It was a short drive from my hotel in Washington, DC’s toney National Harbor district to the Capitol. But we were stuck in heavy traffic on I-295 into downtown. My Uber driver slid to the outside lane and hit the exit. “I have a quicker way to get downtown,” he said. That was fine with me, although I really wasn’t in a hurry.
Within minutes we were smack in the middle of the Anacostia ghetto. We might as well have taken the exit to Mars.
I live in South Carolina, in a comfy suburb across the lake from Charlotte (NC). My town seems to me like normal America. My trips to the city can sometimes take me through areas that are not exactly high-rent districts. But they don’t look or feel anything like Anacostia. Over the years I’ve been through the barrio on Figueroa in LA, I have cruised around South Chicago, I’ve seen some of the underbelly of Detroit. I thought I had seen some of the ugliest armpits our nation has to offer. But Anacostia was an eye-opener.
We drove through mile after mile of liquor stores, check-cashers, and raggedy store-fronts, each decorated with young black men (and a few women) leaning against them. It was 10:00 a.m., and clearly none of the Anacostia folks had anywhere to go or anything to do. Some chugged beers, a few shared doobies openly on the street, and here and there were clusters of guys who appeared to be negotiating their next big deal. It was so totally foreign, I gaped out the passenger window in dropped-jaw amazement. I must have looked like a zoo animal to them. A boarded up dilapidated cafe, an elementary school unfit for the rats that live there, a rehab clinic doing brisk business. A muscular young guy jogging and shadow-boxing, Rocky-style. A wheelchair-bound young woman rolling up to a grubby corner drug store.
I’m not one who notices race first, but the segregation was jarring – there was not a single face that was not African-American.
My Vietnamese immigrant driver pretended to be oblivious to the bizarre scene, but his eyes saw what mine did. “It nicer across freeway,” he repeated several times in broken English.
Block after block, my state of mind shifted from shock to amazement to concern. By the time we emerged from Anacostia and re-entered the “normal” world, I was despondent. How the hell did this happen? Why hasn’t anybody done anything about this? We can’t just leave these hopeless people and this God-forsaken mess like it is.
There is no excuse for this kind of scene in the United States of America. Whoever gets elected in November had better take a good hard look at what’s going on in Anacostia, and Detroit, and South Chicago, and LA.
I could bore you with all of the tried-and-failed stock solutions to poverty and blight. But you’ve heard plenty of empty promises over the years, from the left and the right. More welfare is not the answer – it hasn’t worked and it never will. Telling people to get to work isn’t it either – there are no jobs for the totally unskilled and unschooled people of the Anacostia ghetto. This won’t get better until the American people decide it is unacceptable, move in, and get after it.
My trip through the ghetto brought home one message loud and clear. We had better not waste another dollar or another ounce of labor or another drop of compassion on opportunistic foreign immigrants until we bring Anacostia back to normal America.
Tom Balek – Rockin’ On the Right Side
It’s survival in the city
When you live from day to day
City streets don’t have much pity
When you’re down, that’s where you’ll stay