- The Washington Times - Friday, September 13, 2002

I got an interesting call this week from a candidate for elective office in the nation's capital. He said he wanted to let me know that he hopes this fall's campaigns will prove more contentious. I told him not to hold his breath: In Washington, the fat lady sings in September and hibernates for four years.

Indeed, while Washington's political scenery remains much the same, its physical landscape is dramatically changing.

Last week, for example, Mayor Tony Williams announced that Target plans to occupy one-third of a 540,000-square-foot shopping and entertainment complex near the Metro station in Columbia Heights. This is a hugely important picture.

Columbia Heights is one of several D.C. neighborhoods another is Anacostia whose innards were ripped apart by riots, racial politics and the drug trade. The riots occurred in 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King. I can still remember as a teen perching myself on a hillside in Anacostia, watching this city of magnificent intentions go up in pockets of smoke and flames fueled by hatred and fanned by senseless radicals who would later nickname the District "Chocolate City." I saw the District further decay as politicians used their bully pulpits to draw our sympathy for the underclass but never really and truly do much to lift them up from despair. Rhetoric became the sustenance for the poor, while the middle class the bread and butter of Washington grabbed their wallets and headed for suburbia. And I watched still later as drug posses moved into once-quiet neighborhoods, forcing many residents to shutter themselves indoors. The true victims, young and old alike, landed in the morgue.

So knowing that Columbia Heights will, in a couple of years, once again be a vibrant retail hub is encouraging. It was precisely that way when my family moved there from Pittsburgh in 1956. Back then, Anacostia and other parts of Southeast were pretty much a self-contained retail hub, too. Sears, supermarkets, chain stores as well as family owned operations thrived until the riots and crime left all three of Ward 8's major corridors Good Hope Road, Alabama Avenue and MLK Avenue starving for development. Not much has changed today, but it must if the city is to continue to prosper. And if it doesn't, it won't be because Target, Costco and other retailers aren't interested.

Violent crime continues to decline, and much of the public housing in Washington is being replaced with single-family housing. While some of that housing will be subsidized, its income levels are mixed. Guess folks finally figured out that those public housing "projects" were failures. Lumping high concentrations of people in need of social services together simply wasn't a good idea.

One of Washington's best examples of changed landscape is the new U Street, which has been evolving for seven or eight years. Decades ago, when black day workers used to ride the bus and street cars to work in the homes of the affluent, the U Street corridor was home to entrepreneurial Washington from barber shops and beauty parlors to clothing stores and shoe-repair shops to the hippest and hottest on the black nightclub scene. And now, it has come full-circle. Only this time, it's not a black thing. People of all colors and political stripes, the poor and the powerful, young and old, indulge themselves along U Street. Millionaires chow down on Ben's chili dogs the same as I do, and you'd be surprised who you might see at the new 7-11 on U, as well as catching a show at the Lincoln Theatre.

Same thing downtown. Two generations ago, downtown was all tourists and office workers by day, but barely anyone at night. Today, there are still office buildings and museums. But there also is a considerable living and breathing downtown, with residents jogging during morning and evening, and families with children attending downtown schools. And that is as things should be.

Of course, there are pockets of poverty. There is no way to get around that. But Washington 2002 is nothing like Washington 1992 and no comparison to Washington 1982, '72 or even '62.

My telephone caller said he's running for election because he does not want Washington to go backwards. I told him that message was loud and clear in the mayor's race, but that not moving backwards does not necessarily mean movement. That in order to prosper, we must continue moving forward that is.

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