revolution. Pedestrians ruled downtown; cars remained an afterthought. We boldly crossed diagonally from street to street, from shop to shop, spending our summer earnings, flaunting our youth, and celebrating, each in his own way, the promise of the 1970s. D.C. was definitely the place to be. We had the women, the music, the dances, the verve. We had attitude and grace, aplomb and fashion.
In the years I was away, through college and graduate school and career moves, I held fast to my memories of D.C. When the time came to choose a permanent nest for my burgeoning family, there really was no other choice: Two years ago I relocated to the city of my youth.
Or so I thought. The D.C. I remembered was lost in its own version of hide-and-go-seekonly this time the spirit of the city was hiding and no one seemed particularly anxious to find it. No longer a refuge or a destination, the District seemed to exist solely to serve the sprawling suburbs, an indifferent White House, and a bulky Congress desperate for shiny initiatives and easy marks. Where once there was pride, I now find a city ashamed of itself, a city personified by individuals rather than style, by politicians rather than people.
Now, they tell me I live in the worst place in America. I live in the home of the indolent, the unworthy, the unclean. D.C. is the capital of the trifling, who did not have the sense to move when the going was good. Worse yet, as an African-American, I am part of a dark, teeming mass of ignorance that not only flooded our nation’s capital with mambo sauce and “Chocolate City” chants, but also had the audacity to turn its back on the “brilliant” Kelly administration and re-elect the bogeyman. In short, I am a fool.
Increasingly despondent and tired of reading disparaging accounts of my life, a month ago I began taking morning walks in my new neighborhood in Northwest. Looking only to lose a few pounds, each day I put on my shorts and shoes and take to the sidewalks. At first, I notice nothing. I am too busy staring at the ground before me. But then, slowly and surely, I start looking up and out at the faces around me, at the houses I pass, at the city I encounter. Again.
At 6 a.m., the morning sun is remarkably subdued, the air almost cool. My next-door neighbor’s crape myrtle casually stretches in full bloom. The lawns around me are all neatly trimmed, albeit browning from a drought the District no doubt brought upon itself. Still, the homes are beautiful.
At every corner, early risers smile and whisper good morning. The streets and alleys I see are clean, the sidewalks clear, and the trash collected. Geraniums and bright red impatiens are everywhere. An older lady gently rocks on her porch, exchanging light pleasantries with her neighbor. On another street, a teenage boy sleepily waters the grass. One gentleman briskly sweeps his steps and diligently picks up whatever errant refuse he encounters. There is no real traffic yet to disturb this peace, because the frantic suburban drivers are still hours away. I wave freely at one man proudly carrying home a bag of vegetables freshly plucked from the nearby community garden. I can almost see memories of his childhood in Carolina flash across his weathered face.
In the days ahead, I test my growing appreciation of D.C.’s beauty in other neighborhoods, visiting one brother in Fort Lincoln, another in Capitol Hill, an uncle in Petworth, my mother in Shipley Terrace. It is all remarkably the same. I watch children playing some of the same games that delighted me. I see yards well tended, clear alleyways, and porch railings and stoops casually adorned with flowering plants, bird feeders, or chimes. Yes, there is an occasional eyesorean abandoned building, an overflowing trash can, a stubborn weedbut nothing colossal to impede the sun or hamper my discovery.
One evening, listening to the local news, I cringe at yet another report lambasting my chosen home. Everything I hear and read, it seems, is meant to break my spirit. Continually, I am told what the District is not, but never what it is. Having lived in several other cities, I can never quite understand the source of this official hysteria. When did it all begin, these shrill criticisms attached to every resident, every worker, every situation? Why is there an overarching need to paint D.C. in such bleak, depressing colors?
Of course the District has problems; institutions manned by human beings will never be perfect. Ask Congress. Yes, there are inefficiencies to correct, inconveniences to address, and things to improve. But the same can be said of Philadelphia, and San Francisco, and St. Louis, and Alexandria.
Perhaps the city would have fewer potholes if more of our Maryland and Virginia neighbors favored public transportation. Perhaps District workers would be more responsive if they were required to live in the city they serve. I find it ironic that Congress, which removed residency requirements for D.C. employees, never seems to draw a linkage between poor city services and the largely suburban work force that provides them.
