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Black Flight

Saturday, April 1, 1995

W ashington is a city of monuments. Its grandest and most expensive is a work still in progress, but nearing completion: the District of Columbia itself, which commemorates the ruin of American liberalism.

The D.C. government is bankrupt today because liberal policies have decimated its tax base. Washington is a hollow community of extreme rich and poor. Landlords and private employers have fled by the thousands, followed by nearly the entire middle class of taxpayers. Although Washington is the center of one of the most dynamic information- based economies in the U.S, it has a declining population and a growing number of people below the poverty line. This year, twice as many households as in 1988 lack phones. In no other laboratory of democracy has the liberal experiment taken such pure form. Nowhere else have the results been so damning.

The District is perhaps the most liberal city in America. Nine of every 10 registered voters are Democrats, and the Socialist Workers Party fields more candidates for local office than the Republican Party. Conceived at the high tide of American liberalism, the District government is a product of its times, more concerned with the rights of groups than with the responsibilities of individuals. Many of the original office holders, political activists with no experience in private enterprise, are still in power today. The results are tragic. Among all U.S. states, the District has the highest per-capita murder and violent-crime rates, the highest percentage of residents on public assistance, the highest-paid school board, the lowest SAT scores, and the most single-parent families.

The political activists have built a government they can't afford. Although the city takes in an astounding $8,950 in revenue for every man, woman, and child in its jurisdiction (compared with $4,100 and $3,700 in nearby Maryland and Virginia, respectively), the District still manages to spend $1,000 more per person than it receives. The result is a budget deficit edging closer to $1 billion with each new audit.

The victims of this ferociously progressive government are not the wealthy and privileged, but the middle class and beleaguered. Today, in some parts of the city, it seems entire neighborhoods are for sale. In places like Shepherd Park, Lincoln Park, Marshall Heights--communities once redolent of African-American pride and history-- there are lonely streets whose only splash of color appears on the real-estate signs that seem to sprout from every other garden plot.

At the end of one of these streets stands the Florida Avenue Grill. From behind the counter of the often-crowded restaurant, Lacey Wilson Jr. has seen the District of Columbia ebb and flow. These days, it's mostly ebbing. Back in 1944, when Wilson's father opened his soul-food restaurant on the corner of Florida Avenue and 11th Street, near the LeDroit Park section of Northwest Washington, the city was a thriving community of educated descendants of freed slaves, flourishing family businesses, and urban sophistication. It was also a magnet of opportunity for blacks seeking to escape rural poverty. At mid-century, wartime Washington offered stable, well-paying white- collar jobs in the federal bureaucracy. People came and put down roots.

Eighteen years ago, when Lacey Wilson Jr. began working at the Grill full time, the neighborhood brimmed with well-kept houses and children playing. Today, the Grill stands alone in an otherwise vacant lot. In the short time since the District was granted home rule in 1974, Washington has gone from promised land to no-man's-land. "Most of the families who lived here have moved out to Maryland," says Wilson, himself a refugee to "the peace and quiet" of suburban Virginia. Those who stayed in the neighborhood, according to Wilson, are trapped in houses that have lost 30 percent of their value in the last eight years.

Business used to be better, says Wilson. The vacant lot next door means more taxicabs can park at lunch time, but the crime that holds this city hostage each night has cut his after-dark dinner traffic by half. Proud of his restaurant's permanence in a turbulent world, Wilson stands below rows of signed photos of his famous patrons-- athletes, musicians, and local politicians, including a young Marion Barry glowing with promise before dissipation hardened his face and tarnished his reputation as a can-do mayor.

Wilson and his patrons are concerned that Washington, once the incubator of America's black middle class, is now a place from which to escape. After reaching a peak population of 800,000, the city has withered to just 578,000 last year, and the trend has accelerated. Ten thousand residents desert the city each year. Even worse news is who is leaving: the homeowners, the entrepreneurs, the role models--in short, the black middle class. They are leaving for the suburbs, and with every defector, D.C. loses a taxpayer, which shrinks the tax base available for feeding a voracious welfare state that causes more frustrated residents to leave, and on and on.

Census figures reveal that during the second half of the 1980s, 157,100 residents, or one-fifth of the entire population, moved out of the District. About half of those emigrants moved to Maryland and 12 percent to Virginia. According to the Greater Washington Research Center, black households earning between $30,000 and $50,000 a year made up a disproportionate number of these refugees. In their place, affluent, single whites are moving into the city, but not enough to offset the loss. The result is a city rapidly dividing into segregated communities of economic extremes.

