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When Marion Barry learned last year of the city’s plan to trade the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center to a private developer as part of the deal to build a new soccer stadium, he was furious.
City Administrator Allen Lew, who negotiated the deal, tried to explain the benefits of the arrangement to Barry. But the Ward 8 councilmember, who helped build the center as mayor in 1986 and whose name is still engraved on its facade nearly two decades later, was having none of it.
“He said, ‘We’re going to tear down the Reeves Center,'” Barry told me at the time. “I went off on that, because I put it there to stimulate growth and development in that area. I was raising hell with him on the phone.”
In a sense, the Reeves building seemed to represent Barry’s role in the city. When it opened, it was a hugely significant city investment in the troubled U Street NW and 14th Street NW corridors, decimated by the 1968 riots. It helped spur the development of that area into one of the city’s most flourishing today. And yet, as time passed and luxury apartments sprang up around it, the building came to seem obsolete, as if the city’s tremendous growth had left it behind.
The same was sometimes said of Barry, who died early this morning at 78. In D.C.’s early Home Rule years, Barry was a titan, both in politics and in development. In his four terms as mayor—-at the end of which he’d been mayor for the majority of the Home Rule era—-he cut deals with developers, planned big public investments, and helped reshape a struggling city where real estate was the biggest business game in town. As his days in charge receded behind him, however, and the city continued to grow and prosper well beyond anything over which he’d presided, Barry looked at times like a relic of the past.
But Barry pivoted on the Reeves Center, and on his role in the District. When he learned that Reeves would be replaced by a modern government center in Anacostia, he saw it as a great opportunity for his impoverished home ward. “I’m thoroughly, 100 percent, 1,000 percent supportive of it,” he said. “The Reeves Center has served its purpose.”
This shift exemplified his redefinition as a D.C. leader. Driven from the mayoralty by substance abuse and scandal, he found a new home as Ward 8’s councilmember for life—-a title conferred speculatively by his constituents and now, at last, confirmed. For a decade, he’s embraced Ward 8 as his smaller bastion of power, and it’s embraced him back: In his last election, in 2012, he won 88 percent of the vote.
At times, he’s treated the ward as his personal fiefdom; when a public art installation he didn’t like opened in Anacostia, he said, “I tell every agency that anything coming to Ward 8 should come to my office.” But mostly, he’s tried to shape the ward’s development in a way that conforms to his philosophy of what’s needed to rejuvenate the poorest section of town.
At the center of that philosophy is homeownership. Three-quarters of Ward 8 residents are renters, the highest proportion in the city. Barry repeatedly stated that homeownership was at the core of the American dream, and that it was necessary to lift his constituents out of poverty. He sometimes took this position to its extreme, introducing legislation in 2011 to prohibit the construction of apartment buildings in his ward. (The bill did not pass.) Like many of his constituents, he also objected to the creation of more affordable housing in the part of town that already has the highest concentration of it.
Barry’s philosophy, so rigid at times, could also be surprisingly flexible. In April, he introduced a package of three bills that would have granted special approval to an Anacostia project that had been rejected by the Historic Preservation Review Board. The project, known as Big K, consisted entirely of the thing Barry had most strenuously fought: low-income rental units. But Barry saw a greater opportunity to convert a decaying site on Anacostia’s main street, arguing that it would “transform Martin Luther King [Avenue SE] into a grand boulevard, at no one’s expense.” The project was approved a month ago by the administration of Mayor Vince Gray.
Barry was never afraid to take a heterodox position, on development or anything else. When the city was crafting recommendations to Congress for changes to the 1910 Height of Buildings Act, which limits the city’s verticality, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson introduced a symbolic resolution to oppose any changes—-even ones that would shift some control over building heights from the federal government to the city. Twelve of the 13 councilmembers voted for the resolution. The lone “no” vote came from Barry. “The District is only 68 miles square, 10 of which are water,” Barry said. “Therefore, in my view, we have to do all that we can to maximize height on the land that we have.”
I last spoke to Barry after the passing of Bob Moore this summer. Moore, like Barry, helped guide the city’s development in some of its darkest days, as director of the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights in the late 1980s and 1990s. Moore was credited with catalyzing the revitalization of a neighborhood scarred by the riots. But he was sometimes criticized in the press, with a Washington Post investigation finding that DCCH had failed to deliver on many of its promises.
“I expect that from the Post,” Barry told me. “The Post is so anti-community, anti-black people doing their thing.”
This was Barry: loyal to the end, and unafraid to rip the media or focus on the racial divides that others often preferred not to discuss.
Moore, Barry said, also connected him with the surgeon who treated his prostate cancer in 1995. Although the doctor had a six-month waiting list, Moore, who knew the doctor, was able to get him an appointment.
“And I’ve been cancer-free ever since,” Barry told me. “Bob’s came back, unfortunately. He fought till the very end. People said, ‘Bob, you need to be at home in bed.’ And he said, ‘I have work to do.'”
That, too, was Barry. In poor health for the last several years, he still continued to serve Ward 8 on the Council. He didn’t attend every hearing, but he remained the ward’s staunchest defender and advocate.
On Wednesday, Anacostia residents gathered in a former furniture store on MLK Avenue to celebrate the announcement of a Busboys and Poets restaurant that will come to that location. This was the sort of thing that Barry would never normally miss, but with his health declining, his absence was conspicuous. The popular restaurant, in a ward that has few of them, likely signals the start of long-awaited business development in Anacostia. Barry, as mayor and Ward 8 councilmember, laid the groundwork for this process. Now it will move on without him.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery