People around the nation who’ve never met Marion Barry nevertheless have strong opinions about him as a symbol of an era in DC, but he was also a man who touched many lives in many different ways. Our contributors look back at their memories of the “Mayor for Life.”
Nick Keenan: I first saw him in person in the late 1990’s. I was living in Shaw, the Convention Center was in the planning stages, and it was hugely controversial. There had been a series of public meetings which had grown increasingly heated, and the last one had ended in a near-riot after about ten minutes.
I still remember the president of the civic association standing on a table and blowing a whistle, trying to restore order (why he had brought a whistle to the meeting remains a mystery). Allen Lew had brought a detailed 3D model to the meeting, and I remember him scurrying out, obviously relieved and somewhat surprised that his expensive model had escaped the angry crowd.
It was against this backdrop that Marion Barry came into the neighborhood a few weeks later, to talk with us about the Convention Center.
He had an almost magical effect on the crowd. His charisma was obvious. The crowd was generally hostile, but he won them over. “We’re not going to get anywhere,” he started, “with people yelling at each other. I’m going to have an assistant hand out cards, and if you have a question or a comment write it on a card, and I will read them all.”
And like that, it was over. People had come for a raucous meeting, but they were going to get a bunch of questions read off cards. Or course he never did read all of the questions, but it didn’t matter. The Convention Center was approved a few months later.
Veronica Davis: My most vivid memory of Marion Barry was at the Ward 7 Economic Development Summit held last year. He sat next to me at the table as we discussed the future of Ward 7. This was my first time being able to have a one-on-one conversation with him about development. Although I disagreed with some of his ideas, I did not interrupt him. I sat there quietly listening to him and learning from him.
Marion Barry and I both had a hobby of live tweeting the TV show Scandal. One episode he and I were having a Twitter conversation trying to guess the mole. After giving my theory, he tweeted back “Now you’re thinking politically.” Granted, it was only Twitter, but I felt as if he had given me a gold star.
A common description throughout all the tributes to Marion Barry is he was a complex man. Despite his faults, he was fascinating and above all charming. There were times I found myself as one of his critics and others I was one of his defenders. He was indeed complex. There is no doubt he will be remembered as a legend.
John Muller: Growing up in the periphery of Washington City, I heard constant chatter of “Mary and Barry.” It was not until grade school I understood “Marion Barry” was one person, the powerful and controversial Mayor of DC. Years later, as a local journalist I found myself covering Barry as the Ward 8 Councilmember.
Two memories particularly stand out that speak to the pathos of how and why Barry was near universally beloved in Ward 8. While putting the finishing touches on a story years ago about the Big K saga for East of the River I got a call from Barry around 9:30 pm. “John, I hear you’re writing about Big K. I gotta get in that story.” We spoke for 30 minutes. I obliged his request.
Last year as Barry entered one of the hundreds of community meetings I’ve covered, He saw me hanging near the back and offered his hand. “Congratulations on your book, John. We need to do a better job of honoring Frederick Douglass. You’ve done a great thing for this community.”
To be recognized by Barry was, for the fleetingness of moments, to be caught up in his star-crossed relationship with Washington City. For many of the last, lost and least in our city who struggle with issues of illiteracy, employment, substance abuse, and housing Barry’s mere acknowledgement of their existence was enough to overlook his personal demons and the failure of city leadership — often his leadership — to change circumstances of their lives.
Brent Bolin: I had crossed paths with Barry a few times in my Anacostia River work, but we activists were turning up the heat on the issue of remediating toxics in the river and scheduled a press conference for the week before the 2010 primary. We stood on one of the toxic sites on the banks of the river and challenged all of the councilmembers to sign a pledge that by the end of their terms there would be a plan in place to deal with the toxics (knowing the actual remediation would take years and years).
Ironically most electeds were just down the river at a Yards Park event, and then a few came upstream to our press conference — Chairman Gray, Marion Barry, Tommy Wells, and Harry Thomas. The press conference was on a dirt lot literally on the riverbank with a few cars parked along the side, and as a group of us waited for officials and press to arrive a Jaguar pulls up and parks smack in the middle of the site.
I was standing some distance away at angle thinking, who the heck is parking in the middle of the event? And then of course the Mayor For Life nonchalantly gets out of the car (even more nonchalantly than he parked) and starts chatting folks up like he owns the place (because he does). And here’s the kicker sure to please the GGW crowd: a few minutes later Tommy Wells rolled up on his bike. The contrasting arrivals make me chuckle to this day.
Mr. Barry was coming off a serious illness and I’d heard some people say he had lost a step as a result, but as we talked I found him sharp as could be, and funny, and he really knew a lot about the river. I emailed the below picture to pretty much everyone.
Photo by Brent Bolin.
And you: Did you interact with Marion Barry personally as more than just a legend, an icon, a caricature, or a symbol? Post your recollections in the comments.