Ask people at the Florida Street Grill about middle-class flight, and they'll tell you it is the little things that make life difficult in the District. Thomas Jones, finishing up his lunch before driving back to his job in Virginia, says it costs too much to live in the city. "Not just money," he says, "but time and aggravation." The Grill attracts an unusually diverse crowd for Washington, but there is agreement on one point: The government is no longer a neutral referee for self-sufficient citizens, but a muscular competitor against private enterprise. "For all the forms I need to fill out and all the inspections I'd have to have--and I'm not even talking about the fees and taxes," says one would-be entrepreneur, "why should I do business here? They've got open arms in Maryland. They make it easy there." A discussion soon erupts over the merits of suburban life, including such "innovations" as drive-through car registration, a one-stop business office where permits and licenses are issued, and same-day street repairs. The District, on the other hand, offers a notoriously slow motor-vehicles department, a bureaucracy suspicious of any profitable endeavor, and patchwork streets that haven't seen new asphalt in years.

Wilson, Jones, and a number of other patrons own at least one rental unit in the city--often the place they used to live in. Thanks to the city government, these units are a steadier source of frustration than of income. The District has some of the most stringent rent-control and tenant's-rights provisions in the nation, but instead of helping disadvantaged renters, the laws tend to discourage rental activity. "It's not worth it to rent out your property," says Jones. He tells a harrowing story of a tenant who exploited all the rules to live, rent-free, for more than 16 months. "She had me in court. Never paid me anything, and she had the nerve to sue me!" Wilson and others at the counter nod knowingly. "I'll never rent out again," Jones declares. "After getting it up to code, what with rent control, it takes you 20 years to get your money back."

Behind the cash register at the Florida Avenue Grill stands Edgar Featherson, a native Washingtonian with a quiet, genteel grace that reminds you of the once courtly city. After the lunch crowd dwindles, Featherson drives home through the LeDroit Park neighborhood in the early afternoon. The sidewalks overflow with students from the four public schools in the area. The children are a concern to Featherson.

"They don't have the kind of family I was blessed with," he says. He is proud of his education, much of it the result of lessons his mother drilled into him years ago. The world has changed dramatically since then. He tells a story of the time he prepared dinner for his nephew and a friend from the neighborhood. "This boy had never seen anything like it. I made them put their coats away and wash their hands before we sat down," he recalls. "By the end of the night, you know that boy would not leave the house? He never had anyone telling him how to act, never had anyone treat him like a normal child." With a mixture of disgust and guilt, Featherson shakes his head. "This boy was so starved for love, he wouldn't leave."

Featherson's nephew doesn't go to public school. He attends Archbishop Carroll High School in another part of town, partly because parents there are more involved in their children's education than they are in D.C. public schools. "If you don't show up at a parent-teacher meeting at Carroll, you get fined," he says. "They'd never try that in public school." To Featherson, public education is a mechanism for downward mobility, not a ladder out of poverty. "Look at Franklin Smith [the Superintendent of D.C. Public Schools]. He sends his kids to private school. He has a choice and he doesn't even send his own children to public school. Now what does that say about D.C. schools?"

He mentions a news item from the Washington Times, reporting that in the seventh-grade "intensive" English class at one of the city's elite junior-high schools, not a single book was assigned to the class during the entire year. "And that's in the best schools," he says. "You can imagine what they're like in the rest of the city."

John Robinson, another Grill customer, founded Black Diamond Industries in 1976 to manufacture stainless-steel kitchen equipment for McDonald's and Wendy's restaurants. He exudes a world-weary optimism. His office is decorated with a yellowed picture of Jackie Robinson and a framed portrait of his mother. Robinson has not left the city yet. "This is where I live, my family is here, my church is here," he says. Still, the thought crosses his mind often.

"Paperwork is my Achilles' heel," says Robinson. "With 20 employees, if I have one person doing nothing but government paperwork, non-income producing paperwork, then I've got 5 percent of my work force doing useless stuff." Robinson complains that he is a good employer in a city that needs private-sector job creation, yet the city ignores his needs.

"The D.C. government doesn't care about my business--they don't see us we're so small--but it's businesses like this, with under 50 people, that are the real job producers," Robinson says. Washington has become something of a private-sector jobs vacuum. Job creation since 1980 has been anemic: 7 percent growth in employment, compared with 40 percent in suburban Maryland and 94 percent in suburban Virginia. Had D.C. managed to create jobs at the national average, it would have generated 80,000 more jobs between 1980 and 1993.

