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Life in D.C.:To Leave It or Love It?

Blacks are fleeing Washington for suburbs in growing numbers, but people of all races are finding reasons to stay .

FROM a modest office at East River Park Shopping Center, Lloyd Smith is trying to save his neighborhood, Marshall Heights. It lies in the heart of Ward 7, one of the poorest sections of the District of Columbia, with an infant-mortality rate higher than Uruguay's and more than 50 murders so far this year.

But the area also has solid middle-class sections. And keeping those families from fleeing to the suburbs - a trend among D.C.'s majority African-American population that has accelerated in the 1990s - is as much a part of Mr. Smith's goal as creating jobs and affordable housing.

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In 14 years, Smith's Marshall Heights Community Development Organization has a record for getting things done. It turned a dying East River Park into the largest shopping center in northeast Washington, and has won prestigious grants targeting social problems.

But Smith is racing against time.

``In the last census, we lost more population than any other ward,'' he says. ``These are working-class people with jobs and options.... We've got to show some real changes in schools and crime before we're going to convince the middle class to stay and move in.''

Schools and crime. These are the top reasons why D.C. residents head out - and why the almost entirely black Ward 7 lost 15 percent of its population, more than 13,000 people, during the 1980s.

Overall, migration out of the city is accelerating. In the last three years, the United States Census Bureau estimates, Washington has lost more than 29,000 people, bringing the population down to 577,000. For all of the 1980s, D.C. lost 31,000 people. This means a loss of taxpayers, especially painful for a city heading toward insolvency, and the loss of a middle class that provides the backbone of many communities. Heading for Insolvency, D.C. Seeks Firm Leadership

But even if Ward 7 represents some of the hardest challenges for D.C. leaders, all Washingtonians are reminded daily of the city's problems. The Department of Public and Assisted Housing is so ineffective that it has been ordered into federal receivership. A record number of police are under indictment. The schools need $583 million to bring their infrastructure up to an acceptable standard. Even D.C.'s mail service is ranked the worst in the nation.

By the end of the decade, the city's financial crisis could lead to federal receivership, or at least the appointment of an oversight commission a la New York City in the 1970s, experts on D.C. finances say. Both would deal an embarrassing setback to the city's ``home rule'' self-management that began in 1974.

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And this fall, D.C. may elect Marion Barry, a convicted felon and former drug addict, as its mayor.

How did the District of Columbia, the capital of the free world and backyard of the nation's leaders, get into this situation? How can it pull itself out?

Some of D.C.'s problems are endemic to big US cities, and in many ways, Washington is better off than most. The city always loses when compared with its Maryland and Virginia suburbs on crime, schools, and income, but then they're among the richest suburbs in the country.

But D.C. has unique problems as well, some born of its status as a federal enclave dependent on Congress for financial support. The city receives an annual payment to cover federal tasks performed locally and to compensate for the high level of nontaxable work that takes place here. But on the negative side, D.C. inherited, with home rule, some unfunded federal debts, such as pensions, that on their own could bankrupt the city.

Dwight Cropp, former secretary of the D.C. government, argues that ``the problems go back to the pre-home-rule days when Congress treated D.C. as just another federal agency.''

Members of Congress handed out D.C. government jobs to their constituents as patronage, and the bureaucracy swelled. Because the city followed federal budget schedules that allow for deficit spending, financial discipline was not enforced. When home rule was established, a new government was grafted on the old, and the number of employees grew.

By 1990, there was 1 worker for every 11 residents, a figure higher than 80 percent of city governments in the US, says William Niskanen, chairman of the Washington-based Cato Institute who has studied D.C.'s finances. City officials argue that their government needs to be bigger because, unlike other cities, it is covering the functions of state and county governments in addition to local.

But when asked about the city's fiscal crisis, many challengers for office cite mismanagement, not a lack of money. They blame past and current leaders, including Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, who is fighting an uphill battle to win the Democratic nomination on Sept. 13, and former Mayor Marion Barry, who brought shame on the city with his drug conviction and is now mounting a strong effort to regain his old job. Ms. Kelly's other prime challenger, John Ray, is a 16-year District Council member whom supporters describe as thoughtful and intelligent but not an electric campaigner.

It remains to be seen if any candidate is really prepared to ``rebuild D.C. government from the ground up,'' as Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.'s delegate in Congress, says is needed.

``We have to change the mindset which is that we can meander on and approach things from a mediocre perspective and Congress will take care of us,'' says Mr. Cropp, now with George Washington University here.

Council member Kevin Chavous, who represents Ward 7, says D.C.'s young civic culture and small ``farm team'' for developing leaders have added to its leadership problems. Unlike states, which have town, county, and state governing bodies in which to grow leadership skills, D.C. has only its city council and school board in which to groom mayors.

``People are tired of the same old faces,'' says Mr. Chavous, himself under 40. ``It's time for new leaders. We need to get rid of the stranglehold at the top.''

Serving on advisory neighborhood commissions - voluntary citizens' councils instituted with home rule - can provide an avenue for political growth. But in some commissions, seats sit vacant. And for the November elections, 60 percent of the seats still have no candidates.

Beyond the negative label

Sometimes District residents feel like the Rodney Dangerfields of American city-dwellers. Why, outsiders ask, would anyone willingly live in the Murder Capital of the US? Even if D.C. no longer holds the title - and its murder rate is well behind last year's - the label has stuck.

