A legacy in dis­pute

D.C. plans a statue of Barry, spark­ing a de­bate over what the mayor meant for the city

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY STEVE HEN­DRIX

In the dig­i­tal age, will a statue out­last a search en­gine?

That’s the ques­tion fac­ing the guardians of the uniquely com­pli­cated legacy of for­mer D.C. mayor Mar­ion Barry, who veered be­tween dom­i­nance and disgrace in a re­mark­able half-cen­tury po­lit­i­cal ca­reer.

Two years after Barry’s death at 78, his par­ti­sans in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal just un­veiled a pro­posed de­sign for a life-size statue to be erected out­side city hall, one of the pub­lic totems — from street art to street names — they hope will ce­ment his place in the Wash­ing­ton pan­theon for gen­er­a­tions to come. They want to steer the mem­ory of a fast-chang­ing city to­ward the brighter chap­ters of the Barry Chron­i­cles, his years as a civil rights hero and cham­pion of the poor.

But when the city’s many new­com­ers type “Mar­ion Barry” into their phones, they get the dark part. Google’s sec­ond hit is a news­pa­per head­line: “Barry Ar­rested on Co­caine Charges.” The first is his Wikipedia en­try, where the 1990 ar­rest comes in the sec­ond para­graph.

Mer­rick Malone, a de­vel­oper who was Barry’s deputy mayor for eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, re­jects the car­i­ca­ture of Barry as a late-night punch­line.

“I know there are peo­ple who want to dwell on his mis­deeds and his flaws, but he was, frankly, a bril­liant per­son who gave up a lot of his ca­reer on be­half of oth­ers,” Malone said. “We do need a ded­i­cated ef­fort to re­mind peo­ple that there is rea­son we should re­mem­ber him pos­i­tively.” That ef­fort be­gan in earnest last week with a cer­e­mony at the Wil­son Build­ing, where the pro­posed statue was un­veiled. Cora Mas­ters Barry, the mayor’s fourth wife and the chief keeper of his rep­u­ta­tion, nod­ded ap­prov­ingly at the por­trayal of Barry as boldly astride a map of the District, one arm raised, a snappy fe­dora on his head.

She liked the like­ness. But the hat? No so much.

“He was re­ally known for his hair­line,” Barry said as city of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and many coun­cil

mem­bers, crowded in for a look at her hus­band’s bronzed im­age. “The hat will go.”

The de­sign is the re­sult of a two-year ef­fort by the 13-mem­ber D.C. Com­mis­sion to Com­mem­o­rate and Rec­og­nize the Hon­or­able Mar­ion S. Barry Jr., which Bowser formed a few months after her pre­de­ces­sor’s death. That com­mit­tee, which in­cluded Cora Mas­ters Barry and for­mer mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, rec­om­mended the strid­ing fig­ure of Barry and an ac­com­pa­ny­ing bas­re­lief panel de­pict­ing scenes from his early ca­reer.

“That’s him, that’s Mar­ion,” mur­mured one per­son in the crowd of sup­port­ers packed into the Wil­son Build­ing atrium when the African cer­e­mo­nial cloth was pulled off the statue.

Al­though the mayor’s hat and other de­tails may still be tweaked, the ef­fort now shifts to find­ing a fi­nal site in or around city hall for the life-size ver­sion of the work. The fi­nal cost of the project is ex­pected to be be­tween $350,000 and $400,000, ac­cord­ing to Arthur Espinoza, the D.C. Com­mis­sion on the Arts di­rec­tor who is over­see­ing the work. Bowser and the coun­cil will have the fi­nal say on the lo­ca­tion, along with what mix of pub­lic and pri­vate fund­ing will pay for it, he said.

Bowser hasn’t taken a po­si­tion on other ef­forts to stamp Barry’s moniker on the city, in­clud­ing re­nam­ing a high school or a stretch of Good Hope Road in South­east after him.

Barry re­mains a hero to many res­i­dents east of the Ana­cos­tia River. They re­mem­ber his jobs pro­gram for youths, his ap­pear­ances at count­less block par­ties and grad­u­a­tions, the face-to-face re­la­tion­ships with thou­sands of con­stituents of a self-de­scribed night owl prowl­ing the city in his de­crepit old Jaguar.

In the months be­fore his death, he was viewed fa­vor­ably by 81 per­cent of black Wash­ing­to­ni­ans and just 7 per­cent of whites. This week, at a com­mu­nity meet­ing in Barry’s home turf of Ward 8, at­ten­dees broke into rau­cous ap­plause when a speaker noted that the day would have been the mayor’s 81st birth­day. Many of them also knew his son, Mar­ion Christo­pher Barry, who died last year of a drug over­dose at 36.

In th­ese neigh­bor­hoods, Google or not, Barry’s legacy lives on in part be­cause peo­ple too young to re­mem­ber Barry hear about the man still known as “the mayor” from those who do.

