Marion Barry was Chocolate City. During his four terms as mayor of the nation’s capital, he presided over the District of Columbia like a flamboyant monarch. He was the face and swagger of African-American empowerment and pride — and its beneficiaries nearly always forgave him for his failings.
Barry did not, however, die in Chocolate City.
When he collapsed and died on Sunday, he departed a D.C. that has been undergoing a seismic shift in its racial makeup, prosperity and place in our country.
The scales of the city tipped two years ago, around the time that D.C.’s Deputy Prime Minister of Music, go-go Godfather Chuck Brown, died. Barry and Brown: You can’t find more potent end-of-an era symbols than these.
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After Brown left life’s stage and a Trader Joe’s opened near the epicenter of the 1968 riots, Chocolate City has been recreating its identity as Latte Land. And this new D.C. is home to a scandal just as shocking as the crack hit Barry took in a hotel room in 1990.
About 1,000 people move into the city every month. Most of them are white, young, childless and relatively affluent. To them, Chocolate City is a craft brewery with a Mister Mayor stout flavored with marionberries. And Barry himself was a hilarious punch line.
What’s forgotten in the caricature of Barry was the city he helped create — a place of opportunity for African Americans on every rung of the economic ladder, a place where the shop owners, the police officers, the teachers, the council members were black.
But in recent years, as the city’s population shifted and many middle-class black residents moved to Prince George’s County in Maryland, Chocolate City gave way to the Two Washingtons and the kind of gap between rich and poor that we associate with developing countries.
You can see it on the eastern edge of Capitol Hill, where Barry lived when he was elected mayor for the first time in 1978. The block — once almost entirely black — is now home to lots of young, white professionals and their families. It’s where I take my kids to lacrosse practice and my dog to play at the fenced-in dog park.
The new D.C. is there, and it’s on H Street NE and 14th Street NW, where barber shops and struggling mom-and-pop stores have been replaced by fancy new boutiques, glamorous restaurants and expensive condos.
Meanwhile, east of the Anacostia River, longtime residents suffer and struggle. This is the Washington of Relisha Rudd, the missing 8-year-old who spent almost two years in an abandoned hospital filled with hundreds of homeless children and their families before she vanished. There, in the ward which Barry represented on the D.C. Council, poverty has become ever more concentrated and residents have become ever more desperate.
This is where unemployment is 17.7 percent, compared to 8.1 percent in the rest of the city. This is where there are only four grocery stores, compared to 11 in mostly white, affluent Northwest D.C. This is where half the children live in poverty, half the families don’t have a car and more than 42,000 people are on food stamps.
At a recent council hearing, as I was talking to a woman who used to live in Barry’s ward until she and her child landed in a homeless shelter, she squealed and jumped up in the middle of our interview.
“It’s him!” she gasped. I turned around expected Drake or President Obama. It was Barry. The woman was aglow.
Barry took the dais and spoke passionately about the way she and others have been left behind, how they need affordable housing and good jobs. The people in his own, smaller and more desperate version of Chocolate City.
After the city finishes mourning Barry, it will inaugurate a new mayor, Muriel Bowser, who will have to find a way to address the disparities between the Two Washingtons. More children are living in poverty today than they were 25 years ago, when the crack epidemic was raging and Barry went to jail.
This stark divide between the haves and the have-nots is the real scandal in the nation’s capital. The District’s leaders, who will be praising Barry’s legacy in the weeks to come, have to get to work and find a way to bridge those inequities, making this one city of opportunity and prosperity for everyone.
Petula Dvorak is a Washington Post Metro columnist.
© 2014, The Washington Post