Monday, December 1, 2014

Drop the Bomb


For the past couple of weeks, I have been thinking a lot about my hometown.  I am a member of a relatively small group: people who were born and raised in Washington DC.  While I have lived in New York since the early 1990s, I get back to Washington frequently.  In fact, I spent a good chunk of last week there celebrating Thanksgiving with my family.

But that's not why DC has been on my mind.

I have been thinking about DC because I have been slowly making my way through the outstanding catalog that accompanied the Pump Me Up: DC Subculture of the 1980s exhibit that the Corcoran Gallery put on a few years back.

The book primarily chronicles the two music scenes that developed along parallel tracks in DC when I was a teen: go-go (think: Trouble Funk) and hardcore (think: Minor Threat).  But Pump Me Up is about more than music.  It also documents the social context of DC in the 1980s. And that context was dominated by crime. The Washington of my youth was known as "the murder capital of the United States" because it had the highest per capita homicide rate of any American city.

To be honest, the violence associated with the drug trade was not part of my daily routine; the neighborhoods where I lived and went to school were not shooting zones.  But I don't think anyone who lived in DC in the '80s was unaffected by crime.  Almost all of my friends were mugged, some at gunpoint.  And huge swaths of the city were essentially off-limits to me growing up.

Hovering over all of this was the issue of race.  The DC I grew up in was a segregated city in many respects.  The disparities between the white neighborhoods and the black neighborhoods were both obvious and painful, particularly given how close many of the most blighted and dangerous neighborhoods were to some of the most powerful symbols of our democracy -- the White House, Congress, and other federal buildings.  

With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that my childhood had a profound impact on my career trajectory. Having spent my formative years in a city that felt unsafe and balkanized, I think it is no coincidence that I have spent my professional life trying in my own small way to bring disparate groups together to make neighborhoods safer.  I think a lot of my childhood friends who gravitated toward public interest work would probably say something similar.  (This includes my old soccer teammate Greg Kaufmann, the editor of Talk Poverty, a website that is currently doing a special feature on criminal justice.  I will be making a contribution later this week.)

For many years, the symbol of Washington's unrealized potential as a city was its troubled mayor, Marion Barry, who died last week.  Barry's drug problems, womanizing,  demagoguery, and cronyism provided his critics with ample ammunition.  But he also did a lot of good for Washington, which Pump Me Up underlines through a series of interviews with local artists, many of whom point to Barry's summer youth employment programs as key turning points in their lives.

The New York Times was also even-handed in recounting Barry's legacy.  In fact, the last word in the Times obit actually went to a former boss of mine, Sam Smith, the editor of the Progressive Review.  Smith said of Barry: "It's like going out into a field and seeing an old rusting-out hulk of a car and trying to imagine what it was like when it was brand-new.  What people are seeing now is that corroded shell of what Barry was, and if you don't remember that, it's very hard to see."