Sunday, January 11, 2009

Washington, D.C. -- Obama's new community

Barack Obama, appearing on ABC this morning, answered a lot of questions about his administration's plans for the economy, health care, torture, Gitmo, homeland security and Mideast diplomacy. From the beginning of the campaign, we were all aware how many messes the eventual winner would have to clean up. Now we are not only aware of how many, but how deep and problematic in terms of finding solutions. Yet there he was, calmly and rationally dealing with George Stephanopoulis's questions, reassuring the American public that his various teams were on top of things.

Lots of commentators and bloggers have been passing the time until January 20th, praising or dismissing the various picks for the new cabinet and administration leadership jobs. Not having a crystal ball, I've been mostly content to wait patiently. Let's give the folks assigned the clean up task a real chance to get in there and actually work at it, before harping and carping. The only move Obama's made that really rubbed me the wrong way was the selection of Rick Warren to speak some mumbo jumbo as prologue to the inauguration. (You can read my comments here.)

So he made one mistake so far. Nobody should expect him to be perfect. What is reassuring is his insistence that he is not attaching himself to solutions based upon who comes up with the idea, but rather that plans are flexible and that we focus on finding the best solution. It does sound like a huge breath of fresh air is about to sweep through Washington. D.C.

Speaking of D.C., one of Obama's missions is to involve himself with the city's community -- not just the federal workers, but the folks who live and work within the city. He has mentioned this consistently and so has Michelle. He has set up a Community Inaugural Ball for residents to enjoy, met with the Mayor and will do his best to get out and about and involved in the life and culture of the city. Most presidents and politicians hunker down in their various domains and seldom get involved with the local community.

I moved to D.C. in 1976. It was my first time away from Akron, and I moved there because I had some college theatre friends already living there and they gave me a place to sleep while I looked for work and a place of my own. My first impressions of D.C. were this: enormous white buildings were everywhere, and the city was studded with statues of white male generals. Yet as I rode the buses and subways, looking for work, I found myself riding with people of color, through burned out neighborhoods (left to rot after the riots of 1968). The core of the city was as white as the government buildings, but the rest of the city was primarily black and living in poverty.

The great disparity on display in Washington's daily life shocked me. Homeless people sleeping on sidewalk grates, taking in the warmth vented from the subway system below. Bag ladies scurrying down alleys and across the mall, carts filled with garbage bags containing who knows what. Anyone who could afford to was moving to the suburbs of Maryland or Virginia, leaving the rest to hustle, thieve or sell drugs and/or their bodies.

I lived in the Adams Morgan area, a multicultural progressive enclave with a food co-op, a Hispanic theatre company, and other assorted store front ventures. I was hired as company manager for Earth Onion Women's Theatre, an experimental theatre company existing on a small NEA grant. We worked and performed in a tiny store-front theatre space that we shared with the local Socialist party group. My apartment was "illegal," an unfinished dump above a porn shop, with rear windows looking out on a trash-filled alley. I kept those windows closed whenever possible to keep out the sickening greasy smell from a McDonald's across the alley. Every day when I left for work, I had to step over a wino sleeping in my door way. Fun times.

What is the D.C. area like in the 21st century? According to the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless:
Washington, D.C. has the 7th highest poverty rate in the country-- 16.4% as of 2007, and has the highest proportion of people in the U.S. with the lowest income levels.

At least 17,800 people are homeless in Washington, D.C. over the course of a year, one of the highest rates in the country.

In the District of Columbia, a worker earning the Minimum Wage ($7.55 per hour) must work approximately 140 hours per week in order to afford a two-bedroom unit at the area's Fair Market rent.

For the year 2007, the Fair Market Rent (FMR) for an
efficiency apartment in Washington, D.C. is $1025 a month. The FMR for a 1-bedroom unit is $1168; 2-bedroom, $1324; 3-bedroom, $1708; and 4-bedroom, $2235.

The unemployment rate in D.C. was 6.7% as of July 2008, higher than the 5.7% national rate.
Funny how these statistics are ignored year after year by the politicians who come to D.C. to work for the good of us all, isn't it? If the Obamas continue to pay attention to the entire community in which they intend to live for the next eight years, maybe some positive change will come to all the residents of Washington, D.C.

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