Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Marion Barry, DC's "Mayor for Life," dead at 78

Some things you don't really imagine (although in good scenario planning you should), and one I hadn't really thought about is Marion Barry, former Mayor of DC and Councilmember of Ward 8, dying, which happened last night.

-- "Former DC Mayor Marion Barry dies at 78," WTOP radio
-- "Marion Barry, Former Mayor of Washington, Dies at 78," New York Times
-- "Marion Barry dies at 78; 4-term DC mayor was the most powerful local politician of his generation," Washington Post

The "Mayor for Life" moniker was devised by Ken Cummins, the original "Loose Lips" columnist for the Washington City Paper.  The former mayor adopted the phrase as the title of his autobiography ("Marion Barry officially embraces 'mayor-for-life' title," City Paper).

I've always said chapter 4-it turns out it is chapter 7--of the book Dream City (",Dream City: Race, Power and the Decline of Washington, DC" Washington Monthly), was the best description of the way that the local coalition of politicians and real estate developers works together along the lines of the Growth Machine theory of Harvey Molotch (City as a Growth Machine: Toward a Political Economy of Place).

Howard Gillette's Between Truth and Beauty: Race, Planning, and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington is a good explication of what we might call the "city beautiful" vs. "social justice" agendas of the first generation black mayors more generally, although the book is about Washington.

I haven't read The Last of the Black Emperors: The Hollow Comeback of Marion Barry in a New Age of Black Leaders by Jonetta Rose Barras.  She has a reprise opinion piece in the Post, "The death of Marion Barry."

The book The Future Once Happened Here, focusing on DC, New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, is widely derided by progressives, but I think it's a good discussion of the decline of cities in the 1980s and 1990s,

It describes DC's decline in part as a result of the massive expansion of the local government--despite the city possessing "county and state functions" as well as those of a municipality, DC had thousands more employees than much larger cities.

The big increase in government employees, decline in federal payments to cities, continued outmigration of the Black middle class to Prince George's County especially, and minimal in-migration of higher income households contributed to the city's bankruptcy and the takeover of the city's finances by the federal government through a specially created Financial Control Board.  While this happened during the mayoralty of Sharon Pratt Kelly, the stage was set by the previous administrations of Marion Barry.

Lately there has been some discussion among the younger set that the older and mnority urbanites had their chance at "fixing the cities" and failed, with the conclusion that it's time for them to move out of the way.

The reality is much more complicated.  Urban decline and urban improvement lies on a continuum, and was built, positively and sometimes negatively, through the efforts of many, including Marion Barry, who had so much promise and sadly, threw much of it away.

A new councilmember for Ward 8.  Newer and younger residents of Ward 8 have clamored for different representation, even running candidates against Marion Barry in the 2008 and 2012 primaries, although each time Marion Barry received between 70% and 80% of the total vote.

Now that he has died and didn't create a true machine that could designate and elect a successor, it will be interesting to see what develops in the run up to the special election to replace him.

At one time, it was asserted that Marion Barry aimed to make his son, Christopher, his successor on Council, but that's no longer a real option.

The special election for the seat--probably in May but maybe in April and it is unclear if it will be set to be the same day as the special election in Ward 4 to fill the Council seat vacated by incoming Mayor Muriel Bowser--is likely to be wild, with as many as 20 candidates.

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At 9:44 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Chapter 4 is summarized here, althought

Although perhaps you mean chapter 5?

The most virulant comments about Barry seem to come from older whites who were pushed out of city jobs in the 1970s and 80s.

I hope we can tear the Reeeves center down and replace with a fine statue of Marion Barry. Maybe we can find some permanent parking space for his jag x type. He was a great character and today we are all a bit greyer as a result.

RIP, Mr. Mayor.

At 9:55 AM, Anonymous Christopher said...

One of the readings for the class I am TAing for this year is from David Harvey's "Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference". Harvey articulated the difficulty in trying to talk about environmentalism across races in similar language when their lived experiences and the day to day struggle was so radically different among other things.

