Posts about Vincent Gray
Mayor Vincent Gray recently announced that DC will renovate 8 more playgrounds next year, bringing his "Play DC" project to a total of 40 playgrounds. That's a far cry from the 1990s, when residents who wanted a new playground were basically left to fend for themselves.
The District is allocating $1 million for each of those playground makeovers. And every two years, the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) will evaluate all play spaces according to a scorecard, looking at factors like the age and condition of equipment and the needs of the surrounding community.
I'm truly happy for today's young children and their caregivers, who are benefiting from the District's largesse. But I can't help feeling just a little jealous. Twenty years ago, when my own neighborhood playground was a deserted, rotting disaster, the District wasn't quite as vigilant, or as generous.
I hadn't intended to become a community playground activist. In fact, I had pretty much stopped noticing the barren, heath-like space near my Chevy Chase DC house that contained a few dangerous, broken-down items of play equipment, including a mysterious wooden structure that suggested a gallows.
But a neighbor of mine who lived just across the Maryland line asked me one day if there wasn't something I could do about that playground. Surely I, as a DC resident, could get the situation taken care of.
Well, of course, I told her. That's when it hit me that I had been driving my kids to other neighborhoods to play when there was a playground, or something that could be turned into a playground, a mere 10-minute walk from my house. This was ridiculous.
Little help from DC
Naively, I thought I would simply call the relevant District officials and they would send someone out to replace the equipment. Ha. I was told that the District couldn't possibly fund such a project, but if I could raise the lion's share of the money, and do all the planning, they would kick in some matching funds.
I'm not sure exactly what happened next, because I hate fundraising, and I'm not wild about meetings. But somehow I found myself at the helm of a grassroots playground committee made up of other parents of young kids. We met in each other's living rooms, knocked on doors, and asked everyone we could think of for money.
We also pored over catalogs of playground equipment, trying to figure out what would both appeal to kids and be safe (two things that don't always go together). None of us had any background in playground design, but we did our best.
We met and knocked on doors for years. One couple started out bringing their infant, and as we kept meeting we watched him learn to roll over, sit up, and eventually walk. But ultimately we managed to raise enough money: $25,000. The District contributed $15,000. (Or at least, those are the figures I and one other former committee member recall.)
Looking back, it's amazing to me that we tolerated this situation. But this was in the Marion Barry/Sharon Pratt Dixon era, when DC residents more or less took it for granted that they couldn't rely on the District to provide certain basic services.
You needed to get a pothole fixed? Good luck. If it snowed, you didn't expect to see a plow coming down your street. After the blizzard of '96, our street was cleared only because one of my neighbors had tickets to a basketball game he was determined not to miss. He took up a collection and used the money to commandeer a snowplow that was clearing a nearby church parking lot.
The Wild West
It was our version of the Wild West: you want something done, you form a posse. And there are certain satisfactions to be gained from such self-help campaigns. I met many neighbors as a result of the playground effort and made some lasting friendships. By the time the playground was finished my own kids were too old to take much interest in it, but I got a warm feeling every time I passed by and saw it brimming with boisterous toddlers.
Now, two renovations later, the Chevy Chase Playground is almost unrecognizable: larger, more elaborate, with the kind of soft, springy surface that we wanted back then but couldn't afford. The DC Tots blog has named it one of the nicest playgrounds in the city. I like to think I had a small part in setting it on the path to that status.
But frankly, I'm willing to trade all those warm feelings for a local government that actually provides the kinds of services taxpayers have a right to expect. And in a process that began with the election of Anthony Williams as mayor in 1998, DC is finally getting there.
I'm not saying that community groups have no role to play in something like playground maintenance. One of the goals of the Play DC program is to "encourage volunteerism and partnerships at playgrounds," and that's great. The group I helped found, Friends of Chevy Chase Playground is, as far as I know, still in existence. But these volunteer groups no longer have to shoulder the primary burden of raising funds and planning, as we did.
True, the District government still falls short of perfection, and more often than not what we hear are complaints: we still have scandals, the schools still have a long way to go. But I can remember when our mayor was caught smoking crack, and when the kids in my neighborhood had to wear hats and coats inside our local elementary school because the boiler was broken for weeks on end.
No doubt it's human nature to focus on the negative, especially when many current DC residents weren't around to experience what things were like here 20 years ago. But sometimes I have an urge to accost the kids on those renovated playgrounds, and their parents, and tell them just how lucky they are.
On Monday, DC Mayor Vincent Gray said he will seek a second term. He joins an already crowded field, which will make for a very interesting race. But there's also the question of how Gray has done as mayor.
