New York Times
Sunday, December 24, 2000
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Hope Rises in Real-Life Washington
by Francis X. Clines
the winter solstice, this city has an extra edge of hope beyond
the ritual emotions of the holiday, for not only Santa but George
W. Bush is coming to town.
(or -select, in the view of griping Democrats who plan to protest
the inauguration) is already stirring the familiar mix of optimism
and wariness from the ordinary, uncelebrated residents who live
at this city's heart yet remain outside the bubble of capital power.
"Tell the education president to call me; I have ideas for
him," said Nancy Schwalb, a writer and volunteer teacher fighting
to see her creative writing workshop survive in the budget-strapped
public schools of the vast area of humbler, workaday Washington
known dismissively as East of the River.
This is the
working-class, poverty-lashed region just across the Anacostia from
the seat of national power. It is ignored in the press releases
of ambitious incumbents, but it thrives and glistens with life.
It seems an ideal laboratory environment that goes untapped by the
legions of social planners and political strategists ever theorizing
their fresh goods -- solutions for the people's problems -- that
trundle handsomely packaged from think-tank factories west of the
river in the city's expense-account sector.
epochs grew wild, as in distance," wrote one of Ms. Schwalb's
13-year-old student poets, imagining the nation's solstice mood
from her outlook across the Anacostia in the threadbare but doughty
Charles Hart Middle School. "A full rotation of the view until
America goes blind."
At Hart, the
school budget left teachers paying for the holiday party pizza out
of their own pockets. Ms. Schwalb had to forgo the space heater
for her chilled classroom because it shorted out the school's dated
wiring, which still lags behind the high-tech education promises
of the successful campaigners across the river.
There is some
hope for the incoming president west of the river, too, at Stevens
Elementary School. This is a drab, historic school opened 114 years
ago for the children of emancipated slaves. It still operates dynamically
on 21st Street, a few doors north of the K Street power corridor
of lawyers and lobbyists. The National Trust for Historic Preservation,
one of the many nonprofit agencies updating their agendas for the
new president, has put Stevens on its national list of most endangered
schools. The real estate boom from a federal government that is
as go-go as it is gridlocked is threatening to swallow the Stevens
school from its prime site, trust officials warn.
we hope Mr. Bush will serve as a real catalyst for education and
all the resources needed for it," said Gloria Henderson, the
principal at Stevens, which enjoyed a blip of fame a generation
ago when Amy Carter attended as part of President Jimmy Carter's
unusual attempt to be closer to real-life Washington. "Stevens
is the neighborhood school of the White House, and what better place
for Mr. Bush to start on his own promise than at Stevens,"
she said of the city's disastrously frayed school infrastructure.
"Mr. Bush's mother visited once, so I expect he will."
But the failure
here of noblesse oblige gestures is an old neighborhood story. This
season people were shocked when a would-be philanthropist failed
in his headlined promise to finance college scholarships for 60
inner-city students. The city rallied to a Capraesque ending when
a new donor emerged in time for Christmas.
east of the river, the capital core with its endless political ballyhoo
is a Potemkin village; their expectation level beyond the bubble
is decidedly wary. President Clinton, the great neighborhood hope
of eight years ago, turned out to have virtually no interaction
with the ordinary people. "Clinton proved to be our rich uncle,"
said Mark Plotkin, a perennial civic goad and journalist for WAMU,
a public radio station. "He opened the federal wallet for the
city's cause, but I wish he had opened his mouth and his heart as
expects far less from President-elect Bush. "Bush will be our
one-man depression," he contended.
Mr. Plotkin was up to his usual zealot's mischief this week, hectoring
the administration at an 11th-hour press briefing to say whether
Mr. Clinton, who grandly endorsed statehood for the district, would
leave Mr. Bush, who decidedly does not, a presidential limousine
festooned with the city's rebellious new license plate. It complains
of "Taxation Without Representation" to underline the
fact that residents pay $2 billion in taxes but have no voting representation
To Mr. Plotkin's
shock, the administration matched his appetite for mischief and
said the plate would be bolted on. He hopes this leaves the incoming
Bush team the Scroogelike choice of removing it in favor of the
old "Celebrate & Discover" plate that statehood proponents
So goes the
life of symbolism west of the river. Across the Anacostia River,
Ms. Schwalb's holiday worry is that the student poet who wrote of
political epochs growing wild has been missing her classes at the
D.C. Creative Writing Workshop to baby-sit for younger siblings.
works the late shift at Popeye's, for minimum wage," Ms. Schwalb
said. "So if Mr. Bush is not going to leave any kids behind,
as he promised so often in the campaign, he could raise the minimum
wage for her mom. And he should see for himself how D.C. schools
desperately need repairs."
Every four years,
candidates campaign against the Beltway culture as something alien
from real life in the America beyond. But there is plenty of real
life here, too, and Ms. Schwalb said she would be shocked to see
any of the latest victors cross the river to see the prosaic truth.
need to have some money thrown at them," Ms. Schwalb said.
"It's the only way; they're suffering that much."
Gloria Henderson outside Stevens Elementary School in Washington,
where she is the principal. (Justin Lane for The New York Times)
SECTION: Section 1; Page 14; Column 4; National Desk
LENGTH: 988 words
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