- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 3, 2005

About that key to the city: Why should a stainless steel object cause so much fuss? It’s not about the art or the artist. It’s not even about the money.

“It is about the importance of symbols and how deeply we feel, all of us, about who we are and where we are headed,” said John Dreyfuss, the sculptor who designed the $2,000 key.

Beautiful, bold and representing great promise for the city, the new key also represents a symbol of an administration that is viewed as aloof, elitist and out of touch. For some, the symbol also represents an administration that is viewed as catering to the new while forgetting the old, catering to the rich while forgetting the poor.

However, the debate about the cost and priorities spurred by the redesigned ceremonial key makes a misinterpreted memento of it. For the sleek, high-tech symbol seeks to strike at the heart of the underlying issues that color all aspects of public and private life in the District — race and class.

Now, a disclosure: The unfairly scorned sculptor of the key is a dear friend. The internationally renowned artist, awarded for his invention, has given me signed pieces of artwork. I have been a guest at his historic Georgetown home, Halcyon House, many times.

Meeting through Leadership Washington, John and I have engaged in deep discussions and debates about the future of our hometown, where we grew up on the opposite ends of town during the segregated era.

Our friendship demonstrates that all D.C. residents can find common ground and share common goals. John and I aim to build bridges that cross boundaries and make keys that unlock barriers so everyone enjoys a piece of the progressive pie.

Thus, John’s insistence on stressing the inclusiveness he painstakingly selected for the language on the new key: “Justitia Omnibus,” or “Justice for All,” on one side, and “Opportunity for All” on the other.

“I was asked by the mayor to create a new key to the city, one that would speak in form and language to a new District of Columbia, one where each citizen would be guaranteed both freedom and the opportunity to be a legitimate stakeholder in the District’s future,” John said.

“I know that until the fate of each of us is intertwined, until the condition of the least of us becomes the concern of all of us, then the lock to our future can never be opened.”

John believes that Mayor Anthony A. Williams, judging his rhetoric, sees a District moving toward an inclusiveness. I, judging by the mayor’s deeds, generally do not.

John knows I have to speak out and keep it real for the folks who live a very different and difficult life. They and their children have been locked out and left behind to deal with crime, crumbling schools and no chances of a career. Then they are systematically pushed out to Prince George’s County and beyond where they are not welcome, either.

We agree, most recently over mojitos at a Cuban restaurant in the fashionable 14th Street NW theater district that used to be the haunt of streetwalkers and dope pushers, that equal justice and opportunity is a laudable goal. We also agree that we have a long way to go to construct Camelot across the banks of the Anacostia River.

Still, there must be substance with the symbols. Otherwise, even John acknowledges, the key represents “nothing more than a painting of a meal — you’re still hungry after you’ve looked at it.” I am prone to occasionally school John, an artist driven by idealism, about the stark, age-old racial and economic construct in which most political and public policy debates are waged in the Last Colony.

When folks learned that the city’s meandering mayor spent $24,000 for 12 stainless steel keys to replace the cheaper, colonial-style city key, it just generated more cannon fodder for Mr. Williams’ growing list of opponents.

Lock up Williams the Wastrel and throw away the key, some screamed.

But don’t blame the messenger, not because he’s my friend but because John sincerely believes that his voluntary contribution portends promise.

Buried in the brouhaha about the key is the fact that John, who contributes a great deal to Washington communities, donated a lot of his valuable time. He could have worked on more lucrative projects instead of carefully designing and crafting the key within the budget the Williams administration allotted for the materials only.

Do the math. In the grand scheme of things, we’re really not talking about a lot of money in a city enjoying in excess of a $300 million surplus for a symbol sculpted to represent hope.

Unfortunately, John’s gift caused a rift because it was presented at a most inopportune moment. Its anticipated arrival came amid heated arguments about funding a baseball stadium and scattering support for an absentee mayor.

A lesson needs to be learned here because the key is not the problem.

John has learned a lesson, too. “I have been overwhelmed by the discussion surrounding the designing and language of the key. And, I have learned that no issue concerning the public trust is trivial. I have come to understand the rage of those waiting for promises unfulfilled.”

That rage, which should be aimed at the mayor, not the artist or his art, comes from broken promises and forgotten pledges.

So a gauntlet has been dropped. It’s time for Mr. Williams to make good on the symbolic promise the key to the city portends, not only for his well-heeled honchos but “for all” the residents of the nation’s capital.

For that promise is now etched in steel.

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