As you say, what was happening in the 1970s and 1980s in our cities is just so incomprehensible for a lot of people to understand and it was happening so fast and with the backdrop of growing economic insecurity and joblessness. People like Barry originally came into office just trying to deal with some of that economic/joblessness and racism issues from a bottom up perspective. On the other side of the economics of city building changed someone radically as well which was fueled by the white banking sector. It certainly happened up here in NYC. The Rockefellers and the banking cabal took the state out of the funding scheme while devising all kinds of economic "solutions" that seemed to only really benefit themselves. Surprise.

So yeah the government of DC increased in size dramatically but unemployment, especially for people of color was increasing so rapidly too. Maybe in retrospect that wasn't the right solution but it was immediate relief while on the other side of the coin, you had urban growth machine dangling carrots in form of big money which was also needed. The present hasn't been kind to that era in the cities, but I think the longer view on that will change as people start to grasp the forces at play.

At 1:31 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I'll have to read that Harvey book... another book _Black Social Capital_ about school reform in Baltimore makes similar points, that Blacks came to power just as the resources of cities were dropping precipitously, employment was dropping, and the cataclysmic effects on schools. And W.J. Wilson lays out the case of the decline in employment.

DC was a bit different because the city wasn't a manufacturing center.

But look at how few African-Americans we see on construction sites in the city, and construction is the city's major heavy industry (other than transit).

Of course, now with globalization and digitization, the same kind of employment destruction in the 1960s-1970s, is being experienced by middle class professions now.

Even certain things in construction. E.g., I couldn't have imagined they'd build in China! monstrous bridge spans for the new bridge in SF and ship them to the US. (Of course, that turned out to be pretty problematic.)

At 1:34 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

charlie, I had to thumb through the book. It's been a long time I guess and my memory could have been better. It's chapter 7.

At 1:42 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

And about "the comments," I can't say I ever voted for him. I gave money to Schwartz in 1994 when he ran again. When I first moved to the city in 1987, the city clearly was declining. But the real estate market was pretty strong (it tanked for 10 years starting in 1988-89). Capitol Hill was successful and "expanding." But the place that "the Theatre Church" recovered a long time later as a coffeehouse was never a crack house.

My H St. neighborhood was gnarly. We expected that with the renovation of Union Station (I think it opened in 1988) that the area was gonna improve, but it didn't, as the accumulated other problems hit critical mass.

But Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle, etc. continued to attract residents with choices, and year after year that built up to the point that when Williams became mayor, the city was on the cusp of a critical mass already being present to support changes.

Casey Anderson, now the Planning Board chair in MoCo, and I were talking about this a few years ago, and he avers that a lot of the growth in the 2000s was due to the post-9/11 spending on military, intelligence, surveillance, etc. (The Post did a big series a few years ago.)

But Williams did aim to refocus the city, and away from just giving jobs.

That's why there was great joy when Fenty won, figuring people could get jobs again, and then great antipathy when he gave jobs to his crew but not the old heads. That led to the movement toward Gray... I am not sure how the traditional "political tribes" feel about Muriel Bowser. Given her tutelage at her father's feet, they're probably comfortable.

At 9:25 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

somewhat on-topic:

Watched the execrable "80s in Washington" last night. Really useful reinder that the CRE market in DC was booming in the 80s -- along with many other cities.And gentrification was afoot in Dupont etc.

At 12:39 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

keep meaning to watch that program, haven't caught it yet.

At 12:52 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

The LA Times provides a link to the famous 1990 profile of Barry by reporter Bella Stumbo.

At 12:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Barry started out as a bridge builder then he went down the tubes as he got sucked into the coke snorting wealthy developer cadre and the shakedown Al Sharpton divisive political scammers. He was an intelligent guy who was seduced by backwards and regressive types and the city sufferred because of his shenannigans and we are only now emerging from this chaos of self imposed isolation and stupidity.

At 12:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the worst aspect of "gentrification" is the transformation of previously mixed use buildings into sterile residential only blocks as has happened in areas Capitol Hill and in Charlestown Boston which both once had thriving mixed use neighborhoods and cultures. gentrification made these areas into more car dependent and moncultural lackluster dead zones.

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