Recently, I encountered a childhood buddy from the old neighborhood. He proudly revealed that he now lived in Maryland and then questioned how I could possibly “live in the District.” In the course of the conversation, he also disclosed that he uses a relative’s address so that his children can attend choice D.C. public schools and take full advantage of summer programs free of charge. And even as he draws a check as an employee of the D.C. government, his attitude toward the city reeks of suburban condescension. I ask myself who is leaning on whom, and why is there a new paradigm of District as perpetual doghouse?
Now, I have nothing against people choosing where they live or work, but I do not believe in free rides. When I lived and worked in New York City, co-workers who commuted from outlying areas paid taxes to the city. The city, in turn, used those funds to help offset the associated drain on both infrastructure and services. This reciprocal arrangement is repeated all across the nation. City residents and their local representatives decide their municipal tax policy. Only in the District could Congressmeaning mostly competing, suburban legislatorsbe given dominion over this essential revenue stream.
From the tax-exempt status of wealthy nonprofits to the expensive demands of the federal government, District residents have been asked to bear an enormous weight and to pay federal taxes without any real representation in our federal legislative body. The fact that District residents pay local and federal taxes is often lost in the discussions on city governance.
Recently, Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.) was quoted as saying, “The Constitution gives Congress the authority for running, managing, and funding the District of Columbia.” With my current tax load, it seems to me that I and my fellow residents are funding a major portion of the city’s operations. Taxation without representation is, in my opinion, a far more egregious breach of the founding spirit of America than any pothole I have endured.
People ask me if I support the current mayor. I tell them I support his right to govern and my right to assess that governance. As the descendent of slaves, I know how achingly slowly democracy moves, but I also believe in its ultimate effectiveness. Personally, I did not vote for Marion Barry, but I prefer him to Ed Koch, the strident mayor governing New York when I lived there. Koch saw his tenure end in a tangle of corruption. Charges of racism, cronyism, patronage, and worse filled the thick New York air, but still no one ever suggested that either the local citizenry or their elected representatives should be stripped of the right to choose, even if they happened to choose badly. As Americans, we trusted the electoral process to right the wrongs and chart a better course.
The mayor’s powerlessness pales in comparison with my own. Where once, while living in other places, I could petition my local school board, city council, mayor, state assemblyman, state senator, governor, congressman, and senators for redress, here I have no one.
When the appointed control board issues new proclamations from an impenetrable fortress, when the unelected school board of trustees preaches accountability from behind closed doors, when some politician from nowhere suddenly lands in town claiming to know more about me than I do, I do not mourn for Marion Barry. I do not mourn for Eleanor Holmes Norton, and I certainly do not mourn for Sandra Butler-Truesdale. I mourn for me. I grieve for democracy.
Faircloth once suggested that D.C. residents who did not welcome congressional interference should simply move away, as though the homes we inhabit hold no meaning, no memories, no worth. For the most part, his remarks were met with silence. Clearly, some Washingtonians have excused themselves from the fray, as though they are above it all. Others, including some who have lived here all their lives and should know better, believe that somehow they and their neighbors deserve this fate. I have even heard a few reminisce about the good old days before they could vote even for president.
From most D.C. residents, however, I sense growing flashes of rage tempered by a resignation about their powerlessness. When I complain to one neighbor about nearby tennis courts and soccer fields overrun by non-D.C. residents, at first her eyes narrow, but then she simply shrugs her shoulders and changes the subject. After all, she has been here longer than I and seen so much more. Who can blame her if her defenses have weakened over the years? Torn between the twisters of inept local management and paternalistic congressional strong-arming, she appears resolved only to ride it out and nurture whatever remains when the dust has finally settled.
As for me, I am fresh blood. I believe in fighting back. I believe the concept of self-governance in America must prevailno matter what. I do not support the dangerous imposition of managerial standards as a prerequisite for democracy. As the names of patriotic Washingtonians etched in the Vietnam Memorial make abundantly clear, democracy is not something one earns; it is something one defends.
As the battle for home rule intensifies, I can hear tomorrow’s victory in my children’s laughter. I hear it in their games and growing songs. I will take them with me on a morning walk. I want them to feel the pride I felt growing up in the District. I want them to know the pride I feel again. After all, for worse and for better, this is my home. This is my D.C.CP