What are his biggest accomplishments? What are his biggest disappointments? And does he deserve a second term? Our contributors weigh in:
On transportation, Gray has been OK but not perfect. He's done a good job moving the streetcar program forward, but progress on bike infrastructure has moved much more slowly than it did under Fenty. He'd be a low risk/moderate reward choice for a second term. We'd know that we'd be getting someone who basically advances our goals, but maybe not as quickly as a more progressive candidate might. On land use planning, he's worth voting for just to keep Harriet Tregoning on the job.
One Gray accomplishment that I'm fond of is the Vision for a Sustainable DC, which cuts across departments and agencies and sets aggressive goals for emissions reduction and restoration of clean waters and healthy ecosystems. It remains to be seen how aggressively Gray will implement the plan and whether each department will receive adequate funding for their share of the work, but the plan is a significant step in the right direction.
I also applaud Gray for sticking with the streetcar plan despite opposition from many corners, including many voters who supported him.
However, I am unhappy with Gray's positions on minimum wage and labor standards issues. The majority of the Council is ahead of him there. I supported the Large Retailer Accountability Act and am dismayed that Gray vetoed it.
I think Gray and Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services BB Otero have made great headway in planning, laying out a vision and foundation that moves DC in the right direction (Sustainable DC and Age Friendly DC are my two big ones).
We will have to wait and see, though, how implementation plays out (as Malcolm mentioned) either through Gray in a second term or through a newly elected administration that could turn all of that good work on its head. I'm inclined to say he deserves a second term because it's a better bet for successful implementation. But maybe I would also support a candidate that recognizes those accomplishments and is highly committed to being an implementer.
Although "One City" sometimes gets short shrift, Mayor Gray has done much to fill the slogan with meaning. The One City Summit, held in early 2012, brought 1800 residents to the Washington Convention Center.
It was actually successful at getting the participants to work together in diverse groups to identify the priorities for government services and the future of the city. Participants became engaged while educating themselves about the trade-offs of various policies, such as how new business attraction may drive out existing small businesses.
Increasing sustainability and diversifying DC's economy while improving access to it were the big policy winners at the Summit. And Gray's administration has followed up, continuing its support for the Sustainable DC plan, promoting development at the St. Elizabeths site, and enabling continued growth city-wide through the MoveDC plan and relaxation of the Height Act.
Bringing Walmart to the District is a negative for sustainability and diversifying the economy. While improving the connections between education and jobs will take much more time, it is clear that Mayor Gray is not just continuing past policies on autopilot, but is asking hard questions about how the city and the region can succeed in the years ahead.
Councilmember David Grosso has called for Mayor Gray to pay DC employees during the federal government shutdown and to implement DC laws without submitting them to Congress for approval. His actions show us that the path to statehood isn't through protest, but by simply living as free citizens of a state.
Until this point, DC residents relegated to second-rate status have had two options. First, we could meekly submit to the humiliating rituals imposed upon us by federal law. Remember when a US Senator put a hold on our budget because they didn't like our taxi fares?
Second, we could protest as we have for decades. Mayor Gray was arrested for sitting down in traffic to protest our status. Grosso offers a third way, and the best part is that we cannot lose.
Unlike every other jurisdiction in America, during a federal government shutdown the District of Columbia cannot spend its own locally-raised tax money. That's because Congress treats DC's budget as part of the federal budget.
Mayor Gray has responded to this obvious injustice by going back and forth between our two traditional options, protest and obedience. Last week, Gray confronted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at a press conference, and has staged protests on a nearly daily basis.
But ultimately Gray says that he is prepared to obey this unjust law if protests prove unsuccessful. Mayor Gray said in a speech last week that paying DC employees during the shutdown would undermine our "moral authority."
Gray's speech shows a lack of understanding of the moral logic of nonviolent disobedience in the face of unjust laws. Nonviolent disobedience isn't simply protesting by breaking the law. It's avoiding protest altogether and instead living one's life as a free citizen, even if innocent activities of daily life are illegal.
The central appeal of disobedience is that it cannot lose. Protests only work when those in power concede some of their power. Disobedience always works, because you deny to anyone authority over your freedom to live as a full human being.
That's why disobedience always works. It immediately undoes the most harmful effect of unjust laws: when a community internalizes its second-rate status.
Statehood isn't about budgeting, though that is one important benefit. It's true that DC residents bear a heavy fiscal burden, to the tune of about $1 billion a year, because of a structural deficit that Congress would likely fix if DC was a state.