"Small business is about family and the community," says Robinson. "I work here. I live in the city. I hire people from the neighborhood. The government should be encouraging me, not just some big corporation. When I complain to the city government, they say `What's the problem? Every other business can do it. Why can't you?' But I'm not Marriott, I'm not MCI. I can't wait six weeks for an inspection or a permit. I'm out of business in six weeks. I could do about $100,000 more business a year if I didn't have so much paperwork," says Robinson.

The solution to the worst of his problems is simple, Robinson says. "The city should announce tomorrow, `If you've got less than 50 employees, you don't need a license, you don't need a permit, all you have to do is pay taxes on time.' Just let me go to work. Nothing would make my life easier than that."

If you drive along Minnesota Avenue in Anacostia, you'll see few private businesses. Many of the small outposts of enterprise are liquor stores, and likely owned by Korean- born entrepreneurs. Douglas Kim, a small-businessman and head of the Korean-American Chamber of Commerce, says that nearly a third of all business licenses in the District of Columbia are held by low-capital Korean merchants. Recent immigrants often start up in the more hostile parts of the District. The risks may be higher, but the initial investment required is small compared to the more affluent suburbs. "After six or seven years," says Kim, "they move their business out of the city." Surveys show that 96 percent of all Koreans who own businesses in the District already live in the suburbs.

Koreans are torn between the city and the suburbs, Kim says. The crime rate disturbs them. A recent survey showed that 89 percent of Korean merchants felt the police were "untrustworthy" or "very untrustworthy." But the biggest obstacle to a thriving Korean community in D.C. is the public-school system. "We come here for a better life for our children," says Kim, who lives in Virginia so his children can attend public schools there. "You know, it's the American dream." Kim's wife, who immigrated more recently, is still uncomfortable with the anonymity of the suburbs. "When my boys graduate," he says, "we'll move back to the city, but not now. --If there were excellent public schools in the District like there are in Virginia, all the Koreans would be living in the city tomorrow!"

Many of the D.C. refugees are doubtless fleeing crime and the city government's inability to protect them from it. Don Scoggins, a refugee himself, is a real-estate broker who has helped hundreds flee bleeding neighborhoods. "Crime is more devastating to these communities than racism or Jim Crow ever was," says Scoggins, "but the city officials still think they're leading the civil-rights movement. They'd rather talk about the `root causes of crime' instead of locking up the criminals."

To Scoggins, a black government worker-turned-entrepreneur, the story is depressingly routine. "The people running D.C. are more concerned with the people who can't take care of themselves," he says, "at the expense of the rest of us, the ones who have made an investment in the city's future."

Joe Corey is a restaurateur in the upscale Glover Park section of Northwest D.C. Though his business required a large initial investment, he's not so different from the Korean merchants across town. When he had a chance to expand his business, he chose to open a restaurant in Virginia instead of D.C. "The taxes are too high, the bureaucracy is a mess," he says. "I told [former city council chairman] John Wilson on a radio call-in show that I wanted to stay in the city, but I couldn't afford the time and effort. You know what he told me? `Don't let the door hit you on the way out.' Is that anyway to treat a taxpayer?"

It's the small things that make Corey think of leaving town--like the city's passion for writing parking tickets. Most residents will agree that the one thing the government does with breathtaking efficiency is issue tickets. "To them it's another source of income, so sure they write as many as they can, whether they're valid or not," says Corey. Since there's revenue at stake, the city for once turns to the lowest-cost provider, a private corporation called Lockheed Information Management. "The city is so shortsighted," says Corey. "They ticket my customers so they can raise a couple of hundred dollars in revenue, and they drive the customers away. They don't think of the business I'm doing and the taxes I'm paying. My business is worth much more to them in the long run than the few bucks they'll get from parking tickets."

Corey perceives a hostile climate for business in the District. "They neglect you if you're a taxpaying business," he says. "When I call the city government, I can never get the right person on the phone or the right answer to a question. I can call down there on a Wednesday afternoon and no one answers the phone at all. But if I lose an employee, that guy gets unemployment benefits the next day, and God help me if I make a mistake with unemployment insurance. They're all over me." Corey speculates that career city employees are suspicious of anyone making money. "In this city, non-taxpayers are more privileged than the ones who are paying the taxes." As a result, many businessmen have fled the District, leaving behind an anemic economy in which the Washington Post and McDonald's are two of the largest private employers.

For the Washingtonians who have invested their lives in District neighborhoods, there is sometimes no escape. Benjamin Thomas has lived in Benning Heights since 1958. "It's a nice neighborhood, good working people," he says, but for five years the community has been besieged by drug dealers and the murderous outgrowth of their trade. "We're overrun by crime. I heard gunshots just last night and no one will respond." The breakdown of law and order is almost total. "We've got cars driving around here with no license plates, never been inspected, parked anywhere they come to a stop." Overwhelmed by violent crime, the police don't bother to enforce the basic laws that protect a neighborhood from chaos. "We're completely surrounded here," says Thomas. His home is now on a hostile frontier, and he sees little chance to escape. "Where can I go? Even if I find somebody who wants to buy my house, I won't have enough money even for a down payment anywhere else."

