- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2006

Symbols and symbolic gestures mean a lot, as global newscasts with backdrops of the U.S. Capitol, White House and Washington Monument prove. But Washington is far more than a city of monuments and memorials, and pols and pundits.

That the prolific Marvin Gaye, a native Washingtonian, penned “Inner City Blues” is, perhaps, no coincidence, because the ironic irony is Washington has two faces. One is the capital of the free world. The other represents people who, like Marvin, say “this ain’t livin’; No, no baby, this ain’t livin’.”

There’s the old Washington, the one where Marvin was reared and honed his vocals. It’s the one hoped for as movers and shakers try to make new Washington old again.

Look at Southeast — no, not the Southeast on Capitol Hill or where the new baseball stadium will replace gay clubs.

Turn your attention to Anacostia. Yeah, that Anacostia. And think about where and how this city has changed since, say, 1971 — the year Washington Senators left town and Marvin’s landmark music hit the charts. At the time, we were flush with taxpayers, effective public schools, a presidentially appointed mayor and George Allen’s Redskins. A mere decade later, the capital began a downard spiral. The federal government, which already had given us the right to vote in presidential elections and elect a school board, had also granted us limited self-rule and the “power” to elect a chief executive and 13 legislators. But a not-so-funny thing happened after democracy perched itself in City Hall.

Instead of lifting the city to new heights, the newly bestowed brokers of power pushed us into darkness. The black middle class, which now controlled City Hall and the school system, followed the white flight into the suburbs. Maryland and Virginia, whose coffers runneth over with dollars from former D.C. taxpayers, began telling their poor folks to seek financial cover and shelter on the other side of the Potomac and Anacostia. City Hall, astutely aware of the decline in tax dollars, began investing money in labor unions and pouring leftover funds into social service programs.

By the mid-1990s — facing a growing illiterate and unemployed underclass, and a severe case of voter apathy — it was too late. The city was financially and politically bankrupt. Everyone was crying the blues.

There was plenty of symbolic grandstanding from the White House to City Hall to Capitol Hall. Yet nothing happened. The Democrats kept taking more and more of our tax dollars, and the Republicans kept saying I told you so.

The demographics of the makes-me-wanna-holler crowd were best illustrated in Anacostia and a half-dozen other neighborhoods in Southeast, where crime, ragged public housing and small apartments never meant for families poxed the entire quardrant.

By the grace of God, frustrated voters in Southeast led the way toward a renaissance (though certainly by no definition in the OED or Webster’s). The movers and shakers have begun turning things around. More than 8,000 housing units are online east of the Anacostia and thousands more are in the pipeline. Supermarkets and shopping centers are on the way, and charter schools are proving for many poor families that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Much of the new interest stems from the heavily traveled Anacostia Metro station that’s hard by the river, serving military installations as well as locals and other commuters. We knew putting the station precisely where it is would force change. And by we I mean me and other taxpayers and homeowners who lived in Southeast during the 1980s and demanded that Metro not only build a station for us, but that it be named Anacostia.

Indeed, the city should be paying homage to Calvin Rolark, the late newspaper publisher, who led the charge. I remember one such meeting ran late into the night at Ballou, and the janitors began flickering the lights to tell us it was time to go. Mr. Rolark dared the janitors to dismiss us, and promised to pay his overtime if necessary. Uncle Calvin, one of my mentors, said everybody who wanted to speak his mind would speak his mind. And they did.

There is no Calvin Rolark east of the river these days, but symbols of hope continue. Whether its reclaiming “needle park” and revitalizing into Marvin Gaye Park, returning the landmark Curtis Properties “Big Chair” to its perch on King Avenue or listening to Ben Bernanke — yes, that Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve — in Southeast discussing neighborhood revitalization to ward off inner-city blues.

Washington has since its very conception in 1790 been a “City of Magnificient Intentions,” with boulevards and circles designed by L’Enfant and Banneker, and Mother Nature lending a wonderous hand with the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers and Rock Creek. The city’s architectural attractions, monuments, memorials and museums, and the unique distinction of being the nation’s capital make this city a to-do for tourists and a must-lobby for special interests.

But they don’t think they’re in Southeast when they visit the gay clubs off one of L’Enfant’s boulevards. They don’t think they’re in Southeast when they’re on Barracks Row near the Marine Barracks. But they are.

There’s a movement afoot to rename neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River simply East Washington. Another symbol.

Symbols, yesterday’s groundbreaking for the new stadium, have their place. But geopolitical realities dictate that we calling it like it is, Anacostia, and making Marvin proud.

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