This is the twentieth installment of a series (see the first installment here) summarizing the 1994 book Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C.by Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood. This book has recently been republished as an ebook and a paper book. HBO has plans to use material from the book to make a movie about the life of Marion Barry.
Chapter 16: Resurrection (two of three)
Sharon Pratt Dixon succeeded Marion Barry as mayor in January 1991. (In December 1991, she married a New York businessman and changed her name to Sharon Pratt Kelly.)
"Dixon had a tough job, no matter what level her political and leadership skills. Barry had left the city and the government in terrible shape. Records were nonexistant; phones had been ripped from the walls; all the top bureaucrats had resigned, at her request" (Kindle location 5327).
"Dixon was slow to assemble her staff, and she had a hard time keeping it. She ran as a 'native Washingtonian' and promised to hire local talent to manage her government, but either she couldn't find any or they wouldn't work for her. She wound up going as far as Alaska for a housing director, brought her economic development chief in from Oakland, hired an administrative services director from Boson, and chose a press secretary from East St. Louis via Arizona" (l. 5331).
On May 5, 1991, a 30-year-old immigrant construction worker from El Salvador pulled a knife on a DC police officer in Mount Pleasant and was shot.
"Within hours, angry crowds of Latino and black youths took to the streets and started burning buildings and looting stores. The next night people around the world were treated to televised scenes of burning buses and overturned police cars in the American capital. For three nights, roving bands of teenagers staged running battles with police east across the city.... Mayor Dixon slapped a curfew on the neighborhood and ordered police not to shoot anything but tear gas. When the rioting was over, at least 31 businesses ... had suffered some damage...." (l. 5362).
The riots plus Barry's departure from the mayor's office disrupted business-as-usual. Local real estate moguls took the hit. Planned real estate development in Shaw went nowhere. Blocks "gobbled up in the 1980s were either boarded up, fenced in, or piled up with rubble and refuse" (l. 5370). Other moguls drastically cut back their plans or went bankrupt.
"The demise of the local real estate moguls marked a watershed in the District's business life. Washington was always known as a political colony because Congress maintained ultimate control; by 1990 it was becoming an economic colony as well. Real estate development was one of the last purely local businesses.... The depression knocked out many of the local players and replaced them with Texans, Canadians, and foreigners" (l. 5380).
Marion Barry left his DC home for jail on October 26, 1991. His mother saw him off -- his wife and child did not. "[T]he crowd of 100 or so working-class supporters, many wearing baseball caps, some with public works insignias, smiled and waved and said, 'Yes, Marion, yes.' He trashed the government one last time for its 'political persecution' and he made ready to head down the road to the minimum-security prison for white-collar criminals in Petersburg, Virginia..." (l. 5406).
"The district was losing population throughout the 1980s, and the trend accelerated in the early 1990s, but unlike the outmigrations of the 1960s, this was black flight. Working couples, families with young children, and people simply trying to escape the city's high crime rate moved out in droves. From its high of 802,178 in 1950, the city's population dropped to 606,900 in the 1990 census and fell below 600,000 two years later. Nearly one-third of those remaining -- 180,000 -- were on public assistance rolls" (l. 5435).
The police department went on a Congressionally-ordered hiring binge in 1990 and 1991. "In a rush to fill the rolls, the department neglected background checks, lowered entrance standards, and skimped on training. The shoddy policies bore fruit when the recruits hit the streets and started wrecking police cars at the rate of one a day, conspiring with drug dealers, and selling cocaine. The classes of 1990 and 1991 put dozens of dirty cops on the streets, so dirty that the FBI formed a special unit to police the police" (l. 5446).
"In 1992, 35 Washington police officers were indicted on criminal charges ranging from murder, theft, assault with a deadly weapon, and sodomy to kidnapping while armed and making threats. At least 70 more were indicted in 1993. Police employees were caught selling handguns that had been confiscated and stored by the department" (l. 5450).
Dixon spent a lot of time cultivating Congress. "The mayor had good reason to be on Capitol Hill. The city was close to broke. Barry's profligate spending programs had put the budget in the red, and the real estate bust dried up tax revenues. Dixon lobbied for months against long odds to extract a $200-million increase in the federal payment from a budget-weary Congress. She got the money and looked like a lion-tamer" (l. 5470).
"... Though the mayor continued to make rousing speeches, no one on her staff was answering mail, returning phone calls, or meeting with constituents. She bristled at any criticism, telling everyone she had a different style and they'd just have to get used to it. But her style angered both foes and friends, and within a year she had somehow squandered all the goodwill that grew out of her improbable victory at the polls" (l. 5477).
"City politics is a sweaty contact sport. People have to believe that they can touch their leaders and make their government work for them. Dixon was on the road so much during her first year that constituents would have had to grab her in the airport..." (l. 5485).
"Around the District Building they started to call her 'Mayor of America' and 'Air Dixon' " (l. 5487).
"Dixon simply couldn't make the transition from the candidate ... to the empathetic politician who could manage a government and build coalitions. Her way of getting support was by threat and intimidation, and it wasn't working" (l. 5496).
Cheater's Guide to Dream City continues next week
Further installments will appear on successive Fridays. All posts will be cross-posted on the ad-hoc "Cheater's Guide to Dream City" blog.
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This is a great book and well worth reading in its entirety.