John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Washington, D.C.: From Embarrassment to National Treasure

Posted on January 22, 2014

Over the weekend, the Washington Post had a fascinating survey about how DC residents felt about changes in their neighborhood.

Here is an excerpt from that story:
“In a new Washington Post poll, a majority of D.C. residents say their neighborhood has gotten better in recent years — the first time in 26 years of polling that a majority has expressed such optimism. But there is also broad consensus that the city’s surging population, rising affluence and diminished crime are ultimately good for people with money and of little benefit to those without. After a decade of frenetic demographic change — the population of Bloomingdale’s Zip code, 20001, went from 6 percent white in 2000 to 33 percent white in 2010 — Washingtonians’ views about gentrification are polarized along racial and economic lines: Among whites, 77 percent say redevelopment has been a good thing, but 53 percent of blacks say it has not. Large majorities hail gentrification’s impact in five of the city’s eight wards; only in Wards 7 and 8, east of the Anacostia River, do most people say the changes have been for the worse (Ward 4 is split). Those making $65,000 and more embrace gentrification overwhelmingly; the lowest-income residents decidedly do not.”

That gentrification is happening on in the nation’s Capitol is undeniable.

When I first moved to DC in 1990, my neighborhood was a war zone.  Muggings were a constant fact of life.  A couple of kids who worked on the Hill were murdered.  You could hear police helicopters searching for criminals at all hours of the night.

Things got so bad during the Marion Berry years that I moved to the safety of Virginia.

Some folks might be nostalgic for the bad old days, but not me.

I moved back to DC around the turn of the century, just as Tony Williams came into office.  Williams seemed like a different kind of Mayor from his predecessors.  He liked the business community, he wasn’t overtly hostile to white residents, and he had a plan to bring development back into the city.

The Williams plan has turned out to exceed everybody’s expectations.

I moved back into my old neighborhood and believe it or not,  two super grocery stores are moving within blocks of my house (a Harris Teeter and a Whole Foods).  The Catholic grade school where I send my son recently garnered a Blue Ribbon from the Department of Education and the local public grade school is every bit of a good choice, if you want to go that route.  New restaurants are opening up every day, as are other fun places for families to visit, like pop-up water parks, an ice rink, and a movie theater.

These places benefit everybody, not just rich people.

We still have our fair share of crime on Capitol Hill, but it isn’t nearly what it once was.

I guess it is harder to find illicit drugs, the notorious strip clubs are closed down, and you don’t find hookers on the corner any more, but beyond these dubious businesses, I can’t see how redevelopment and gentrification has hurt anybody, except in one crucial respect:  rent has gone up in most places and it is pretty hard to find a good sized house for under a half million dollars on the Hill.

But the progress in the District of Columbia has been remarkable.  And it has been overwhelmingly positive, even if some of its residents refuse to see it that way.

The Washington Post story helped to detail some the negative reaction to a city that is rapidly becoming a safer and better place to live:
For 29 years, JoAnn Perkins’s church has salved the neighborhood with music, prayer and charity giveaways .  Until recently, Perkins says, 'the folk in the community were actually the recipients of the toys and the turkey giveaway.' But lately, the people who come for edible and spiritual sustenance are traveling from the city’s outskirts.

“'We love Bloomingdale, but our mission is to help people who need the resources,' Perkins says. She is grateful that the new restaurants and bars collect and donate toys, and she’s pleased that affluent newcomers stop by to offer help. But she wonders whether it makes sense to be where her services are no longer so essential.

"Perkins wishes the city had found ways to let low-income residents stay where they’ve always lived, but she sees larger economic forces at work, forces beyond the control of a mayor. 'It’s all the people’s obligation to equalize the playing field,' she says. 'As for Vincent Gray, well, let’s just say he’s a work in progress.'

"Michelle McKenzie shares Perkins’s predicament — the African American members of her storefront church increasingly live elsewhere — but doesn’t share Perkins’s diplomatic take on the mayor. In the year she’s been inviting people into her Messianic Covenant Church, McKenzie has met many black residents who say rising rents and taxes are pushing them out to Prince George’s County.

"'Mayor Williams put things in motion according to The Plan, because this is the nation’s capital and it shouldn’t look so poor,' McKenzie says. 'Vincent Gray may have tried to be more fair, but he wasn’t successful. He just let The Plan continue. So I don’t know who to vote for.'”

To this sentiment, former Mayor Williams has a ready response:
"The former mayor gets impatient with those who say gentrification benefits only the rich. 'The research shows that a neighborhood with new investment is a neighborhood that provides role models and benefits all residents,' he says. 'When I’m on the X2 bus crosstown now, I see a range of incomes. When the mothers on the bus point me out to their kids as the ex-mayor, I’m a role model. How is that not good? How is it not good to have a mix of people in neighborhoods? I’m not getting that.'”

I don’t get it either.

Washington D.C. was a national embarrassment for too many years.  Now, outside of the political shenanigans that go on inside the Halls of Congress and in the White House, D.C. is becoming a national treasure, a great city, a safe place to visit for tourists, and an even better place to live for residents.

I find it sad that some people refuse to see this evident progress as a step forward.