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Michael Garrett
“The City Is a Shambles; We Are to Blame”
June 1998




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I wish that I could write this letter without whining. I honestly wish that I could do just that. I know, however, that one cannot write anything about the District of Columbia without complaining about something or other. What I can do is apologize for what is yet another whining list of complaints about Washington, D.C. and hope that someone somewhere has the power, wants the power, or knows someone with the power to change this “District of Contempt” into a city worthy of being our nation’s Capitol.

I cannot give weight to my arguments for I have not lived here “long enough” nor have I “done enough.” My arguments whine. My arguments complain and my arguments have all been heard before. I have lived here long enough, however, to grow sick and tired of the absolute corruption, ineptitude, folly, fallacy, and filth that are associated with this city. This city is the brunt of comedians’ jokes and the subject of numerous discourses, any of which could be entitled “How to totally fail at government.” This city has failed its children, its elderly, its business persons, its commuters, its residents, its roads and even its trees. This city has failed. We have failed. This city is not at fault. We are this city. We are at fault. We are at fault for being apathetic. We are at fault for closing our eyes. Someone has sat back and allowed Marion Barry to run this city into the ground. Someone has sat back and allowed Congress to appoint a Control Board that has seized control from the District’s elected officials. Someone has allowed those elected officials to fail so completely at their jobs that the federal government has had to step in and take control. Someone has closed their eyes. We have closed our eyes.

It is not surprising the reply one receives when one mentions the District of Columbia to a non-resident: yet another “Mayor on Crack” joke. But mention the District of Columbia to a resident of DC and one will hear complaints about the government and the leadership and about everything else. It’s someone else’s fault. It’s their fault. The fault of leadership we elected. It is time that the residents of the District of Columbia took control of their own city and admitted that it is our fault. It is time that we stop separating ourselves from the “the leadership” and admit that this city needs work and we are its only employees.

I came across a speech on Democracy recently and thought that it was so true, that it explained what we all desire so completely and plainly, that I had to share it with you. I know that our form of government is a republic and not a democracy and that some people feel that we are hurtling towards an oligarchical form of government where power is in the hands of a few, but I could not help but think we now hold the same ideals as this writer did when he gave this speech:

“Our form of government is called a Democracy because . . .we are a model to others. Our form of government is called a democracy because its administration is in the hands, not of a few, but of the whole people. In the settling of private disputes, everyone is equal before the law. Election to public office is made on the basis of ability, not on the basis of membership to a particular class. No man is kept out of public office by the obscurity of his social standing or because of his poverty, as long as he wishes to be of service to the state. [I]n public affairs, we take great care not to break the laws because of the deep respect we have for them. [W]e pay special regard to those laws that are for the protection of the oppressed and to all the unwritten laws that we know bring disgrace upon the transgressor when they are broken.

“We regard wealth as something to be properly used and not as something to boast about. Nobody need be ashamed to admit poverty, but it is shameful not to do one’s best to escape from poverty. Our concern for our private affairs is balanced by our involvement with the affairs of the city. Even people who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well informed on political matters. We do not simply regard a man who does not participate in the city’s life as one who just minds his own business, but as one who is good for nothing. We all join in debate about the affairs of the city, as they deserve, or at least we participate in the decisions. We do not think that these discussions impede action. We do believe that what is damaging is to go into action in a crucial situation before the people have been fully instructed in debate.

“We make friendships not by receiving kindness from others but by conferring it on others. Helping others makes us a more trustworthy friend, because we then act so as not to lose the good will that our help created. A city that makes its friendships by accepting help is not so trustworthy. Its conduct toward other peoples is going to be governed not by good will, but merely by its grudging sense of obligation. We do kindness to others, not because we stop to calculate whether this will be to our advantage, but in the spirit of liberality, which motivates us.”

That speech was given by a Grecian ruler named Pericles in 431 B.C.E.; more than two thousand years ago. For two thousand years those ideals have survived because people have wanted them to survive. What Pericles spoke of then still makes sense today, does it not? Do we not strive to be knowledgeable about our own city’s politics? Can’t anyone be elected to public office regardless of wealth or lack there of as long as that person “wishes to be of service to the state?” More and more of our officials, however, are elected based upon the depth of their campaign pockets. We should elect public officials based on what they can do to better our lives, not based on how many posters show their face or by how many 30 second commercials they star in on television. These public officials are supposed to represent our best interests. Why, then, as George magazine declared us in its March 1998 issue, are we one of the “ten most corrupt cities in America?”