But statehood isn't about the budget. It's about dignity and ridding much of our community of decades of internalized disenfranchisement. So many of our social and economic challenges in DC stem from a deep lack of agency, what many call a spiritual disenfranchisement. In his landmark book Development as Freedom, Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen calls this internalized disempowerment the true source of poverty.
When our mayor claims the dignity of self-governance and simply governs as any other freely-elected mayor would, we can expect a larger percentage of our city's remarkable talent will stand up to govern too, as Kojo Nnamdi so eloquently explains. In fact, disobeying laws denying our self-governance engenders far more civic dignity than the civic pride of a thousand professional sports franchises.
So, breaking unjust laws doesn't undermine moral authority. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. broke unjust laws. Jesus broke unjust laws. And, of course, so did Mahatma Gandhi.
Czech dissident Vaclav Havel called this "living in truth." Under communism, Czech dissidents split between activists planning petitions and artists who simply wanted to do their art. Havel unified them by explaining to activists that attending a banned music concert was more effective than any protest.
Mayor Gray faces a huge decision whether or not to disobey federal laws. But the right choice is clear, and if he doesn't make it, another mayor ultimately will.
DC has lavished attention and subsidies on a few tech companies to bolster its economy. But the growth of tech firms in and around Dupont Circle suggests that investing in an attractive urban space is a more effective way to grow a local tech scene.
DC has a flourishing tech scene, as seen in the growth of several coworking spaces, where startups can get work done and find community. There are 5 in DC, 4 of which are in or near Dupont Circle, as are several other tech companies and the Acceleprise incubator.
But does the District attract tech companies because we subsidize firms like 1776 and LivingSocial that claim to be hubs of talent and capital? Or is it because we have invested for a decade in urban amenities and density that attracts talent and capital to places like Dupont Circle, as Richard Florida argues?
Dupont Circle has emerged as the hub of the DC tech cluster. Besides Canvas and 1776, Affinity Lab on U Street, and PunchRock in Adams Morgan provide coworking space. Several tech companies and the Acceleprise incubator also reside in the Dupont Circle area.
This cluster emerged without government assistance or backing. 1776 is an exciting coworking space that I hope is successful, but the startups laboring in these other coworking spaces seem to be just as critical to diversifying our tax base.
Today venture capital investment and startup activity also reflect the turn back to the urban core; nearly half of the [Washington] region's total (47.5 percent), or $600 million, went to the District of Columbia proper. Most of that was concentrated in a single zip code (20005) that spans McPherson Square, Thomas Circle and Logan Circle.While Gray expresses support for DC's tech sector, it sometimes looks like a search for a North Star he can follow, like Living Social, by providing subsidies and personal encouragement. Rather, tech clusters naturally emerge in dense urban areas that attract smart young people, with no single company as the hub.
I work 2 days per week at Canvas, a coworking space in Dupont Circle. I see startups there working all-nighters to build their businesses.
At minimum, it would be incredibly encouraging for more of DC's startups to get a visit from the mayor. After all, we are relying on all of these startups to diversify DC's economy beyond dependence on the federal government. After a recent tweet from Gray about visiting 1776, I replied asking why he hadn't visited any other coworking spaces.
— Vincent C. Gray (@mayorvincegray) June 7, 2013
However, DC angel investor and entrepreneur Glen Helmen recently questioned whether Gray's involvement in the tech sector is broad enough.
— Glen Hellman (@glehel) July 24, 2013
It's great that Mayor Gray is looking for investment opportunities in DC tech. And we all want 1776 and LivingSocial to be wildly successful, as they are prominent contributors to the local tech sector.
But most startups came here or decided to stay here because they like DC, not because of subsidies or Living Social or 1776. Doesn't that tell us what our strength is that we should build upon?
A better way to support and nourish the city's tech scene would be to encourage the creation of a great urban environment, by continuing the same investments in transportation and public amenities and housing and commercial space that the city has been doing for the past decade. That way, companies will have even more reasons to come here, and those who already like it will have more reasons to stay.
In the meantime, Mayor Gray would do well to show his support for all local tech companies, not just those he has strategically invested in. If he wants to visit other coworking spaces and tech firms, the mayor has a standing invitation from Canvas, and presumably from every other coworking spot.
- Fun on Friday: Play the Mini Metro game
- Adding 15-minute Circulator routes would dilute the Circulator brand
- Comparing Metrobus and Metrorail farebox recovery is apples and oranges
- Where will DC's next 200,000 residents go? The mayoral candidates weigh in
- Topic of the week: Walking in unexpected places
- Metro FAQ: Why does Metro run express trains in one direction during single-tracking?
- Mayoral challengers criticize the Gray administration's streetcar progress