Marion Barry was a complicated and controversial man who symbolized many things to most people. Much of it wasn’t the best a city could hope to have.
The outpouring of reaction to news of the former four-term D.C. mayor and sitting longtime D.C. Council member’s sudden death due to hypertensive cardiovascular disease in the early hours of Sunday at the age of 78 will undoubtedly intensify in coming days. Barry’s frail-of-late and finally failed body is expected to lie in state at the District Building, flags are flying at half-mast and quick planning for a large-scale memorial event is underway.
His “home going” signifies the departure of the most prominent and influential figure dominating the city’s mere four-decade modern era. Since the implementation of Home Rule in 1974, when the then school board chairman was first elected to the inaugural D.C. Council, no other political practitioner would come to epitomize D.C. in the same way or to the same degree. Nor might there ever be another.
An always larger-than-life politician who enjoyed the notion of empowerment and self-governance more than he was adept at delivering it, his well-known foibles and offenses will be duly noted. He will be given more credit for lifting up “the least, the last and the lost” than he ever actually conveyed. The only honest homage he earned in that realm was redemption as salvation and hope as aspiration. He was most often forgiven the failure to provide more.
Overlooked in the many retrospectives, recollections and remembrances following his passing, however, has been the thing that time may tender as large in his legacy.
More than most dared to envision at the time, Barry believed that the business community was the key to rebuilding what was a broke-down town. The city’s core and broad swaths of its high-profile corridors remained as pockmarked from the late-60s riots and the decline that followed as economic ruin has wrought in Detroit. D.C. was a desperate disaster.
Barry successfully cajoled developers and convinced businesses that the then-hollow shell of a downtown could become what it is today.
Coupled with the construction of the original Washington Convention Center that would spur development, including the now-named Verizon Center arena and Gallery Place environs, and the Reeves Center municipal building that signified hope for a revitalized 14th Street corridor that would come, Barry understood that the road to rejuvenation and economic vitality required the enlistment of the private sector.
Believing in a better city business could build was how he laid the ground-level foundation for today’s thriving D.C. Through encouragement of a nascent slow renaissance of the central core, Barry demonstrated that enterprise was the essential economic engine.
He viewed business as ally to enlist, not foe to encumber.
Unlike the corrupt self-dealing and personal aggrandizement that in recent years has felled or tainted elected officials, Barry never sought to personally profit from the economic development engendered. He demonstrated his commitment to the city and his love for its people in a manner perhaps we’ve become too cynical to appreciate.
Barry may not have been a competent manager of the type voters demand today. His patronage-bloated payroll took subsequent mayors years to reduce. His fantasy-based accounting methods bankrupted government and resulted in the loss of financial and management control for a time. Under his watch the school system deteriorated and District agencies wallowed in dysfunction.
At the nadir of his mayoral tenure private contractors wouldn’t work with the city to plow snow from the streets for fear they’d never be paid, city employees wouldn’t answer the rotary-dial phones they were provided or dig through the index cards in recipe-style metal boxes that held handwritten records. Barry allowed the city to devolve to the worst imaginable state of affairs.
Yet he was a friend to business and business returned the favor when the city most needed help.
That’s a lesson that shouldn’t be forgotten.