City Paper Widget

Friday, June 13, 2014

Cheater's Guide to "Dream City" -- Part 1 (Preface and Introduction)

Washington City Paper has said this blog "goes to ANC meetings so you don't have to". Today, this blog starts reading a serious book about DC politics so you don't have to.

In case you missed it

Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood was originally published in 1994 by Argo-Navis. It has recently been republished as both an e-book ($6.99) and paper book ($23.53) in a "20th Anniversary Edition" with a new Preface and Epilogue.

The book has been in the news because it will reportedly provide source material for an upcoming HBO biopic about Marion Barry, starring Eddie Murphy, directed by Spike Lee, and written in part by George Pelacanos. Pelacanos, a DC native and writer of fiction, may be best known as a writer of the TV series "The Wire" and "Treme".

The book should not be confused with the soon-to-be-released Barry autobiography, Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr.

A summary of the beginning of the book follows.

Preface (written 2014)

The book starts with an interview of D.C. school chancellor Kaya Henderson on the porch of her Brookland home. "She stood on her porch and looked across the street. 'White families have moved into those houses. Some have children, and the kids are starting to play together. It's a good thing, but I can't say there isn't some tension'." (Kindle location 86)

The authors say DC "barely resembles the town we described twenty years ago. Except for one constant: Marion Barry was still in office, representing Ward 8 on the D.C. council" (l. 91).

At the time of the book's initial publication, "Sharon Pratt Kelly was finishing her first term as mayor, which most saw as a failure" (l. 92) Barry, who had previously won three terms as mayor, had just served six months in jail for cocaine possession, had won a seat representing Ward 8 on The DC council, and was contemplating another run for mayor.

After the book's initial publication, Barry won a fourth term. Under Kelly, the city deficit was projected to reach $1 billion, there had been 399 homocides in a year, and residents were fleeing the city. "School ranked lowest in the country, infant morality the highest" (l. 102)

Congress installed a financial control board to oversee the budget and government, reducing Barry to "a second class mayor" (l. 103).

In 2014, the city population is increasing by 1,100 per month. The total population is 100,000 above its 1998 low. Whites are moving into historically black neighborhoods. In 1971, the city was 71 percent African-American. In 2014, it was just below 50%. In 1974, the city council had 11 African-
American members and two white. In 2014, there were seven white and six black. Development is booming. There were 88 homocides in 2013. However, public schools are still struggling.

The Reeves Center (14th and U Street) is symbolic of the city's direction. In 1968, Stokely Carmichael sparked the 14th Street riots by throwing a brick through a drug store window at that corner. In the 1980s, Barry "made of symbolic point" (l. 118) of locating the Reeves Center there. In 2014, the city is negotiating to trade the building to developers in a land swap.

"How and why did Washington, D.C., resurrect itself?" (l.122)

Meanwhile, Barry remained a prominent player. "You can't talk him out of it," a long-time aide and friend said (l. 133).

Introduction (written 1994)

"Our story is about local Washington, a town where bad things happen in good neighborhoods and terrifying things can happen in poor neighborhoods." (l. 150)

This co-exists with official Washington. "How did these two cities develop side by side? How can they coexist?" (l. 162)

"[W]e can't escape the conclusion that a single undercurrent binds its disparate parts: Racism and racial insecurities made Washington what it is today." (1. 165)

"Which brings us to Marion Barry, Jr., the man who bridged the chasm to get elected mayor in 1978, exploited it to stay in power, and now more than anyone in American politics personifies the distance between blacks and whites." (l. 177)

"The young Barry was a natural leader and a skilled politician.... But Barry, like many other dark-skinned African-Americans from the rural South, never was accepted by Washington's 'high yellow', native aristocrats." (l. 187)

"Barry came into power with a coterie of stars from the civil rights movement who wanted to prove that a black government could manage the nation's capital after a century of white control....[W]e explore what became of that dream." (l. 189)

"During his fall, Barry's descent into drug addiction, abuse of women, demagoguery, and eventual arrest eerily mirrored the city's own decline into murder and crack." (l. 192)

"Mattie Taylor, a black woman whom Barry crushed in the 1986 mayor's race, said, 'I can't understand why the people love him so'." (l. 196)

The authors heard the same sentiment "mostly from white people, who ridicule Barry as a venal charlatan who betrayed his people, confirmed every racist stereotype of black men, and wrecked his city." (l. 197)

"Yet for many African-Americans, especially the lower economic classes, Barry will always be a hero." (l. 202)

Barry consistently maintained a "facade of defiance" (l. 203) which touches every African-American.

"Their reaction is an indication of just how insecure and alienated black Americans still feel, and the white response shows how little they under the African-American predicament." (l. 204)

"Marion Barry, like the problem of race in America, won't go away." (l. 204)

Cheater's Guide to Dream City continues next week

Further installments will appear on successive Fridays. All posts will be cross-posted on the new ad-hoc "Cheater's Guide to Dream City" blog.

Full disclosure: I have a commercial relationship with Amazon. I will receive a very small portion of the money people spend if they click on an Amazon link on this site.

This is a great book and well worth reading in its entirety.

Read the next installment of Cheater's Guide to "Dream City" here.

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