An occasional series on books and movies about DC:
I arrived in DC during the first year of Mayor Anthony Williams’ first term. Of course, I was in college then, focused on my studies and never venturing much further than Dupont Circle. While I was falling in love with my little piece of the city, I was not at all in tune with the political situation. I kept my voter registration in California and couldn’t have told you who represented Foggy Bottom on the City Council. I was still a visitor. It didn’t matter to me.
Now, of course, it matters to me.
So it was with a lot of enthusiasm that I cracked open Dream City while on my vacation this week. This book, published in 1994, is a fascinating study of the District’s modern history, which in 1994 meant one thing: Marion Barry. Even by 2007 DC’s modern history is dominated by that one man. He still holds a seat on the City Council, still inspires the strongest of feelings – either ridicule or admiration. But I had missed the whole thing, arriving in 1999 after Mayor Barry’s fourth and final term as mayor, and I was woefully ignorant of all that came before me.
I knew there had been riots in the late ‘60s. But I didn’t know what had caused them or where they’d been. Now I know that the recent redevelopment of U Street, Chinatown, and the slow resurgence of H St, NE are all legacies of those riots, nearly 40 years ago. The book traces the story of those riots, how they were sparked, how they became out of control, how they were eventually quelled by the military.
I knew that Marion Barry had smoked crack. I am embarrassed to admit I didn’t know much else. This book traces his beginnings in the student civil rights movement, his arrival in DC and his rise to power at a crucial time when the District was first learning to vote and govern itself. It details his original good intentions, his adaptability to every situation, his administration’s corruption and his downfall. How DC fell to drugs and violence on his watch, while he fell to drugs and women.
The book does an admirable job of presenting both sides of the story and the racial implications of each. Why the 8th Ward – so continuously poor, neglected and ignored – keeps voting for Barry, even now. How feelings about Barry are all mixed up in the city’s racist past, a city that was majority black and controlled by a blatantly racist Congress for a hundred years. Was he the stereotype of a black man addicted to crack or a prominent figure of black power systematically persecuted by a racist, white federal government?
The book does make a very strong argument that Barry took a historic moment, full of potential for the capital city, and squandered it in a sea of rhetoric, corruption and drugs. It sure puts into perspective why Mayor Williams, the boring and budget-oriented bureaucrat, was such a breath of fresh air. And it puts Mayor Fenty into an historical context. I knew his winning every precinct in every ward was important, but even more so now that I know a little bit more about the racial overtones of Barry’s rise to power, and his trial.
The city I love has come a long way in a short time. It has changed vastly even since I arrived eight years ago, and in the last 20 and 40 years even more so. For late comers like me, Dream City is an insight into what we missed, and provides the foundation for understanding what lies ahead.