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Marion Barry's Death Is Yet Another Blow to the "Chocolate City"


Marion Barry, like the city whose politics he dominated for a decade with inimitable style and mixed results, is no more. The man known as "mayor for life" of the nation's capital city was charismatic and needy, street-smart and pound-foolish, pathetic and charming, gregarious and awkward, an intellectual and a fool, an Eagle Scout who became a crack addict.

Among the city's white liberal elite, Barry started out as the great black hope and wound up as the great black joke. Yet among people like him—migrants from the South who came of age in the civil rights movement and gained access to the promise of American life for the first time filled with pent-up ambitions—he was often tolerated if not beloved, for his generous patronage, his sartorial style, his obvious contradictions, and his dogged refusal—no, complete inability—to be anything other than what he was: a flawed and unrepentant man. We won't see his likes again, and more than a few people, white and black, are saying, Thank God. 

The town whose politics he dominated from 1978 to 1991 was the Chocolate City, so dubbed by funk master George Clinton, the black-majority municipality that surrounded and coexisted with and often endured entirely apart from the white minority enclave in the city's northwest quadrant which dominated the apparatus of the U.S. government and embodied the culture of national power. If Chocolate City has not yet passed, its days are numbered, and not many white people will mourn, which is too bad. It was a uniquely American place. 

Chocolate City was the direct descendant of Washington City, the national metropolis that loomed as a black destination long before the Civil War. When white people had the constitutional right to own people as property, it was illegal to live as a free black person in Virginia, but not in the nation's capital. And so free African-Americans gravitated to the District of Columbia. By 1830, when the slave masters were at the apex of their power on Capitol Hill, a majority of the black people in Washington were already free. 

In such contradictions was born the contradictory career of Marion Barry. After the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the founding of Howard University in 1867 the city became a mecca for black strivers all over the country, the home of W. E. B. Du Bois’s Talented Tenth. As the white majority migrated to the vanillas suburbs after World War II, the city's three other quadrants became black, even as they were governed by the congressional barons of Jim Crow. With the passage of the 23rd Amendment granting D.C. three electoral votes (1961), the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965), white minority rule of the nation's capital became untenable and the black majority inherited power. 

Along came Marion Barry to grab it. Born to a poor family in the Mississippi Delta in 1936, he earned degrees from historically black LeMoyne College in Memphis and Fisk University in Nashville. He emerged as an early leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the cutting edge of the civil rights movement. In 1965, he moved to Washington and made a name for himself protesting a bus fare increase that pinched his people, the black working class. 

Barry soon left SNCC for the greener pastures of electoral politics. With arrival of home rule, he was elected to the school board, and then the city council. In 1978, with the help of an endorsement from The Washington Post, he was elected mayor. He traded his dashiki and Afro for a three-piece suit and a Homburg. 

The 1980s were his season of hope. The exemplar of the civil rights generation, he promised to blend the pride of Black Power with the practical power of municipal government. Ivanhoe Donaldson, another bright young man out of SNCC, served as his campaign manager and deputy mayor. But white voters who backed Barry were disappointed to discover that his idea of good government was, first and foremost, a government that gave black people good jobs. The city's finances tanked and the quality of services, never high in a city of Southern efficiency, declined. White voters started to abandon him but he was reelected easily in 1982.

Soon Barry's personal demons became public. He was spotted in a strip club on 14th Street. He got into a fender bender in the early morning hours; in his defense, he memorably declared, "I'm a night owl, baby." When cheap, smokeable cocaine—crack—arrived on the streets of the black neighborhoods, Barry succumbed like so many did, and symptoms of corruption proliferated. In January 1986, Donaldson was arrested bilking the city out of hundreds of thousands of dollars and went to prison. In the 1986 election, most of Barry's remaining white supporters repudiated him, but black voters, whose loyalty was hardening, reelected him again. 

The nadir came in January 1990, when a black person was getting murdered every day in D.C., the city's law enforcement leadership, determined to end his drug-abusing ways, used the lure of an ex-lover to capture him getting high on camera.  "Bitch set me up," he muttered as the cops swarmed him. That defiant complaint gave expression to his incorrigible character and made him a national punch line. After a stint in rehab, a six-month prison sentence, and a failed run for City Council, he seemed to be finished.

But as The Washington Post noted upon his death, Barry was nothing if not a gifted politician. He figured out what it would take to redeem himself. He married Cora Masters, a political science professor at the University of the District of Columbia, and she instilled some balance and discipline in his life. He ran for mayor again in 1994 and won handily. Barry's memorable advice to those appalled by his return: "Get over it." So inept was his fourth term that Congress had to step in and take over the city government temporarily. 

Yet whether Barry hastened or delayed the gentrification that has transformed the city for the better after he left office in 1999 is hard to say. It was probably both. While Barry cultivated the image of a black militant, he had long since made his peace with the city's entrenched financial interests, especially its developers. While squandering the city's money, he spread it around with results that are now visible everywhere. 

As Twitter is telling us, his jobs programs launched a thousand African-American careers. He presided over the rebirth of the city's downtown by breaking ground for the MCI Center, now the Verizon Center. He built a new municipal building that anchored the revival of the U Street corridor, now one of many thriving entertainment districts in the city. 

In 2004 Barry returned to the City Council representing Ward 8, the city's poorest neighborhood, but he never escaped his demons. Cora Masters left him. Signs of drug use returned. He was arrested again. He failed to pay his taxes. He ran up parking tickets. He insulted Asian-American shopkeepers. He was censured by his colleagues. To the end, he remained an insecure egomaniac, albeit one with greater self-awareness. 

Over time he gained a measure of grudging respect as a tribune of the city's least fortunate people. No one could dispute that his hopes, his struggles, and his failures represented those of his constituents all too well. 

Now Barry is gone but his people remain, a dispossessed pocket in a multihued metropolis where ambitious millennials, tasteful restaurants, gleaming condos, and disturbing inequality are all flourishing. With the departure of its favorite son, what remains of the Chocolate City has lost its voice.