We, as Americans and as voting citizens, seem to be of the mind set that only someone of our specific background can represent our best interests. Why? Have the past 30 years of civil rights actions all been in vain? Should we split party lines on race rather than on political affiliation? No, we should not. It is high time that we, as Americans and residents of the District of Columbia, realize that people represent people and discard the backwards and inhibiting belief that colors represent people. An African American can represent the best interests of whites just as easily as a white can represent an African American. If we can’t agree on this how are we ever going to change this city for
the better? Americans represent Americans no matter their skin color or religious affiliation as long as they meet one criterion: representation in the best interest of the people and not of the representatives themselves.

This city is in a shambles. It is our fault. We are to blame. This election year we should demand quality representation and choose a candidate who will actively seek to improve this city and not just his or her own self interests or the selfish interests of their financial supporters. As I look around I notice that even the simplest aspects of improving our image go neglected. This past Memorial Day weekend I spent quite a bit of time around the Capitol and The Mall and at the various veterans’ memorials. The area was crowded as was to be expected. One would think that crowds would be expected; that visitors from around the nation and the world would come to the United States’ Capitol city to celebrate the memory of those who died while fighting in our various wars. If crowds were expected and did not actually creep up and surprise us, however, why the filth and garbage strewn about The Mall? I understand that a reasonable amount of trash will undoubtedly be blown about, but if I can expect this, why can the head of the sanitation department not anticipate same and implement some kind of plan to ensure that the trash receptacles are emptied in a timely manner? This past Memorial Day I spent my time remembering America’s heroes by fishing a dead bird and then hamburger wrappers, and gin bottles, and napkins from the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. I spent my time wondering why no one thought to clean up this area, if not to at least make our city appear clean, then at least to remember our veterans by making sure their areas were free of litter. Some litter was to be expected, sure, but not that much and not on that day.

Likewise, the roads and sidewalks surrounding the back entrance to the National Zoo are always littered with trash. Responsibility should lie with both the Zoo directors and with City officials who should care enough about our appearance to know that people visit DC on the weekends and that thousands of these people visit the zoo. Why, then do we allow these people to view this filth? Why does the city government not ask that business owners and shopkeepers keep the sidewalks in front of their stores clean and swept? Why do store owners and shopkeepers themselves not care how the front of their store looks to passers by? Are we so used to garbage that we don’t care about it? Or do we just not care about anything anymore? I didn't intend for this letter to harp on waste management practices alone, we all know that there are more pressing matters such as education and safety; but if we cannot handle even the garbage on the streets, how can we even attempt to bring about reform in our police departments and public schools?

I long for the day when people respect our city: not just the rich, or Ambassadors or visitors, but the poor, the newly-arrived, and the long term resident. I long for the days when we run out of places to house people not because our houses are in ruins, but because people want to live in the District. I cannot wait for the day when our schools educate, when our children don’t just want to go to college to play sports to “get rich,” but want and do go to college for education and then return with education and new ideas on how to make our lives better. I long for the day when parents and kids look forward to going to our public schools and donut try anything and everything to get them into a private institution.

Our police department is a mockery of justice. Hopefully Police Chief Ramsey will be strong enough to change this. Hopefully comments such as the following that were posted in the January 19, 1998, issue of The New Republic (and again on the internet web page DCWatch) are a thing of the past: “Perhaps the only thing more disturbing than the low caliber of cops on Washington's streets is the low caliber of senior officials responsible for managing them. In fact, what distresses the D.C. cops I know even more than their low pay and meager benefits is the lack of standards and discipline at the top of the department. . . . We know what works, because not so long ago the MPD itself was a fine department. Alas, recent history also shows that it is much easier to debase standards than it is to restore them.”

For how much longer will we have to wait for someone strong enough to lead the District? Is there not one person who will turn his back on those with ulterior motives, who will admonish those with financial rather than responsible interests? How long until we will once again desire to become representatives of the city not to “get rich” but because we care enough about ourselves, our neighbors and the city itself to want to lend a hand? Are we so far gone as a society that we only look to politics as a way to make money if we fail as entrepreneurs?

As residents of the Capitol City of the United States we have a responsibility. Ellis Island may be the first place new immigrants see, but Washington DC should be their ultimate destination; maybe not to settle down and live, but to visit and experience the awesome power of a city that cares about itself and its people. To walk our streets and feel welcomed. To admire our public institutions be they libraries, museums or schools. People should talk about DC because “we are a role model to others ...[w]e alone do kindness to others, not because we stop to calculate whether this will be to our advantage, but in the spirit of liberality, which motivates us.”


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