Posts Tagged ‘Mayor Marion Barry’

Statue of Mayor Marion Barry

This past weekend a statue was unveiled in front of the John A. Wilson Building, which houses the mayor’s office and the D.C. Council, and is located at 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue (MAP), just blocks from The White House.  The statue is of a man who to some people was a “living legend” who advocated for the city’s poor.  To others he was a controversial figure, best remembered for being re-elected mayor despite serving a prison sentence for possession of crack cocaine.  The statue is a memorial to former D.C. “Mayor For Life” Marion Barry, who died at age 78 in 2014, and is buried here in the city in Historic Congressional Cemetery.

The 8-foot-tall, bronze statue of Barry was created by Maryland-based sculptor Steven Weitzman.  The statue was commissioned by the Executive Office of the Mayor in partnership with the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and the Marion Barry Commission, with its estimated cost of approximately $300,000.00 paid for by a combination of both taxpayer and private funds.  It is the first permanent public honor the District has given Barry, and one of only three full-body statues in the city of African Americans.

Barry’s supporters contend that Barry embodied the spirit of Washington and point to his: work in the 1960’s as a civil rights activist; serving as the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; being elected to the D.C. Board of Education; being elected to a seat on D.C.’s first elected city council; serving for a total of 16 years on the city council, the last 13 of which after he was shot by radical Hanafi muslims, from a breakaway sect of the Nation of Islam, when they overran the District Building in March of 1977; becoming the first prominent civil rights activist to become chief executive of a major American city, serving four terms as the city’s mayor, and; a number of notable achievements such as the founding the city’s summer jobs program which is now named after him.

But Barry’s detractors say he was also very controversial, and continued to be plagued throughout his life and career by: various legal problems such as failing to file tax returns and pay taxes; a variety of traffic violations including drunk driving and, at one point, accumulating over $2,800.00 in unpaid tickets for speeding and parking violations; conflicts of interest while in office, including personally benefiting from awarding a city contract to his then girlfriend;  being caught on videotape being arrested and subsequently convicted of smoking crack cocaine in a hotel room with an ex-model and propositioning her for sex, and; making racist remarks about Asian Americans at a party celebrating his primary victory during the election when he was elected to his last term on the city council, on which he served until his death.

Regardless of personal opinions about him, Barry’s legacy might best be summarized by the campaign slogan he adopted when he emerged from prison and dove straight back into politics: “He May Not Be Perfect, But He’s Perfect for D.C.”

[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

Black Rock Star Superhero

During today’s lunchtime bike ride, as I was riding in the 16th Street Heights neighborhood in northwest D.C., I saw a mural on the side of a building at the corner of 14th and Randolph Streets (MAP).  So I rode over to get a closer look.  The eclectic nature of the things in the mural indicated to me that there might be a good story behind it.  So later I researched the mural.  And I was right about there being a story behind it.  The mural has undergone several distinct phases to become what I saw today.

The mural was originally entitled Washington Pizza, and was located on the side of the Washington Pizza restaurant.  It was created by Alicia Cosnahan, also know professionally as Decoy, a local artist who creates a lot of local graffiti and murals.  In its original incarnation it showed a family eating, what looks like a couple of colorized local rowhouses, and an another person eating something.  It was topped off by a scrawled and odd-looking no parking warning.

For the 2014 release of “Mayor of D.C. Hip Hop” Head-Roc‘s album of the same name (which, by the way, contained a song entitled “Mayor for Life” in tribute to former four-term D.C. mayor, Marion Barry), local muralist Pahel Brunis modified the mural, which was then retitled “Black Rock Star Super Hero.” Some graffiti text reading Head Roc covered the family, and a likeness of Head-Roc, covered up the cool pizza-eating person.  Thankfully, he also covered up the scrawled “Washington Pizza parking only!”

Later that same year, on the morning of November 23, “Mayor-for-Life” Marion Barry died.  That same afternoon, Head-Roc, along with other local rappers, performed an impromptu musical tribute to Barry at the vacant lot in front of the mural.  As the music played Pahel Brunis returned and once again modified the mural, this time with a tribute to Barry.  It wasn’t planned.  He just grabbed what supplies he had at home and showed up.  Three hours later he had painted a large portrait of Barry on top of the rowhouses.  And that’s how the mural looks today, at least for now.

