I grew up in Washington, DC. Chicago and DC have much in common: both were built on a swamp; both have streets laid out on a grid; and both suffer from the modern urban blights of segregation, gang warfare, and drugs.
In Chicago we have Daley. In DC we had Marion Barry. A man who rose to prominence as a local activist, an organizer with the ability to transform a marginalized population of a marginalized city by letting people grab hold of their rightful due. He rose to national prominence (at least, as far as I knew in my benighted mid-eighties youth) as the man at the helm of the Murder Capital of the Country. He showed up 2 hours late for my brother’s high school graduation: drove his Limo right up onto the Wilson SHS football field, got out, silenced the band, straightened his kente cloth confessional shawl, delivered his commencement speech, and got the hell out, a whirlwind of black power.
He inspired enormous personal loyalty – my mother worked on his campaign, and to this day, says with a twinkle in her eye and a giddy pride “If he saw me walking down the street today, he’d still recognize me!” My father voted for him every chance he got, even after he’d been publicly discredited, even after his drug habit and chronic womanizing made him the laughingstock of the nation, ever after 15 years of failing to dig the city out of the financial and bureaucratic crisis it’s been mired in ever since they drained the swamp. Even now, if he were on the ballot to take over for our be-bow-tied harlequin of a mayor, my dad’d still be a Barry Man.
I won’t even go into the whole crack debacle – suffice it to say it was the first time I’d seen “the bitch set me up” in color graphics on my local newscast. And then, miracle of miracles, after a six-month prison stint, and enduring the laughter of an entire country, ran for mayor again, and won on the platform of “I’ve been down to the valley, and made my way out – I can help you out too”.
In DC, I never went to a restaurant only to be turned away by a sign on the door reading “This Restaurant closed/ thanks to the vigilant work / of Mayor Barry’s / Dumpster Squad”, he didn’t have to put his name on things.
But there was that same sense of eternal mayoralty about him: that same feeling that he was made for the job and the job was made for him. He was Mayor For Life, inevitable, immortal. No one else could ever embody the ambitions and contradictions of my city more completely than he did; a striving ambition, extravagantly decorated failure, clinging desperately to any appearance of propriety, but torn from within by hubris and drugs.
We all took DC History, as part of our eighth grade public school curriculum, a course that I suppose in Chicago would boast a textbook entitled “Chicago: City of Broad Shoulders” or “How Things Work in the City that Works”. In DC, we had “Washington DC: City of Magnificent Intentions”. 8th Grade is a tender age to be told with such bitterness that your city never really measured up and that it probably never will.