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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Washington

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Friday, June 28, 2002
From the Field
York John


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Pictures from Washington

Daffodils grace the lawn of Capitol Hill in the Spring. Photo: Tim Sloan/AFP

Cherry trees blossom along the Tidal Basin in Washington.
Photo: Shawn Thew/AFP


WASHINGTON - When I first arrived in Washington a year ago, I was nervous. Like many Canadians, I held a late-night-newscast image of American cities: of fires and shootings, of abandoned, burnt-out downtowns, of corrupt or incompetent local politicians, of angry ghettoes and gated enclaves.

"It's a chronic, low-level civil war," a friend explained a decade ago, as we sat in a Houston restaurant complete with shotgun-toting security guard.

Yet the Washington apartment I looked at last July was very fine, though horribly expensive, and the street was leafy and calm. Since Americans love to talk, especially Americans in bars, I wandered to the nearest one and asked the bartender what he thought of the address. Before long, the whole place was involved in a spirited discussion of recent Washington history.

"Five years ago, I wouldn't have gone near that street after dark."

"But not now."

"No, it's fine now. Lucky guys who bought there 10 years ago…."

One fellow put down his beer and declared: "We're taking this city back, one block at a time."

More than any other thing since I arrived here, I have been astonished by the revival of American downtowns, especially Washington. Formerly run-down neighbourhoods are burgeoning. With a good new civic administration, sensible investments in infrastructure and plummeting crime rates, decades of population decline in the District of Columbia have finally been reversed, and formerly derelict streets are turning into the hottest addresses in town.

"I bought my house in Dupont for $35,000," a taxi driver chortled as we toured Cap Hill, the latest neighbourhood renascent. "I sold it for $250,000." He's enjoying his suburban home with its swimming pool. A young IT type is enjoying his old - now fully renovated - house.

Yet, though urban renewal is hardly a zero-sum game, it has its winners and losers. After the Martin Luther King riots of 1968 damaged or destroyed most of the east side of downtown, much of the remainder of the middle-class fled, and poor black and Hispanic families filled the void. Now, as rents and property-taxes skyrocket, they are under increasing pressure to move out. Owners enjoy a capital gain windfall, but for renters, only the landlord profits.

Still, if a city must have a problem, this is the problem to have. Cities need solid tax bases if they are to revive their urban cores. Only middle-class taxpayers can provide that base. One local told the Washington Post that he had surprised himself by phoning city hall to complain about his garbage pickup. Five years ago, he said, garbage pickup was so erratic that it wasn't worth the bother to protest.

In my neighbourhood, the city just finished the restoration of a local park. The statue of the obscure general has been cleaned, the fountain restored, the grass replanted, the lights fixed, the park benches painted. On a warm Saturday afternoon, the place is packed with locals reading papers, eating bagels, tanning, checking each other out. This little miracle is happening all over town: in Logan Circle, in Cap Hill, in Adams-Morgan. Next up: Shaw, Mount Pleasant, downtown east.

The renewal of Washington and other American cities faces, however, one severe obstacle: the schools. Right now, single professionals and childless couples are driving the boom. Families mostly stay away. Too many inner-urban schools suffer from unqualified teachers, run-down facilities, low test scores.

The great urban challenge across America this decade will be to recover the inner-city public education system. The solution is obvious: good governance, infrastructure investment, a commitment by the community to invest and improve. Many cities across the United States are dissolving their school boards and putting the schools under the direct supervision of mayors of governors. It's a good first step.

There are other things to be done: the decline of Washington's downtown left it with a shortage of cinemas and department stores. Both are essential to a thriving inner city. And D.C. remains a city of islands, of revived neighbourhoods separated by no-man's-lands. There are still wide swaths of the city that are virtually uninhabited. And the racial divide between poor, black south-east and rich, white north-west remains. Washington is still two cities.

But obsessing on the challenges can keep us from appreciating how far we have come. On a fine Saturday evening, walking through Dupont after dinner, the streets alive with people, the gracious Victorian townhomes bathed in the streetlights, it is possible to believe that Washington has returned, that this is a city with a thrilling future before it, that this is a city it is possible to love.

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