March 2, 2009

LAST CALL

Sam Smith

One of the things you learn early as a writer is that the hardest parts of a story are the beginning and the end. The beginning of my story as a Washington journalist was over 50 years ago; the middle has encompassed all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies, and the end will come sometime this year.

I will continue to edit the national edition of the Progressive Review, which has more readers than ever but my wife Kathy and I are moving to Maine where we have deep ties, for me going back more than six decades.

I am leaving my birthplace, a town I have loved but also a place in which I have felt increasingly an exile as local values, culture and community faded - not because they lacked merit but because they did not produce enough power or profit for someone.

It has become a city where the police chief erects apartheid style roadblocks, where the deputy mayor hides a community library in a high rise like it was just another Starbucks, and where the government is spends over $600 million on a baseball stadium but can't keep its recreation centers open all weekend.

It is a city of magnificent views and dismal viewpoints, wonderful communities and dubious egos, natural spaces and artificial words. It is a city that too often can't tell the difference between intelligence and wisdom and, as Russell Baker once noted, the difference between being serious and being somber.

It is also a city in which all politics becomes office politics, and where imagination and free thought are restricted to thirty minutes on weekdays and violators will be towed.

Still, Washington has always been an unsortable amalgam of decadence and decency, undeserved profit and unrequited purpose, subterranean conspiracies and high ideals. Walt Whitman found himself "amid all this huge mess of traitors, loafers, hospitals, axe-grinders, & incompetencies & officials that goes by the name of Washington." Even earlier, Captain Frederick Marry noted, "Here are assembled from every state in the union, what ought to be the collected talent, intelligence, and high principles of a free and enlightened nation. Of talent and intelligence there is a very fair supply, but principle is not so much in demand; and in everything, and everywhere, by the demand the supply is regulated."

One of the things that affects the city's crosscurrents of felicity and felony is what is happening elsewhere in the nation. As a weak colony filled with professional migrants, DC is a beta edition of both the good and the bad. Just as Washington was once deep into the civil rights and peace movements, today it accurately reflects national values sown in the Reagan-Clinton-Bush era that have caused the disintegration of the republic's economy, its global status and its constitution.

You can feel it wandering around downtown, where every last centimeter of the zoning envelope is filled with the dull high rises of a second robber baron era. You see it in the endless piling on of new civil and criminal offenses in place of decent and effective policies. You find it in the official subservience and subsidy to those who already have more than their fair share. You observe it in a school system that values rigid tests and rules but not thoughtful questions and creative ideas.

You see it in the failure to lift a hand to help those unable to play DC's harsh games. And you see it in the increasing division between free and locked down Washington, the former being those parts where you can still cross a threshold without having to prove you are not a terrorist.

Which is not to say you can not find many good things hidden beneath the hubris, behind the ubiquitous fear in the world's most guarded place and under the false renaissance of a city that has spent billions on convention centers, stadiums, arenas, but which can't even provide as many jobs for local residents as it did 20 years ago.

You just have to look harder.

You'll find it still in the neighborhoods like the one I shall miss most: Capitol Hill.

You'll find it in the little oases of commercial sense and service like Frager's hardware store, Distad's auto repair shop and all the other small businesses that get mainly bills and regulations from the city government while the favors go to the big guys.

You'll find it over lunch at places like Jimmy T's, Ben's Chili Bowl and La Tomate.

You'll find it in the files of the Washingtoniana collection at the DC Library, on a trail sign or in an exhibit at the Historical Society of Washington.

You'll find it at the FDR Memorial late on a spring evening or in a quiet spot in some hidden corner high in Rock Creek Park.

You'll find it in a black community that has bravely maintained its values in the face of repression, indifference and socio-economic cleansing. I first did as a young man going to the Howard Theater and as a 20-something member of SNCC, and later in so many ways and places as I was welcomed by, and learned from, those who used the power of decency and friendliness as bridges across cultures and to overcome pain.

You'll find it among the activists of the DC Statehood Green Party who for nearly four decades have risen to the challenge presented by its first leader, Julius Hobson: "What do you want: a Disneyland for the rich or a state for free people?" Youll fine it in their refusal to be silent in a city so colonial, corrupt and contented.

You'll find it among the teachers resisting the dismantling and corporatization of public education.

You'll find it in the artists and musicians who take us away from bitterness and contentions and into better places, those still holding on in a city determined not to even leave them with a pad cheap enough to rent.

You'll find it among those who seek to preserve not only open space and fine buildings, but great communities and wonderful institutions.

You'll find it among those trying to help fill monstrous gaps in government services by working at a food bank or shelter, counseling former prisoners, providing free legal service, or teaching children what the school system can't or won't.

You'll find it in a small band of journalists who haven't deserted the real city in favor of grander stories and sources.

You'll find it among the neighborhood commissions who still sometimes get those downtown to pay attention to things they would rather ignore.

And you'll find it in the shared memory of those who give the city life instead of draining it, add to the local saga rather than diminishing it, and are there for us when so many others aren't.

One place you won't find it much longer, though, is at my place. Sometime this year I'll be off to write the rest of my story someplace else. Thanks for all the good times, the encouragement, the inspiration, the example and the dreams.

Just remember, despite what others would have you believe, a vote in the House leaves you no better off than Algeria when it also was a colony; Washington never was a sleepy southern town and it never was a swamp; there is a J Street (albeit hidden in Northeast and spelled Jay), and most of the people who do serious wrong in this fair city come from somewhere else. We try to teach them different but they never seem to get it.

Thanks for the fun and, as Adam Clayton Powell Jr used to say, "Keep the faith, baby."

PS: Some random anecdotes from the past 50 years can be found here.