Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Heart & Soul of Cities

Yesterday I watched a documentary called “The Nine Lives of Marion Barry” and it was a pretty fair portrayal of one of the most controversial political figures within the last fifty years. Marion Barry (who had a Master’s in chemistry…who knew?!?) was a civil rights leader who came to Washington D.C. in the 1960’s were he came a political activist who later became a city council member and ultimately the mayor. In his third term as the mayor of the Capital, Barry (as I’m sure many of you are aware) had one of the most epic political downfalls ever in this country as he was caught using crack cocaine on videotape in a joint police & F.B.I. sting operation.

A man who had worked so hard for the real citizens of D.C. had disgraced himself and his city became a national laughing stock as he had to serve six months in a Federal prison for drug possession. In 1994, the city had seemed to become the national laughing stock as they re-elected Barry for a fourth term. Marion Barry and his re-election triggered national debates about black political leadership, the crack epidemic, the polarization of black and white communities and the effectiveness of past civil rights leaders. One man, born in abject poverty who picked in cotton in Tennessee as a child, who worked his way through college and stopped short in getting his PhD in chemistry to join the civil rights movement, managed to stir up a whole heap of controversy as he became the political face of our nation’s capital.

But this post isn’t just about Marion Barry. This post is about the people who make up the heart and soul of cities. Those folks that would elect and re-elect people like Marion Barry who had listened and fought for them. These folks represent the guts of cities. They range from the menial job workers, to teachers and professors, to the hustlers and the unemployed, to proud families who had lived in the city for decades. These folks represented the everyday life of Washington D.C. that had little to do national politics, congress or the White House. Without a doubt, Washington D.C. is a one industry town. The Federal government as well as the massive amount private contracting jobs that it produces, makes up the lion’s share of jobs in the city and metropolitan area. There is a perception sometimes that D.C. is a hollow city that is just made up of Federal workers and contractors. However as someone who grew up an hour north of the city in Baltimore, I knew there were two different D.C.’s. There was the Capital and then there was Black D.C.

This dichotomy is prevalent in many cities where the public face is within stark contrast to the everyday lives of the citizens who make the city run. There are the skyscrapers of Manhattan and there are the flats, rowhouses and project high rises of Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx. There are the beautiful beaches and art deco line streets of South Beach in Miami and there are the barrios of Little Haiti and Overtown. In my fair city of Baltimore, there is the world-renowned Inner Harbor and there is East and West Baltimore as depicted on the HBO television series, “The Wire.” In fact one of my favorite scenes from The Wire was the series ending final montage were one of the main characters stares at the skyscrapers surrounding the harbor while the show runs through images of the everyday life of normal city residents. It was as if someone was admiring the beauty of a castle and its walls from afar while those in its kingdom toiled in a meaningless servitude from within the walls. If Baltimore was a castle then Washington D.C. was an Emerald City both literally and figuratively.

In one of the later renditions of the Wizard of OZ, Emerald City is described as a city with splendid palaces and gardens but beset with crime and poverty. In these renditions the city wasn’t green but the citizens wore green glasses as a way to stop seeing what was going on around them. If this isn’t apropos to how the Federal government treated the residents of the city then I don’t what is. This is what makes Marion Barry’s rise to power so fascinating. In a city full of allusion, grandeur and power, the man chosen to lead the city came from those who were thought of as powerless. For as powerful as the Federal Government is in a global context, it still does not represent the city, the people do. And the needs of the everyday people of the city had been ignored. For every powerful lobbyist that lived in the city there was a bus driver and a hairdresser. For every congressman there was a teacher and a sanitation worker. For every staff aid, there was a high school drop out and some one underemployed. While cities fight to attain the former examples previously mentioned, Barry fought for the needs of the latter who were the heart and soul of Washington D.C.

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