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The District has seen its share of kooky ideas to raise revenues and rescue locals from the ravages of poverty, crime, and other social ills. But retrocession, Children’s Island theme parks, and riverboat gambling sound mundane compared to the New Birth Power Plant—a utopian proposal now being bandied about by the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, a former D.C. congressional delegate and long-time pastor at New Bethel Baptist Church, and former Lorton inmate Joseph Coleman. And judging from New Birth’s Saturday grand opening, the project stands even less chance of seeing the light of day than its wacky companions.
The proposal would merge two of the nastier byproducts of modern urban living: criminals and sewage. The District prison in Lorton, Va., and the troubled Blue Plains sewage treatment plant would be folded into the proposed New Birth facility in southeast Washington. The facility itself would house the city’s 12,000 inmates under an elaborate, undulating geodesic dome, where they would use state-of-the-art technology to convert sewage, hazardous waste, and other garbage into energy and fresh water. The city would turn a profit by selling off gazillions of kilowatts of power and reservoirs of fresh water to neighboring jurisdictions. In the process, the inmates would learn valuable skills, make money, and return to the community as productive citizens.
Until last week, the plan had gotten little more than bemused smiles out of the mayor and District residents who had heard Coleman’s pitches at community meetings. That all changed last week, when two Washington Post writers made the project a cause célèbre. Columnist Courtland Milloy credited Fauntroy for proposing to give jobs to inmates, and William Raspberry has devoted two entire editorials to the plan. While he says he doesn’t know if the plan would actually work, Raspberry writes, “I’m impressed enough by its audaciousness that I’d like to see us start serious talk about it. Surely it would beat making license plates.”
However, not even the Post’s free publicity was enough to coax District residents out into the heat Saturday to attend the grand opening of New Birth Project headquarters at 1801 9th St. NW. (Raspberry clearly had better things to do on Saturday than to sweat through the affair.) Dressed up like a used-car lot, the headquarters will serve as a humble launching pad for a $3.5-billion high-tech development project blessed by the Post. The grand inaugural celebration was less than grandiose: Fliers promoting the event had promised a host of entertainment offerings, including a buffet, a flea market, clowns, city dignitaries, karate, ballerinas, and a float. But organizers failed to produce a single tutu.
The sweltering heat inside the office seemed to kill the appetite of everyone but a few neighborhood drunks lured by the promise of free food. The only city dignitary on hand was Fauntroy himself. Dressed like Ferdinand Marcos in white shoes and tropical white suit, he pressed the flesh and showed off the dilapidated office to a few curious visitors. As they wandered among the lone computer terminal, warped industrial carpet, and a few kitchen appliances, it was hard to tell where the office ended and the flea-market began. As it turned out, the flea market was actually just a table full of “hand-crafted” dollhouse furniture, some used children’s coloring books, and an unusual sculpture crafted from Styrofoam coffee cups.
“Everything here is recycled,” explained New Birth treasurer David Jones over the agonizing whir of rickety air conditioners and light opera.
In spite of the project’s slow start, Jones says the New Birth project has earned a dedicated following locally and nationally. “Everyone we’ve brought it to said, ‘How can we help?’” he says. D.C. Councilmember Bill Lightfoot, who heard testimony from the group in a budget hearing last month, will use the plan as a benchmark against which to measure other corrections proposals, according to Jones.
“If you look at the returns, it pays for itself in five years,” Jones insists, adding that the project would be the first commercial application of technology that NASA has been using on the space shuttle for years. “This is not new science.”
Jones acknowledges that the project has its obstacles. For instance, it’s unclear whether inmates will be able to transfer their street skills—drive-by shooting and drug marketing—to the space-age industry of waste conversion. And Lorton’s inmates might not be thrilled to haul garbage for the District’s profit. “We’re aware of the fact that everyone may not want to work,” he says, adding that 80 percent of the inmates are suffering from some kind of substance abuse problem, a proven drag on productivity. “A lot of them will have to go through some kind of inner healing,” says Jones.
Building the project will require a whopping $3.5 billion—or about 70 percent of the District’s annual budget. Fauntroy and Coleman say the funding should come straight out of the federal reserve, and their reasoning is flawless: Since the reserve financed Mexico’s bailout, why can’t it foot the bill for New Birth?
But before they hit up Uncle Sam for billions in construction funding, Fauntroy and Coleman are looking to round up the $3,000 needed to complete the grand-opening float, which is supposed to be a small-scale model of the plant. The float, which is merely a skeleton of aluminum siding and chicken wire, does little to instill faith in the project’s high-tech ambitions.
Coleman, who has made the float his pet project, says he used to park it by Mayor Marion Barry’s house in Ward 8, but people kept stealing the chicken wire and other metal parts off the frame. Now the work-in-progress awaits its finishing touches in the New Bethel parking lot. Coleman plans to adorn its top with an African religious symbol. “That’s the main thing ’bout this,” says Coleman. “Keep God in the center of it.”
Coleman says he has known the mayor for many years—long before he was mayor—but so far, Barry hasn’t exactly signed on to the proposal. “I think he’ll do better on it later,” he says, explaining that Barry has his own troubles right now. “You can’t take a chicken and pick all the feathers off him and expect it to fly,” says Coleman.
Even as its inaugural float lies unfinished, the New Birth project is already raising suspicions among Southeast residents. George Gurley, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 7 and a member of the environmental group Urban Protectors, frets over the environmental impact of another power plant in Southeast. “I’m not here to stop progress. If they can show me that this plant will not produce any pollution, then that’s great for the city,” says Gurley. “But if I find that something’s awry there, I’m gonna mobilize people to oppose it. I don’t care how many jobs it makes.”
Gurley probably won’t have to worry about the plant construction anytime soon given the price tag, a reality that Fauntroy and company seem to have acknowledged. While they’re waiting for Alan Greenspan to come on board, the New Birth organizers have decided to diversify their fund-raising activities. In addition to a near-empty donation box, the headquarters will boast a flea market and hold producesales every Saturday this summer. As for the power plant, Jones says, “It’d be really remarkable if it really happens.”