Saturday, September 6, 2008

Say Hey Ray!

Ray's the Heat is coming to the East River Park Shppping Center (on the corner of Minnesota and Benning Road). Welcome news indeed. I've been to Ray's the Steaks in Arlington, and the food is great. Ray's also seems set on being local restaurant. For instance, it doesn't accept reservations over the phone. You have to show up and put your name in, which tends to favor residents near-by. Ray's is scheduled to open in April.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Illegitimacy in the Ward

I moved to Deanwood in 2006, at the tail end of the D.C. housing boom. My realtor had some experience in this area, a friend had just moved his family into a neighborhood nearby, and a house could be bought relatively cheap. I knew by the iron bars on the windows and the security doors on each house that the area’s not-all-that-distant past was a difficult one. I also knew that the area had a number of public housing authority’s nearby that might prove to be a crime hazard at some point.

But I genuinely liked the neighborhood, many of the distinctly Deanwood homes, and the people who live here, many of whom are hard-working, lower middle class blue-collar workers. My sense was that the Deanwood was going to make a rebound in the years ahead. Two years later, I am still of that view. It is one of the reasons why I wanted to start writing about the area—to educate, to promote, and personally, to understand.

All neighborhoods are imperfect, whether it be the residents, events or circumstances that shape it (like crime or a bad economy), the scenery, or the amenities (or lack thereof), and it’s important to share the good and the bad. Its important to both describe the area’s promise and its failings, where it is growing and where it is still hurting.

To get a better read on how exactly how Deanwood is doing, I looked to Charles Murray for a basic framework. Murray, one of the foremost chroniclers of American welfare policy over the last three decades, points to three main indicators for tracking the underclass, by which he means those individuals who lack the basic building blocks of a society and experience extreme poverty, not just in their lack of resources but in their social relationships. His indicators are 1) criminality, 2) male dropouts from the labor force, and 3) illegitimate births. My hope is to look at each one at a time in the weeks ahead. For now, let’s take a look at that last indicator—the number of illegitimate births.

Murray writes in The Underclass Revisited:

When a large proportion of the children in a given community grows up without fathers, the next generation, especially the young males in the next generation, tends to grow up unsocialized—unready to take on the responsibilities of work and family; often criminal, often violent. The effects of absent fathers are compounded by the correlations of illegitimacy with intellectual, emotional, and financial deficits among the mothers—deficits that in turn show correlations with bad parenting practices.

From this vantage report, Ward 7 is clearly struggling. According to the D.C. Department of Health, in 2004 (the most recent available year), 82.6% of births were illegitimate—more than 8 out of 10 babies born out of wedlock. This is compared with D.C.’s overall illegitimacy ratio of 56% and 35% nationally (2003 figure).

Is the illegitimacy ratio improving? Maybe. In 2000, while the D.C. ratio was 60.3% and the national ratio was 33.2%, the Ward 7 ratio was 83.3%. With national illegitimacy slightly on the rise, it has actually dropped 7% in the District, but only by 0.7% in Ward 7, which may or may not be statistically significant. It appears that Ward 7 is either not or has yet to benefit from the same trends in the number of illegitimate births. Perhaps there is silver lining in the fact that these numbers seem to be crawling in the right direction, but it is hard to get particularly excited about what these numbers suggest about the next generation of youth who are currently growing up in Deanwood. Murray writes further:

If 80-90 percent of the children in a neighborhood are born to unmarried women…then young boys grow up with only one visible example of what it means to be a grown-up male—the bad one. The social problem represented by illegitimacy[becomes] a crisis.

Ward 7 is in the midst of such a crisis, and we need to be talking a whole lot more about promoting marriage and abstinence in our schools. We need to use every opportunity to affirm our young women’s desire to have children but encourage them to do so within the context of marriage first. We need to be encouraging our young men to prize marriage themselves, to care enough about their girlfriends to wait for it, and then to be hard-working providers for their families for life. Marriage and abstinence work, and any politician, civic leader, or educator who fail to see that are simply not worthy of serving the ward.

I hope to have more later on actual policy proposals. However, in the meantime, since we’re now a little more than a week away from local elections, how about asking each candidate how they intend to promote marriage and abstinence, if elected? How about asking the incumbent, Yvette Alexander, what she has done to deal with illegitimacy in her time in office? The responses would likely show who has thought deeply about the fundamental issues affecting neighborhoods like Deanwood in Ward 7, and who is prepared to lead.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Kelly Miller Makes the Grade

Deanwood Middle School Kelly Miller will be one of the 14 schools particpating in the D.C. cash-for-attendance program. I don't know. Might we want to at least require that a portion of the money be saved for college?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Panhandling in the Ward

City Journal’s Steve Malanga has a great article about a new wave of panhandlers in cities across the U.S. He remembers the famous crackdown in the early 1990s by Mayor Rudi Guiliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton when New York got tough with the squeegee men and other beggars. The squeegee men would swarm cars, particularly on exit ramps of highways and stoplights, in order to clean your windows without asking, and then expect payment in return. If you refused, they either blocked traffic or keyed your car.

