Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C., written by long-time journalists Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood, examines the complicated mayoral tenure of civil rights activist and drug abuser Marion Barry during the 1980s to mid-1990s. The book, originally published in 1994, was recently released as an e-book and includes a new afterword on what’s changed in the District in the last 20 years. Teachers and students came out this month to participate in a book discussion hosted by the Center for Inspired Teaching, where they engaged with the authors and shared their own classroom experiences around Dream City.
Bill Stevens, a history teacher at the SEED School in southeast DC, said Barry’s rule struck a personal chord with some of his students. "One of my students realized his relative's first job was with Marion Barry," said Stevens. His students were all the more engaged in class during Dream City discussions, he added, as they discovered their own historical connections to the city.
Jaffe interjected during the discussion to emphasize that the city today is no longer the same one he and Sherwood wrote about in the early '90s. The subtitle of the new version of the book now reads, Race, Power and the Revival of Washington, D.C., as opposed to the "decline" of the city — which speaks to the idea that the District, which is still a violent city, is not nearly as dangerous as it was 20 years ago.
"And charter schools didn't exist here back then. Mayor Adrian Fenty helped fix schools and rebuild recreation centers," Jaffe said (though views differ on that point, given Fenty’s appointment of controversial figure Michelle Rhee as chancellor several years back). Fenty was mayor from 2007-11, and today charter schools comprise about 43 percent of all of the city’s students.
"We are whiter, younger, and richer now. The Manhattanization of Washington is happening," said Sherwood, adding that the middle class can no longer afford to live in the nation's capitol.
On that note, DeSario brought up a lively discussion that occurred in her classroom that touched on the book’s topics on class. Her students researched what the housing market looks like today in an effort to understand the effects of gentrification in recent years. "They were astonished to realize that houses they came across, in what they described as ‘shacks,’ were going for over $375," said DeSario.
When students in the audience asked the authors and teachers on the panel to further discuss gentrification as it stands today, Stevens shared this anecdote: Every year after Advanced Placement exams, he takes his students to Ben's Chili Bowl, a popular and historical eatery destination in the city. This was the first year that not one of his students had ever eaten there. His students no longer live in the northwest part of the city, where Ben's Chili Bowl is located, most likely due to the rising prices of housing and the area itself. Generations of people who have lived on certain blocks of the city have, no doubt, been forced to move in recent decades because of this change. "That's a pretty powerful reminder that this is families' histories we're talking about, and I feel I'm doing a disservice if I don't bring up gentrification with my students," said Stevens.
Sherwood encouraged students in the audience to contribute to their city's progress by being vocal about what their families and schools need from the government. Stevens, Jaffe, and DeSario also asked the students to use their phones to document their neighborhoods, with the goal of turning over the photos, videos, and recordings to the historical society for archival purposes.
"This city is changing so fast,” Jaffe said. “Record it, please.”
Francesca Duffy is a communications and advocacy specialist at a national association for school superintendents. She can be reached via email or Twitter.