Georgenes is located in the middle of a ward that’s been through many cycles and now sits on the precipice of another: A few hundred yards down Martin Luther King Avenue, the federal government is building new headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security and the Coast Guard. They’re the biggest federal construction projects in the nation.
In the decades before the 1950s, Anacostia was home to middle- and working-class whites, many of them first-generation Washingtonians. Irish, Jewish, and Greek immigrants grew up together. Anacostia High was all white. The oldest Jewish cemetery in DC is on Alabama Avenue. Blacks were a small minority.
But in the last 50 years, Anacostia has become home to Washington’s permanent underclass. Ward 8 leads the city in violent crime, infant mortality, and unemployment, which stands at 22.5 percent. Nearly half the children live in poverty.
These statistics applied in 1978 when Barry was first elected mayor, in 1992 when he was first elected Ward 8 council member, in 2004 when voters elected him again, and now in 2012.
Marion Barry touts the “new Ward 8” every chance he gets.
“We in Ward 8, under my leadership, have made tremendous progress in providing countless job opportunities, affordable housing, home ownership,” he writes in the Liberator, his newsletter. “We’ve spent billions of dollars on health care. We’ve given Ward 8 a facelift—changing the physical look from extremely negative to extremely positive.”
Indeed, things are beginning to change. Old Town Anacostia, near the Anacostia Metro stop, has new stores, and city-government offices have set up shop on Good Hope Road. There are pockets of new housing. The city has demolished notorious housing projects. The ward now has a Giant supermarket.
“Marion takes pride in taking people around Ward 8, showing them the new IHOP and Giant,” says Denise Rolark Barnes. “But I don’t know how much credit he can take for any of the improvements.”
Other city leaders have done much to turn Ward 8 around, with or without Barry.
Mayor Anthony Williams, Adrian Fenty’s predecessor, promoted new housing developments. He started moving city agencies across the Anacostia River. His government encouraged development of the shopping center around the new Giant. His plan to relocate the Department of Housing and Community Development came to fruition under Fenty.
It was Fenty who crusaded for rebuilding and reforming the city’s public schools, an effort that has resulted in millions of dollars in improvements to Ward 8 schools.
When it came to reviving United Medical Center, the ward’s only full-service hospital, it was David Catania, not Barry, who came to the rescue.
And it was DC’s congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who lobbied for years to land the DHS and Coast Guard projects on federal property that was the campus of St. Elizabeths. She has held countless community meetings, and she monitors the hiring practices of the contractors to try to get jobs for DC residents.
Barry’s role has been to complain about the lack of jobs for his residents. He calls himself the job czar, but has he created any jobs or job-training programs?
“We simply do not see it,” says Ward 8 activist Phil Pannell.
Therein lies the problem.
With the man in eclipse, the city thirsts for a new leader. A Cory Booker? Someone like Philadelphia’s Michael Nutter or Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel?
Jauhar Abraham might remind you of the Marion Barry of 1965.
Abraham is a rabble-rouser. He speaks for the disenfranchised. He’s a street activist legitimized by a nonprofit funded by the government. Barry’s was Pride Inc.; Abraham cofounded Peaceoholics, which helped broker truces among rival gangs before it ran into criticism over management and finances.
Abraham wants to take his activism to the political level. He’s running against Barry in the November general election.
“Marion is selling these people out,” Abraham says of Ward 8 residents. “He doesn’t have answers to fix their problems. He doesn’t have the energy. What he has is rhetorical skills. He has no real relationships with these people, but his name is so big, he gets by.”
But for all their similarities, Jauhar Abraham is no Marion Barry. He lacks Barry’s charisma, his political genius. Barry is truly sui generis, never to be replicated.
Abraham, 45, has little chance of beating Barry at the polls. But he was born and raised in Ward 8, and he hopes to rally the poor and disenfranchised—just as Barry did.
Abraham started out in DC schools, and most of his friends are products of the system.
“Many of my classmates are either addicted to drugs, in jail, or dead,” he says. “The one thing we had in common? We went to DC public schools since the 1970s, when Barry had a leadership role.
“I’m not mad at Marion,” Abraham says. “I love Marion. He just doesn’t operate in the best interests of his people anymore.”
This article appears in the November 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.