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Barry Shows Off The New Ward 8

Three mayors sought to remake Ward 8, home to Washington's poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods. One, Marion Barry, got nowhere but is widely beloved, hailed on the street as a champion of the needy. The next, Anthony Williams, utterly transformed the landscape, yet was treated as an arrogant outsider from Day One right up to his departure from office. The third, Adrian Fenty, eschews grand visions and emotional bonds, promising only to make things work. When he shows up on a Ward 8 street corner, he speaks mainly to the TV cameras and the scribblers; when Barry, now the ward's council member, drops by, the residents' attention quickly slides over from the current mayor to the eternal one.

Even now, in the final phase of the Barry era, the man who once dubbed himself The Situationist is playing his pragmatic brand of politics with consummate craft. The same man who railed against the evils of gentrification when Williams was replacing old housing projects with hundreds of new homes now embraces those developments as the heart of "the new Ward 8."

The same politician who once derided upscale retail and market-rate apartment projects as the vanguard of a yuppie takeover of working-class black neighborhoods is now an evangelist for a plan to transform national parkland at Poplar Point into a high-end retail and residential community.

Barry used to open any discussion of his home ward with a litany of metrics that spell out human misery -- the poverty, crime, health and literacy numbers that showed Ward 8 at the very bottom not only of the city, but of the nation. He still recites his stories about "the old Ward 8. Didn't have one supermarket. Didn't have one sit-down restaurant." But they serve only as prelude to a new tale, one of rapid change, even in this troubled national economy.

As Barry took me on a tour of his ward the other day, he pointed proudly to pricey houses ("I never thought in my lifetime I'd see a $450,000 house in Ward 8," he said,) to old public housing projects that have been bulldozed and replaced with suburban-style model homes, and to families who've been introduced to the joys and responsibilities of home ownership without taking on loans they cannot sustain. (In contrast to many surrounding areas, Ward 8 has seen relatively few foreclosures, largely because many working class families entered the ranks of homeowners here through government subsidies rather than adjustable-rate mortgages.)

In public settings, Barry still warns that "If we are not careful, we are going to become a city of the very, very rich and the very, very poor." But alone in his car, he sounds like a developer, touting the idea that bringing in residents with stable jobs and a stake in the community will do more to stabilize Southeast neighborhoods than any government giveaways.

The sheer number of new housing units under construction and planned for Ward 8 is staggering, especially in light of the For Sale signs now spreading like a bad infection through many Washington suburbs. Add the long-promised and now finally opened Giant store at the old Camp Sims site, a locally owned pancake house about to open in the same complex, and you have more reasons than you've had in half a century for families to choose this close-in piece of the District over suburban communities requiring much longer commutes.

Except, of course, for one big obstacle: The schools. "For a long time," Barry says, "they tried to bring developers here and nobody wanted to come because of the crime. But they took down the housing projects and the demographics just changed." Now, he says, the sky's the limit -- if parents can find good schools.

"Anthony Williams wanted 100,000 new residents in the city, mostly single and childless," Barry says. "That was his philosophy. My philosophy is try to keep people here, and the charter schools is the way to do it. If it weren't for the charter schools and the Catholic schools becoming charter schools, we'd be in very bad shape. If people have good, safe schools, they'll want to live here." Barry, who is now planning two charter schools of his own, is in a sense coming full circle, returning to his start as a community organizer.

He has not turned his back on his traditional constituency, the people he has long referred to lovingly as "the last and the least." But he has changed his rhetoric, talking less about public payments to the needy and more about the power of growth and mixed-income developments to lift up those on the lowest rungs of society.

Still, the poverty in Ward 8 is palpable. We stop at a red light and a 60-ish woman sidles up to Barry's window. "It's the mayor," she says. "I need $4."

"Y'all breaking me over here," Barry grumbles, with a smile.

He reaches into his pocket and counts out four singles, hands them through the window. "These people wearing me out," he says.

From the corner a few yards away, a middle-aged man calls out, "What's up, Barry? Got some for me?"

The light turns green, saving the ex-mayor a few bucks. Marion Barry rolls on, in search of the new Ward 8.

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By Marc Fisher |  July 31, 2008; 9:11 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Wow, $4.00 doesn't buy much crack.

Posted by: Doobie | July 31, 2008 9:47 AM

Any thoughts on Councilman Brown using his official parking spot for political purposes?

Posted by: Willie | July 31, 2008 11:32 AM

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