While many cities made similar reforms, many did not, and the problem now seems to be on the rise again. Malanga notes that the panhandlers are now using technology to improve their “skills,” leading to more and more professionalism. For instance, NeedCom—a PBS website (federally subsidized, no less)—even provides market research for panhandlers.

This got me thinking. Does D.C. have a law, and if so, is it enforced? Panhandling may not be a problem in other parts of the city, but it does seem to more prevalent in Ward 7. I get approached at the Exxon station (routinely), the metro, and even on my own property.

In fact, it does—the Panhandling Control Act of 1993 (DC Code §22-2301-2306). Section 2302 states that:

(a) No person may ask, beg, or solicit alms, including money and other things of value, in an aggressive manner in any place open to the general public, including sidewalks, streets, alleys, driveways, parking lots, parks, plazas, buildings, doorways and entrances to buildings, and gasoline service stations, and the grounds enclosing buildings. [emphasis added]

(b) No person may ask, beg, or solicit alms in any public transportation vehicle; or at any bus, train, or subway station or stop.

(c) No person may ask, beg, or solicit alms within 10 feet of any automatic teller machine (ATM).

(d) No person may ask, beg, or solicit alms from any operator or occupant of a motor vehicle that is in traffic on a public street.

(e) No person may ask, beg, or solicit alms from any operator or occupant of a motor vehicle on a public street in exchange for blocking, occupying, or reserving a public parking space, or directing the operator or occupant to a public parking space.

(f) No person may ask, beg, or solicit alms in exchange for cleaning motor vehicle windows while the vehicle is in traffic on a public street.

(g) No person may ask, beg, or solicit alms in exchange for protecting, watching, washing, cleaning, repairing, or painting a motor vehicle or bicycle while it is parked on a public street.

(h) No person may ask, beg, or solicit alms on private property or residential property, without permission from the owner or occupant.

The law basically allows non-aggressive panhandler as a general rule, and then sets forth where it is not allowed (near ATMs, at Metro stations, on buses, private property, etc.) at all. “Aggressive” panhandling is defined as begging in a way that would cause a reasonable person to fear bodily harm, any touching while begging, and importantly, “continuously asking…after the person has made a negative response.” So once you say no to a panhandler, any further asking enters the zone of illegality.

Is the law being enforced in Ward 7? I doubt it, as far as arrests are concerned. I have seen some police officers on Segways along Benning Road and East Capitol Street, which is sort of a modern day cop on a beat and serves as a deterrent. But I think a few more arrests would do the area good. The law allows that in place of a $300 fine (or 90 days in jail) someone convicted can provide community service. Ward 7 has a lot of trash that needs picking up.

And the law may need to be strengthened. Malanga points to a number of promising examples in other cities that are creative, effective, and yet still allow a place for minimal begging.

Orlando allows begging only in “panhandling zones,” demarcated by blue boxes painted on the sidewalks in several locations. A more common response has been to educate the public about panhandling and to offer alternative ways to help those who really need it. The Nashville Downtown Partnership, for instance, has launched a publicity campaign, “Please Help, Don’t Give,” which explains through posters that money given to panhandlers often supports drug and alcohol addictions. The partnership asks people to donate instead to organizations that provide local services.

Denver’s anti-panhandling initiative seems particularly promising. The city has turned 86 old, unused parking meters into donation boxes and placed them around downtown. The meters allow people to give directly on the street, where they’re likely to encounter panhandlers, assuring donors that their money will go to programs to assist the truly needy.

An updated D.C. law would send a powerful signal to Ward 7 and other areas with struggling mom-and-pop shops that are most susceptible to lost economic activity from consumers seeking to avoid panhandlers. It might even cause them to take the security plexiglass down with a reasonable expectation of being more secure, which of course would make all of us feel better about our area. We might even take the bars off our windows.

