Barack Obama cares about black people

The next president has already shown he's planning to visit the parts of Washington past the monuments, where the tourists don't go.

By Mike Madden

Published January 19, 2009 5:33PM (EST)

WASHINGTON -- This city has always been divided by more than just the four geographical quadrants you find on street names. Sure, everyone knows that Northwest is the mostly wealthy, mostly white part of a mostly poor, mostly black city. (And conversely, many people in the D.C. area only know of the city's Southeast and Northeast sections from the Washington Post's crime briefs, buried on page B2.)

But even within Northwest, Rock Creek Park has long been the boundary between the ritzier, whiter neighborhoods -- "west of the park" -- and less prosperous areas with more black and Latino residents -- "east of the park." Which is why native Washingtonians are already noticing, with some amazement, that Barack Obama has only lived in the District for a couple of weeks and has already made more trips to neighborhoods east of the park than George W. Bush did in eight years in office. (Even though his daughter taught for a few years at a charter school in Mt. Pleasant, a racially and socio-economically mixed neighborhood, where Salon's two Washington staffers both live, on the east side of the park a straight shot up 16th Street from the White House.) Kanye West probably won't ever say about Obama, as he did about Bush, that he doesn't care about black people. The nation's 44th president may also be the first one in a long time who really gets past the monuments and memorials and becomes a Washingtonian.

Last weekend, for instance, Obama and D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty headed to U Street, formerly the heart of the District's middle-class black community, in Shaw, a neighborhood that was wrecked by riots 41 years ago after Martin Luther King was killed. They ate at Ben's Chili Bowl, which proudly proclaims itself "black owned and operated since 1958" (and thus made it impossible to get in for a half-smoke any time during inaugural weekend without waiting at least an hour). It's not just Ben Ali's chili dogs that make his place a landmark; the place stayed open during the 1968 riots, feeding cops, soldiers and SNCC activists alike, and it was also one of the few businesses on U Street to survive the neighborhood's decline in the 1980s and the Metro construction in the early 1990s.

That would have been a strong enough statement of solidarity with District residents, but the next day, Obama went up to Adams Morgan, another neighborhood east of the Park, and played basketball at the Marie H. Reed Community Learning Center, where you can always find a pickup game going on, but not usually one involving the next president of the United States. Then Sunday -- two days before his inauguration -- Obama headed up 16th Street to the (somewhat confusingly named) Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, a black congregation in Crestwood, a mostly black, upper-middle-class neighborhood that many white D.C. residents barely know exists. (Today, he's in Southeast, doing a Martin Luther King-inspired service project just off Capitol Hill.)

That's a lot of unofficial D.C. visits by a man who's about to be president. It shouldn't come as a real surprise; Obama was, of course, a community organizer in Chicago before he got into elected politics. But after eight years of a president who ducked out of Washington every time he had a chance -- and whose political allies seriously considered ordering the District to rename 16th Street as "Ronald Reagan Boulevard" -- this is truly change you can believe in, at least for District residents. No one who read Frank Rich's column in Sunday's New York Times, which looked back at the District's long patterns of racial segregation, should imagine that those days are truly over. But having a president who's interested in helping the city rebuild itself as a community can only help.

Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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