Dreams of home rule falling apart in D.C.

March 16, 1995|By WILEY A. HALL

When I was a kid, the Riggs Plaza Shopping Center in Northeast Washington, D.C. seemed a thriving place. But that was almost 30 years ago.

Today, Riggs Plaza resembles a vast, concrete wasteland. Most of the stores are boarded up. Trash blows across the parking lot like desert tumbleweeds. The mall's decline offers a fitting metaphor for my troubled hometown.

Washington faces a budget shortfall of $722 million. Mayor Marion Barry has threatened to cut the city's work force by 5,000 people. Those layoffs would follow layoffs and reductions in force by both the federal and district governments since the mid-1980s.

Yet Congress, which oversees district affairs, warns that the mayor's proposed cuts are not nearly enough to resolve the budget crises.

Meanwhile, the city is at or near the top on each measure of what I call the Misery Index: It is a leader in homicides, drug addiction and unemployment. Small businesses such as those at Riggs Plaza are failing in record numbers. Neighborhoods are crumbling.

And some D.C. residents seem ready to surrender the right to govern themselves that they had fought so hard to obtain 20 years ago.

"Look, man, I'll tell you the truth," Alvin Burnett is saying with passion. "We ought to hang it up, admit defeat and give D.C. back to Maryland and Virginia."

"We can't just give up," I protest.

"Why not?" demands Mr. Burnett. "Home rule was a joke from the start. It couldn't work when we got it. It doesn't work now. It'll never work. Like I said, we ought to just hang it all up."

We were sitting in the Riggs Plaza Barber Shop, the only store at Riggs Plaza still in operation. Mr. Burnett's father has owned the shop for nearly a decade.

"Congress dealt us a loaded deck, man," Mr. Burnett continues. "With home rule, they gave us the responsibilities but not the resources. This city is hurting, man. We've got to do something."

There were three other men in the shop. One man said he has been unemployed for nearly nine months.

"I'm just the beginning of the wave," the man kept saying, speaking of impending layoffs. "Just the beginning of the wave."

Washington reminds me of the 1989 documentary, "Roger & Me." In that movie, filmmaker Michael Moore compared the euphoria of his hometown, Flint, Mich., during the auto industry's boom years with the economic desolation caused by the industry's cutbacks in the 1980s.

In Washington, we felt pretty euphoric about home rule at the beginning. We saw it as a chance to prove to a skeptical society that blacks could manage a big city government. We saw it as a chance to ensure fairness in employment, quality schools, representation on the City Council; it seemed to be the first big rTC step toward the full citizenship blacks in Washington had been denied historically.

For a while, those dreams seemed to come true. The metropolitan area surrounding Washington is home to the most affluent, best-educated blacks in America, most of whom work for either the municipal or federal government. The promise of career opportunities made the area a Mecca for black professionals, just as the promise of blue-collar federal jobs made it a Mecca for blacks in the 1930s and 1940s.

But today, the city's critics contend that local officials overspent and over-promised. And the residents I spoke with reluctantly agree.

"I don't feel we [blacks] have anything to prove to anyone," growled Gregory W. Tate, Jr. "So, if something doesn't work it doesn't work. Tough. Cut your losses. Move on."

We were in the 700 block of Oglethorpe Street, where I grew up. The place hadn't changed much. Oglethorpe Street remains a working class community of semi-detached brick homes, carefully kept lawns, brick porches shielded by aluminum awnings. Most households on the street contain at least one government employee. For them, the threat of layoffs looms like a dark cloud.

"Home rule didn't create all these problems," Mr. Tate tells me, "but it is time to admit that it may not be the solution."

Mr. Tate says this with a profound and heavy sadness -- as though pronouncing the death of a dream. He might well have been.

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