Marion Barry's Legacy Of Crime and Decay

LOCAL media reports on crime in the District of Columbia's prosperous sections often mention the distance from the incident to the city limits.

The story might run like this: ``Frank Johnson, 47, of Chevy Chase, was held up at knife point Sunday outside a convenience story on upper Wisconsin Avenue, two blocks from the district line.'' What the reporter appears to mean, of course, is that poor Frank was only two blocks from Maryland - and safety.

That Washington is the new Dodge City is a conceit now accepted even by most residents. The city's high murder rate is hard to argue with. As reporters Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood document in their interesting new book ``Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C.,'' the D.C. police have lost control of whole neighborhoods.

Lines waiting to buy cocaine can stretch to 100 people in open-air drug markets on busy days. The city continues to lose residents to its suburbs.

But crime in the nation's capital is largely a burden on the underclass. The middle class and wealthy areas of town are still relatively safe. They are likely to remain so, as the federal government is a stable employer that isn't itself about to relocate.

The unique tragedy of Washington, as ``Dream City'' documents, is that its local political structure has failed residents over the past two decades. The police force is demoralized; city finances are a farce; services are decaying. Current Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly has not helped things, but Jaffe and Sherwood blame the man who dominated D.C. politics for years, and may do so again - former mayor Marion Barry.

Expecting Barry to have made Washington function at an ideal level may be unrealistic, write the authors, ``but there's no reason it had to sink to the level of poverty, infirmity, and fear that it occupies today,'' they conclude.

Jaffe and Sherwood portray Barry as an intelligent opportunist, a Mississippi native and veteran of the civil-rights wars who saw in Washington a power vacuum that he could fill.

The vacuum was almost total. In the modern era, Washington was granted home rule by Congress only in 1973. A century of control by often-racist congressional committees had created a ``leaderless, passive city full of politically docile people,'' according to the authors.

There were no precinct captains honed by years of filling potholes. But even after home rule passed there was little incentive for ambitious Washingtonians to enter politics. The office of mayor was as far as they could go; without statehood there were, and are, no real Senate seats or governor's chair to vie for. Thus Barry seized control of the city, and became, in the City Paper's cutting phrase, Mayor-for-Life.

The bulk of this book tracks the gradual unraveling of his administration. The fast-life aspect of Barry's decline is well-known, but Jaffe and Sherwood also illustrate the less-noticed, and more serious, problem of the steady financial corruption of Barry's closest intimates.

Cutting the public-safety budget and shuffling officers for political reasons may be Barry's worst legacy to the city, judge the authors - leaving a ``dispirited and desperate'' force to fight the explosion of drug violence that began in the late 1980s.

Jail for possession of cocaine has not ended Barry's political career. He is currently a city council member for the poorest ward in the city, and is already a candidate for the fall mayoral election.

Anyone who reads ``Dream City'' will conclude his reelection would be a disaster for Washington - and that such a victory is clearly possible for this resourceful and driven man.

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