In fact, Washington has a lot going for it. It has a large professional black population, the wealthiest and best-educated of any American city. D.C.'s median household income is $31,000, ranked fifth of the nation's 25 largest cities. The city's poverty rate of 16.9 percent places D.C. at 17th of 25. Washington ranks third for college graduates, at 33 percent.

Even though some federal agencies have relocated to the suburbs, or beyond, most of the government remains in D.C. - an employer that isn't going to pack up wholesale and move off-shore.

``I'm not crying in my soup for D.C.,'' Delegate Norton says. ``It has a large middle class, black and white. What's different is its stable white population, very high income, which stays for love and not money.''

In fact, while D.C. has been losing blacks - who still account for 2/3 of the population - it has been gaining whites, making it unique among Eastern-seaboard cities, University of Michigan demographer William Frey says. The 1990 census also showed gains among Hispanics and Asians.

More at home in an urban setting

When Lairold Street and Kathy Ferger had their first child, they were living downtown in Dupont Circle. But their apartment grew crowded, and they faced the classic choice of professionals with kids: stay in D.C. or head for the suburbs.

D.C. won. As an interracial couple, they were concerned about racism in the better-off suburbs. Mr. Street also liked the idea of a short bus commute. So, for a reasonable price, they found a nice suburban-style house with a yard in an integrated neighborhood east of the city's central Rock Creek Park.

For many whites in D.C., ``east of the park'' is code for undesirable, a little too close to rougher parts of town. But the Ferger-Streets are comfortable there, especially with their two children in a good public school west of the park.

``If we heard shots every night and bullets were coming through our windows, then I'd reconsider,'' Ferger says. ``But this is a stable neighborhood.''

``If we moved to a white community, we'd feel isolated,'' adds Street, who is black. ``Whites are not comfortable in an integrated situation, but I've adapted.''

D.C.'s suburbs are littered with former city-dwellers who witnessed one too many crimes or got tired of clearing used needles from the alleys. But for every refugee, there are others who find much to like here.

Walter Malone, a contractor who just finished renovating his own row house in a middle-class black neighborhood, says business is booming. ``For the last year and a half, people have been fixing up their houses more,'' he says. ``The economy is doing better, which means a lot more money is circulating.''

``This is a great national city, a crossroads of the country,'' says Stephen Strickland, president of the National Peace Foundation, who has lived in tony Woodley Park for 30 years.

But Mr. Strickland is worried about the city's future. He grew up in Birmingham, Ala., and saw first-hand the debilitating effects of racial segregation.

``Of all my problems with Marion Barry - and I voted for him the first time he ran - he's become a race-monger,'' says Strickland, comparing him to former Alabama Governor George Wallace. ``I don't want to live in a city with a racial divide. It's un-American, really.''

The race issue in D.C. is usually not discussed openly, but always lurks below the surface. Some say the story of D.C. is one of ``haves'' vs. ``have-nots,'' not blacks vs. whites; it's just that the have-nots are black. Perceptions of race relations vary widely. Sam Smith, a liberal activist, calls it a case of ``parallel play,'' like children who do similar things next to one another with little interaction. Others cite D.C. as a model of integration.

Mayor Kelly, a native Washingtonian and upper-class, light-skinned black, moves much more comfortably in the richer regions west of the park than in Wards 7 and 8, the heart of Barry country. John Ray, though from a poor Southern background, is most warmly embraced in middle- and upper-income neighborhoods. The latest polls show Barry and Ray close, with Kelly trailing. The question is: Which parts of town will do best at getting out the vote, and will Kelly siphon enough support away from Ray to hand the primary - and probably the fall election - to Barry?

James Gibson, a former D.C. government official now working with a businessmen's coalition on a plan for the city's future, speaks excitedly about plans for a major sports arena in the old downtown. But his mood darkens when he looks at the city's leadership. Kelly's failing, Mr. Gibson says, was that ``she didn't have the public management skills ... and surrounded herself by people who don't say no when they need to say no.''

If Barry wins, ``we will be faced with national consternation and ridicule and a presumption that we are stupid as a constituency for electing him,'' Gibson says. The practical implications could be profound: The city needs top professionals in its government. Who is going to want to work for Barry, Gibson asks. Relations with Congress would also start in an especially difficult position, he adds.

But back in a housing project in Ward 7, Barry is ``the man.'' He's served his time, and he's redeemed himself, say residents of Stoddert Terrace, hanging out on a stoop minding children.

``Barry's gonna bring jobs,'' asserts a man who calls himself Cool Cat.

Interestingly, in interviews with D.C. residents running the gamut in income and education, statehood never comes up as part of the solution to the city's problems. When asked, Kathy Ferger says D.C.'s second-class status is a negative for her about life here. But that status seems more a theoretical bother than a real sore point for most Washingtonians. The district's pressing problems, it seems, have more to do with the bottom line than voting rights.

``People do not realize that there's a robustness about the district, [but] it is denied to the district's benefit,'' Gibson says. Seventy percent of the people who work in D.C. live outside the city - and their income is not taxable in the district. D.C. politicians have long wanted to impose a commuter tax on those people but believe it would never pass Congress.

In the meantime, Gibson thinks about the Chinese character for ``crisis'' when he ponders the future of D.C. ``It stands for danger,'' he says. ``But it also means opportunity.''

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