Excessive panhandling may not seem like that big of deal when there are so many more high-profile issues dominating our newspapers every day (shootings, drugs, poverty, and failing schools to name a few), but a society ignores such problems at its own peril. History screams reminders that "broken windows" need to be repaired.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Taller Could Very Well Be Better

It's hard for me to get very excited about any federal or city subsidies for development because they don't come free. They're extracted from the paycheck of hard-work people who are normally a whole lot more efficient in developing their communities through prosperty and job creation. (Now don't get me wrong. If the city is going to distribute subsidies, I want them flowing east of the Anacostia river where they can do the most good.) But this is a development policy idea than I can get excited about-lifting the city's height-limit law for all areas of east of the river.

The Fenty administration, [Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Neil] Albert said, hopes to prod developers to invest east of the Anacostia River, where he said historic areas such as Anacostia, Deanwood and Congress Heights are ripe for what has been built downtown: a dense mix of residential, commercial and retail.

But to achieve that vision, Albert said, the District probably will have to reconsider one of its main tools for controlling development: a height-limit law that bars virtually all city buildings more than 130 feet. Lifting the cap in areas east of the Anacostia River, he said, could mean taller buildings and the chance to create the kind of population density necessary to attract retailers and create thriving neighborhoods. "There's nothing that would develop Poplar Point faster than if investors saw it as a place to build high-rise offices," he said. "We hear a growing drumbeat from planners and developers that it's the right thing to do."

DC restricts the height of buildings to no more than 20 feet taller than the width of the street in front of it. So a 110-ft wide street would allow a 130-ft building. This 1910 law replaced the earlier and more widely-known version that limited buildings to the height of the Capitol. While many observers have noted that it promotes sprawl, depresses tax revenues, increases the cost of housing, and leads to traffic congestion, the restriction has long been a third rail in DC politics by those who fear that any loosening could mar the city's asthetics forever.

My guess is that some will argue that the prospect of taller buildings in new areas would transform close-knit communities. It may, but likely for the better. Think cheaper housing, more restaurants and coffee-shops (only one Denny's now exists as a sit-down restaurant), employers offering new jobs, better opportunities, and shorter commutes. And allowing taller buildings in certain areas doesn't mean allowing taller buildings in every area. There would still be a legitimate place for zoning restrictions.

Others might fear that development of this sort would lead to increased property taxes that would likely prove unaffordable for many of the long-term residents that give so much character to the area. Well, the enacting law could easily be written to adjust residential property taxes in Wards 7&8 downward as any new tax revenues are generated, a sort of development dividend for ward residents.

This may not be an idea whose time has yet come, but it is bold and promises real benefits for this area. Here is hoping our politicians let it see the light of day.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Beer and Guns in the East

Sandra Seegers is running again in nearby Ward-8 to unseat the infamous Marion Barry. Say this about "S.S.", as she likes to be called, she knows something about fighting crime. She believes rightfully that the Supreme Court got it right when they overturned the DC gun ban and affirmed DC residents right to bear arms. Seegars says that, "As soon as we get a gun dealer, I'm going to buy a gun." Me too.

She's also been one of the more vocal opponents of a bill to ban the sale of single beers in Ward 7 & 8. The bill is an attempt to deal with public drunkeness and littering. She notes that it discriminates against people who can't afford a six-pack. It does. It also won't work. Public drunkeness and littering may actually be worse as beer drinkers buy, drink, and discard six instead of one. And as someone who picks up nearly a garbage bag of trash each week around his house, trust me. Its not just the beer bottles that are the litter problem. Its the KFC baskets, the candy wrappers, and just today, some kids crocs. We need more people who will throw their trash in metal cans or those men in blue suits that you see in other parts of the city. We don't need the DC city government telling us that we have to buy six-packs instead of singles.

A Chancellor Committed to Results

I'm rooting for Michelle Rhee. The DC School Chancellor was profiled on the front page of the Washington Post this morning for her whirlwind, first-year exploits to fix 120 public schools. She is aggressive, demands results, and seems to be committed to the notion that conventional wisdom isn't always right, even if its being pushed collectively by entrenched and tired teachers, self-important politicans on the DC council, or perhaps well-meaning parents who simply want to be "allowed to play a role in creating the culture of [a] new school." As one Rhee confidant says in the article, "Those who scream the loudest were [are] used to winning."

To be sure, I don't agree with everything Ms. Rhee is proposing, such as paying kids to attend school, but when it comes to asking the District's teachers to be judged by their craft, instead of their number of years on the job, sign me up. It's time for many teachers to remember that their interests are not always aligned with student's interests and to be honest with the public about that fact. And its time for those teachers, who really are the jewels of our schools and who will thrive under a system that rewards solid teaching, to stand up and support the Chancellor. Some appear to be ready to do just that.

(And kudos to former Ward-7 Councilman Kevin Chavous for his warm praise of Ms. Rhee historic efforts.)