Thomas places the blame squarely on the city government. "I've written letters to the mayor, to the city council, but no one ever answers. We're on our own out here." Thomas recalls the city was unresponsive even before the neighborhood disintegrated. "I fought 10 years to get a traffic light on Benning Road [a major point of entry to the city], and I never heard a thing from downtown."

As Ray Dickey sees it, the transformation from neighborhood to no-man's-land begins at home. Dickey says he was the first black to move into the North Michigan Park neighborhood, back in 1957. "It starts when parents don't spend time with their kids, and don't let their children's friends in the house." The children eventually get the message that they're on their own, and they grow up not caring about anyone but themselves. "Neighbors don't even talk to each other anymore," says Dickey. "Now I live in a neighborhood of strangers. It's sad."

North Michigan Park suffers from a disorder that no amount of government largess can remedy. "It's not about money," he says. "Money won't fix it. Government can't bring these people together and make them care." Dickey looks for non-government institutions to help bridge the gap, but finds them badly weakened by middle-class flight. "There are 10 churches in this neighborhood," says Dickey, "but they're not part of the neighborhood anymore. The people coming to church are all from the suburbs. They come on Sunday for an hour, then leave. The rest of the week, the doors are locked."

A government's main mission is to ensure the safety of its citizens. Yet in the middle-class neighborhoods of Ward 6, the police presence has been cut back just when the neighborhood needs it the most. "I'm trapped in my own home," says Sheila Stamps, a widowed mother of five living in public housing on Capitol Hill. "You can't let children out by themselves, and the playground is littered with intravenous needles." Marion Barry, the newly elected mayor, recently threatened to withdraw the police from Ward 6 unless its city-council representative supported a controversial tax increase. This news brings Stamps to a boil. "You can't touch the police and the fire department. That's public safety. You can't touch that and expect people to stay here much longer."

Stamps knows what's wrong with her city and what to do about it. "There are two things that must be there," she says. "Public safety and good schools." She wants the police to build a substation in her neighborhood so the same policemen can live and work in the area. "We need police here so they can live with the problem, so they'll know what it is like." Stamps also wants school choice. "Any child in this city should be able to go to the best schools," she says. "If they meet the criteria, let them go." She says the politicians and the media people who live in affluent Ward 3 don't want poor black children in their schools. "The president can send his child to any school he wants." she says. All she wants is the same opportunity. "We've got a lot of smart kids down here, hard-working kids. But they don't get the chance."

Based on the liberal premise that poor citizens will always be poor and affluent citizens will always be affluent, the District government is perplexed that middle-class citizens are seeking opportunity elsewhere. After hundreds of tax increases, the city's ledgers are soaked with red ink. Despite employing tens of thousands of civil servants, even basic services are abysmal. The solution parroted by city officials has always been to grant statehood to the District. The reality is that the city government has squandered what sovereignty it has. More than 50 of the city's agencies are under court control, and the District owes $21 million in contempt-of-court fees due to its mishandling of its limited responsibilities.

There can be no solution to the District's problems until the flight of middle-class families is stanched and reversed. That will require the District government to compete with its suburbs to provide the basic services middle-class taxpayers expect. The city can attract new residents by emphasizing public safety and quality public education, and by providing a competitive regulatory climate for entrepreneurs and a low-capital point of entry to the economy. Projects and services that do not add to the appeal of Washington as a place to raise a family can no longer be justified. The city must close the law school of the University of the District of Columbia, which produces no lawyers, privatize the appalling D.C. General Hospital, and lower its tax rates to compete with those of surrounding jurisdictions.

The solution is hardly draconian. Other cities take great pride in performing the basics efficiently. Washington has the advantage of being the kind of city many people would like to live in. But it must first shed its Great Society heritage. The D.C. government has betrayed the very people it was intended to serve. True, it has succeeded in creating an integrated community where African-Americans can live in peace and thrive economically. Unfortunately, that community is just over the District line--in Maryland's Prince George's County.

Why does Featherson stay in the District? "Well, it's like the Grill," he explains. "We've been here so long, for 50 years. I just hope there are some kids who walk by and think, `They've made it, they've been here through everything, they're proof you can make it if you work hard.' That's why I stay here. I want these kids to say `If Mr. Featherson can make it, maybe I can too.'"