“It’s part of an oral tra­di­tion now — peo­ple talk to their kids at the din­ner ta­ble,” said Jeneba Jal­loh Ghatt, a lawyer and blog­ger who grew up in the Shaw neigh­bor­hood. She mounted a spir­ited on­line de­fense of Barry after she felt many of his obit­u­ar­ies re­duced his his­tory to his worst fail­ures. (“Crack Mayor Dead at 78” read a TMZ head­line.)

“We long­time D.C. res­i­dents of old will not and can­not let the main­stream me­dia and out­siders dic­tate what Mar­ion Barry’s legacy was and will be,” Ghatt wrote. “They don’t know our story.”

That story in­cludes Barry’s early his­tory as a civil rights ac­tivist, his dogged com­mit­ment to em­ploy­ing teenagers each sum­mer, his open­ing up of gov­ern­ment jobs to African Amer­i­can pro­fes­sion­als and gov­ern­ment con­tracts to African Amer­i­can busi­ness.

“A lot of peo­ple be­lieve he was the cre­ator of a ro­bust black mid­dle class in this re­gion,” for­mer mayor and cur­rent D.C. Coun­cil mem­ber Vin­cent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) said after view­ing the statue he hopes will be erected in front of the Wil­son Build­ing on Penn­syl­va­nia Av­enue. “He cer­tainly de­serves a mon­u­ment. The things he did for this city were mon­u­men­tal.”

Elaine McCrary got her first job — work­ing at re­cre­ation cen­ter — thanks to Barry’s sum­mer pro­gram in the 1970s.

“They should name a park after him, like they did with Marvin Gaye,” McCrary said.

But other District res­i­dents say it will take more than a memo­rial to re­place their abid­ing im­pres­sion of Barry as the mayor who served prison time after be­ing caught smok­ing crack on cam­era in a 1990 FBI sting at the Vista Ho­tel.

“I know he did things for Wash­ing­ton, but how much dam­age did he do by do­ing drugs like that?” said Ann John­son, who moved to the District soon after Barry’s con­vic­tion. She would have an eas­ier time for­giv­ing him, she said, if he hadn’t come back for a star-crossed fourth term as mayor and then 10 more years on the D.C. Coun­cil. “Peo­ple are just go­ing to make jokes if they put his name on every­thing.”

John­son was shop­ping at the gleam­ing new Gi­ant in Shaw, one of the neigh­bor­hoods trans­formed by the in­flux of new res­i­dents in re­cent years. The gro­cery store, now full of or­ganic pro­duce and chai teas, is lo­cated in­side the old O Street Mar­ket, where gang­bangers shot eight shop­pers and killed one in 1994. That was a year that saw 399 homi­cides in Wash­ing­ton and the year that Barry, out of prison, ran suc­cess­fully again for mayor.

It’s a dif­fer­ent Wash­ing­ton, one younger and whiter than the “Choco­late City” of Barry’s hey­day, that will re­mem­ber him in years to come. Or not.

“I’ve never heard of him,” Matt Gher­ity said after be­ing asked about Barry as he shopped for ba­nanas at the Gi­ant. The 25year-old moved here from Min­nesota al­most two years ago.

Barry fre­quently railed against the gen­tri­fi­ca­tion that has made the District a mag­net for young new­com­ers, wor­ried that they were dis­plac­ing older and poorer res­i­dents. But the re­cent boom is also part of the Barry legacy, ac­cord­ing to Malone.

He cites the ex­am­ple of 14th Street, now a play­ground of ritzy restau­rants and high-end con­do­mini­ums. When Barry took power, the street was an ur­ban dis­as­ter zone, still try­ing to re­cover from the 1968 ri­ots and lined with liquor stores and pros­ti­tutes. Barry pushed for the Franklin D. Reeves Cen­ter, a ma­jor city of­fice com­plex, to be con­structed amid the bleak­ness.

“It had to start some­where, and that ugly build­ing was a source of jobs when pri­vate in­vest­ment wouldn’t touch that area,” Malone said. “What fi­nally hap­pened on 14th Street is what Mar­ion Barry in­tended to hap­pen.”

The city’s vi­brancy is part of what makes Wash­ing­ton so ap­peal­ing to Gher­ity, even if he hasn’t learned much yet about its lo­cal po­lit­i­cal his­tory. After ac­knowl­edg­ing he hadn’t heard of Barry, he knew what he would do to ed­u­cate him­self about the sem­i­nal D.C. fig­ure: “I’ll look him up when I get home.”


A ren­der­ing of a statue that would honor Mar­ion Barry.



AT TOP: The Mar­ion Barry mu­ral at­tracts vis­i­tors. ABOVE: Barry was “a bril­liant per­son who gave up a lot of his ca­reer on be­half of oth­ers,” said Mer­rick Malone, who was a deputy mayor for Barry.

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