Cont’d.

By the time I was 40, a small legacy, and  a house painfully acquired in a divorce, made me independently poor.

I quit jobbing, turned myself into a genocide scholar, wrote a 250,000 word manuscript, read some books, talked to some people, walked my two parents each through their deaths, and took up charity work. There  the action was even more brutal than it is in the working world.

Click. I am at a meeting for the Committee of 100, Washington D.C.’s smartest and most effective guardians of public space, in the tradition of Jane Jacobs. You know, like democracy was formed in, and takes place in, the public space.

All you need to know, by the world’s pioneer independent scholar.

The Committee are the only people in the world who got the joke when I called the World War Two Memorial on the national mall “the anti-Farrakhan device.” The memorial would be built smack dab in the center of the Million Man March crowd you see in the video clip link.

The Million Man March, October, 1995, takes place in public space subsequently occupied by the World War Two Memorial, whose siting was vehemently opposed by the Committee of 100 for the Federal City. The national mall was envisioned by L’Enfant as the nation’s gathering place of the democracy, and was the site of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. Large crowds are now unable to gather in that spot.

The Committee of 100 see themselves as very refined, as architects and urban designers do. They are. They’re dapper. They’re diverse.  They played a heroic part in resisting a racist highway, a la Robert Moses, through D.C.’s poor neighborhoods. Yet somehow, in the ’90s, a woman who fires a buddy of mine, her personal assistant, for “promoting a homosexual agenda” has risen to the top of the volunteer heap. She’s the president of this worthy organization. It’s in some Ivy League lunch club downtown whose name I can’t recall, emphasizing its old Washington Green Book liberals provenance.

The superintendent of the Washington, D.C. National Parks Service is at my table. She is preparing to speak after lunch. I am chatting her up. We both spent some time as children, as I recall, in Liberia. We have met previously on one occasion, when she came to the neighborhood park on whose board I serve to discuss the installation of a 10-foot wide bicycle path down the middle of the long and skinny park.

Me in Liberia, ca. 1952.

The community and the park board are united, for the first and probably last time in history, in opposition to the installation of the path. It’s basically because there would be no place left for pedestrians, dogs and children in the park. The entire park would effectively be rendered into shoulders for a commuter cyclists’ super highway. A years’ worth of letter-writing campaigns and full neighborhood opposition to the path have not been communicated by the D.C. park guy in charge, who wants to install the path with the white boys’ cyclists’ gravy train money.  This fits in with the theme throughout this saga of the privatization by unscrupulous private corporate interests of the commonweal. The park had been abandoned by the impoverished D.C. government, we had stepped in, and now the D.C. government wanted to kill the park with other peoples’ money.

The D.C. park guy is in the park with us, along with four or five other functionnaires, standing in the park gesticulating with blueprint rolls. He declares the 10-foot-wide bicycle path is “a done deal”.  This is a surprise to me. I beg to differ, on behalf of the park board and the community, whose organization in opposition to the path I led. The National Parks lady simply has not been informed by the D.C. park people that the bicycle path is anathema to the voters. I got to do that. By myself. Because I was the only member of the board and of the entire community who had time to spare in their busy schedules that day to prevent the National Park Service from signing on to the death of the park.

There’s another issue between the National Parks executive and the Friends of Rose Park. Rose Park is contiguous with a national park, along the edge of a cliff which is Rock Creek Park. The police tell me, and the community supports them, that they want to install street lights in a space in which rapes and muggings occur on a monthly basis. The National Parks lady opposes the installation of street lights because her number one priority is protection of the easement along the border between the D.C. park and the national park. Streetlights to save lives would impinge on the National Park easement.

In the secluded downtown university club, at the round luncheon table, I did not raise the issue of the double-cross with her. Nor the life-threatening dysfunction and deliberate depredations of the public health and safety. I’d been shanghai’d, set up and ambushed into confronting her in the park. None of that was mentioned. Only polite luncheon party discourse. What I will never forget is the look of fear in her eyes as she gathered the cards for her speech together after lunch. She looked up, an educated and effective woman executive,  a black champion of urban public space about to address her constituency, the whites showing all around her irises, as if she were about to enter the Roman colosseum in chains. She caught my eye, and I had to look down, at the starched white tablecloth.

Next up: abortion clinic defense, community journalism, the botanical gardens

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