Barry: ‘I did a lot’ but not enough

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Marion Barry opens the passenger door for his visitor, seats himself behind the wheel and slowly merges into the evening rush on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast Washington.

The irony of what hasn’t happened along this major artery isn’t lost on Mr. Barry, who has spent his adult life with the words “content of their character, not the color of their skin” ringing in his ears.

“I did a lot, but I didn’t do enough,” Mr. Barry says.

The former mayor and current D.C. Council member is talking about recreation centers for youths in Ward 8, where, for generations, he has been the chosen one.

On this evening, Mr. Barry traverses neighborhoods to point out areas that urban renewal has forgotten.

First up: Congress Heights West. A handful of young people make do with a free-standing basketball hoop.

“It’s all they’ve got,” Mr. Barry says as he chats up the boys about their schooling.

“Friendship Tech [charter],” says DeMarco. “Thurgood Marshall [charter],” says Malik.

“Study hard. Math and science are important,” says Mr. Barry, who then pulls around the corner from Newcomb Street, where, hard by Interstate 295, federal land that could be used for park and recreation needs sits idle.

Next up, Congress Heights East, where, a few blocks off King Avenue, a small, aging building of cinder blocks, a tennis court and a basketball court are tucked off an alleyway as if an afterthought.

“Look at the bald spots,” Mr. Barry points out. “If it rains, they have to play in and track mud.”

Then Mr. Barry, once a keen player, turns to the ragged tennis court. “It’s unsafe,” he says. “You can’t play for getting tripped up.”

Building and maintaining facilities is an “uphill battle,” the councilman says as we head toward Barry Farms.

“The new [parks and recreation] director has been great. I work close with [council member] Harry Thomas [Jr.]. But childhood obesity, health disparities and thousands of new housing units mean we need to do more.”

He also gives credit to William C. Smith Cos., which partners to build housing, school and community projects.

“It took us 20 years to develop Camp Simms, but we finally got it done,” Mr. Barry says, referring to a mixed-use development on a former National Guard site.

Indeed, the communities on and off Alabama Avenue look nothing like the ones that stood there when Mr. Barry became a member of the city’s first elected legislature in 1975. New housing and retail developed by Smith have replaced the gunplay and assorted mayhem and hundreds of public and low-rent housing units.

Then there’s Barry Farms, the storied public-housing complex on the verge of an about-face.

“Know the history?” Mr. Barry asks.

“Of course,” I respond. “I grew up in Anacostia.”

A Reconstruction-era settlement for freed slaves, Barry Farms is one of the oldest black neighborhoods in America and, like neighboring Congress Heights, has long suffered from violence and political neglect.

Mr. Barry has been welcomed there with arms opened wide since the 1960s, when his job-training program Pride Inc. came calling. This day — three and four generations later — Mr. Barry focuses on reconciling what is with what can be.

“Fifteen hundred housing units, all these youths and no inside gym,” Mr. Barry says as we idle curbside. “A recreation center with no gym,” he says, exchanging waves with groups of passers-by who instantly recognize him.

“We’re going to change that.”

When asked what will happen when Barry Farms‘ neighbor becomes the Department of Homeland Security, he holds out hope.

“Deborah, you know better. Some of these families won’t come back, but these kids need to be able to play indoors.

“When Homeland Security comes in, it’ll build the economy and have 14,000 jobs. D.C. residents will be able to get some of them through attrition.

“One of the ironies of losing my [housing] committee chairmanship is the time it’s giving me to develop strategy,” Mr. Barry says. “When budget oversight begins, Ward 8 is going to be refocused and reorganized.

“I can’t get every need into the budget. My job is to have leadership and empower the people.”

He then makes a promise as much to himself as to Ward 8 residents.

“Next year will be different,” he says. “They’re going to be sick of us [at City Hall], but we’re not going away.”

*Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

About the Author
Deborah Simmons

Deborah Simmons

Award-winning opinion writer Deborah Simmons is a senior correspondent who reports on City Hall and writes about education, culture, sports and family-related topics. Mrs. Simmons has worked at several newspapers, and since joining The Washington Times in 1985, has served as editorial-page editor and features editor and on the metro desk. She has taught copy editing at the University of ...

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