Letter From Washington
ONLY THE CRAZY CAN LOVE THIS TOWN
You've got to love this place. I certainly do. Why else would I be here? You think I'm crazy?
It's no cakewalk, living in Washington. Twice, the District of Columbia has tried to seize my home and auction it off for delinquent taxes and fines. Except they got the wrong house. No apologies, though. Only a snarly rent-a-cop unsnapping his Mace holster ominously when I went to City Hall to complain. Like all D.C. residents, I'm used to such treatment. Once, my car was towed from a perfectly legal spot in the faux-hip Georgetown neighborhood. "There should have been a `No Parking' sign there," a policeman explained without irony. I once got a $100 ticket for parking on a snow emergency route--hours before the first flake fell.
BIG DROP. If I didn't love D.C. so much, I'd be moving out. Everybody else is. In 1970, there were 757,000 residents. Now, just 570,000. Who's leaving? The middle class. In 1985, there were 320,000 residents here who worked and paid taxes; by 1993, just 250,000--a 22% drop. With such a declining tax base, no wonder the city is facing a $722 million deficit and possible bankruptcy. On Feb. 2, Mayor Marion Barry Jr. asked Congress for $276 million and a federal takeover of Medicaid, welfare, hospitals, and prisons.
Why is everyone bolting? It probably has something to do with taxes. D.C. residents pay some of the highest per-capita individual, corporate, and property taxes in the nation. Spending is impressive, too: two times that of Boston, which is approximately the same size, after correcting for state payments.
Or maybe it's the city's crime rate that has people scurrying for the 'burbs. The District had the highest murder rate in 1992. And what other city sports a convicted crackhead as mayor? Barry sought reelection by promising prisoners earlier parole and an "Office of Offender Affairs" staffed by released inmates. All presumably on the theory that many D.C. families would vote for Barry just to get their men out of stir and into a job. Evidently it worked, since Barry won a fourth term. But Barry's early-release program wasn't really necessary. One out of four halfway-house inmates simply walk away, city officials admit.
The police do what they can. But their hearts don't seem to be in it. When Asian-American shopkeepers in my neighborhood complained of a string of armed robberies that left nine of their number dead, Police Chief Fred Thomas suggested they close their shops earlier and "give up a few dollars."
D.C.'s level of corruption can also be breathtaking. A federal probe of the District's public-housing office found that almost everyone who received rent subsidies in 1991 and '92 had to pay kickbacks, often from $500 to $1,000. During Barry's first three terms, 11 top city officials were convicted of corruption.
Not everyone flees, of course. Some just complain. Thomas N. Edmonds, a media consultant, was so angry he wrote D.C. By the Numbers, a 251-page compilation of shameful statistics that places D.C. at the bottom of nearly every indicator. "Never have so many spent so much and accomplished so little," says Edmonds, who lives on crime-plagued Capitol Hill. William A. Niskanen, a neighbor and chairman of the libertarian Cato Institute, says D.C.'s government is America's second worst, after Detroit. D.C. spends twice the national average per resident "without providing a single high-quality government service," he says.
PLENTY OF SKY. Now a new solution--my personal favorite--appears to be gaining support: Grant D.C. the same status as Guam, American Samoa, and Puerto Rico, America's other Third World holdings, and exempt it from federal income taxes--a $1.6 billion windfall. House Majority Leader Newt Gingrich wants to turn the residential portions of the city over to Maryland. Meanwhile, the White House has formed a "working group" to monitor the District's financial travails.
So why live here? Well, the panhandlers are polite. The city's building-height restrictions mean you can always see the sky. People here aren't as beautiful as in L.A. or as well-dressed as in New York, but they're lots smarter. I've met astronauts, spies, Holocaust survivors, mystics, and the real Barney here.
Besides, who'd buy my house?PAUL MAGNUSSON