In the spring of 1994, Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, DC, by Tom Sherwood and Harry Jaffe, disclosed the tumult of corruption in the nation’s capital during the political career of Marion Barry.
Much has changed in the city since the book’s publication. Crime is down, population is up, the Green Line is complete. But much has not. Council members and the mayor are under federal investigation, communities east of the river suffer from rates of structural unemployment that are the highest in the country, and issues of race and class often polarize neighborhoods, schools, and development.
On Monday, October 17th, Greater Greater Washington is sponsoring a discussion with the book’s authors and moderated by Mike DeBonis of the Washington Post. The event will take place at the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Library starting at 7 pm, in the lower level meeting room.
Dream City probes the pathos of DC that by the late 1950s had become majority black, albeit with two distinct factions. A strong-middle class of largely government workers coexisted with a dependent class less than a generation removed from living in the alleys or deep South. Both divergent groups of the city’s black populace were equally subjugated by Democratic Southern segregationists that controlled all aspects of municipal government.
Due to the city’s status as a step-child of the Federal government, an indigenous political machine, unable to control patronage, was never able to emerge. When the city was awarded home rule in 1973, it was politically wide open as local elections had not been held in nearly a century.
Into this void, up stepped Marion Barry, the perpetual “situationalist,” and the rest is history. The book explores Barry’s record of drug use, womanizing, wooing the press corps, doling out minority contracts to the determinant of basic city services, raising campaign funds from white developers in exchange for selling off city land, crippling the police force, and growing the city payroll to 57,000 full-time employees according to the 1990 census (more than Los Angeles, a city greater than four times the size of DC).
After the book’s release, Barry embraced the veneer of Afrocentrism complete with dashiki and kofia and was elected to a fourth mayoral term. Today, he is a two-time incumbent Ward 8 council member slowly readying for the April 2012 Democratic primary.
Since its publication by Simon & Schuster, the book has grown in stature and become a must read (or re-read) for lay citizens, members of the press corps, and local politicians, many whom cite the book as their favorite book on the city. Previous works have exposed the underbelly of city life during different epochs such as Carp’s Washington focusing on the 1880s, Neglected Neighbors revealing stories of life in the alleys, tenements and shanties of the national capital, or Washington Goes to War
showing a city turned on its head as it mobilized for World War II.
We hope you can make it on the 17th.