The Friendship Arch in Chinatown

The Friendship Arch in Chinatown

On this bike ride I not only rode to but also under my destination, which was the Friendship Archway located just east of the intersection of 7th and H Streets (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood.  The finished arch, or “paifang” in Chinese, is an impressive engineering achievement, standing 47 feet tall at the top of its highest roof, spanning 75 feet of roadway, and weighing over 128 tons. The roofing alone weighs 63 tons, supported by 27 tons of steel and 38 tons of concrete. Over 7,000 glazed tiles cover its five roofs, and 35,000 separate wooden pieces are decorated with 23-karat gold.  Reminiscent of the architecture from the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Friendship Arch’s seven pagoda-style roofs have golden color symbolic of wealth and honor, and hundreds of ornately painted dragons to welcome visitors to D.C.’s historic Chinatown neighborhood.  Constructed in 1986, it was said to have been the largest Chinese archway in the world at that time, which is ironic inasmuch as it serves as a gateway to what may be the smallest Chinatown in the United States.

D.C.’s Chinatown is located between H and I Streets and 5th and 8th Streets in the northwest quadrant of the city.  It originally developed in the late 19th century around Pennsylvania Avenue near 4th Street, where John Marshall Place Park is now.  Like many immigrant populations during that time, Chinese immigrants faced discrimination and downright hostility.  The creation of Chinatowns in D.C. and in other cities around the country was in part a defense mechanism to create safe havens where new immigrants could find shelter, sustenance, and employment.  D.C’s original Chinatown was forcibly disbanded in 1931 when the land was taken over by the government for municipal projects, but a new Chinatown was soon established in the location where it remains today.

Just a half a century later, however, Chinatown seemed on the verge of extinction. By the early 1980’s, many successful neighborhood residents and businesses had departed for safer and more prosperous parts of the city, or for the suburbs in Virginia and Maryland.  Chinatown still had a small cluster of restaurants and grocery stores, but the decline of the neighborhood, and the broader downtown area as a whole, made many wonder whether commercial establishments could remain viable in the future.  Chinatown community leaders, including chairman of the Chinatown Development Corporation and local architect Alfred H. Liu, who would go on to design the arch, argued in favor of creating a visible attraction that would serve as a magnet for visitors.

Within a few years, Mayor Marion Barry and other top city officials took a trip to Beijing to promote D.C. as an international business and finance center.  The trip was also in reciprocation for Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong’s visit to D.C. the previous fall.  This led to an agreement to establish D.C. and Beijing as sister cities.  And as part of the agreement, the two cities arranged to work together on a project to build a traditional archway in D.C.’s Chinatown.  The connection to Bejing and the People’s Republic of China met with objections from some Chinatown residents and business leaders, fearing that the Friendship Arch and Chinatown would be associated with the communist regime.  The arch’s opponents had enough clout to get their city council representative, John Wilson, to introduce a resolution opposing the arch’s construction.  And for a time there was talk of constructing a second, separate arch to rival the Friendship Arch.  In the end, plans for a rival arch never materialized, and upon its completion the Friendship Arch was widely embraced and celebrated.

Within a few years of its completion, however, the arch unexpectedly began to deteriorate.  At first a few tiles fell off.  Then, in June of 1990, one of the 100-pound carved dragons fell off and landed on the roof of a truck. Some saw it has an omen.  Since such a gateway traditionally is, among other things, a manifestation of imperial splendor, some Chinese would say the fall of one of its dragons portends the emperor’s own immanent fall.  Sure enough, on that same evening Mayor Marion Barry took to the airwaves to announce that he would be stepping down when his term ended and not running again in the fall elections, as he had been planning.  Barry had been arrested at the Vista Hotel in a sting operation in January; he would be found guilty of one charge of possession of cocaine and sentenced to a 6-month prison term.  In 1993 a major renovation project was undertaken, and the restoration of the Friendship Arch was completed shortly after Marion Barry was released from prison to be elected to the city council and then re-elected mayor.

Today D.C.’s Chinatown is home to a number of Chinese restaurants, a Chinese video store, a handful of general stores, and Chinese American cultural and religious charities.  It is also home to big national chain stores and restaurants, a theater, offices and high rise condominiums, and the Verizon Center, a sports and entertainment arena for the Washington Capitals and the Washington Wizards.  Unfortunately, the revitalization of the neighborhood is also a factor that contributed to the decline of its ethnic character.  But the Friendship Archway remains an enduring and iconic symbol of Chinatown’s heritage.