A few days ago I met a woman who, like me, had been navigating her way to a children’s sporting event in Washington DC with the help of her GPS.
Ferrying children around to suburban tournaments is a regular weekend exercise and if you’re new in town a satellite navigation device is one very helpful tool in making sure you get your young sports star to the game on time.
The trouble is letting a satellite chose the shortest route can sometimes present some challenging outcomes and my new acquaintance was only half joking when she told me she’d be a lot happier if she could just program her machine to “avoid south-east DC entirely”.
It’s a sentiment that sums up the stark divisions in this city. This is a city – like many in this country – split by class and economics and in the US that inevitably means race.
Of course there are no building codes or apartheid rules that prevent anyone of any colour living anywhere they like and there are middle-class black neighbourhoods, poorer white areas and groovy gentrified inner-city enclaves that truly do reflect the great melting pot of race that is America.
But on the whole the south-east of Washington DC is black and Hispanic, poor and deprived and the white middle class fans out in a wedge of relative privilege to the north and the west.
The maisonettes and quaint terrace houses of Georgetown and the leafy suburbs of Maryland and Virginia are only a few kilometres from the urban decay that is the reality of Anacostia and Congress Heights but they are worlds apart.
In fact, in per capita terms, Washington DC is America’s ‘blackest’ city. It’s also among the most violent and economically depressed. By way of illustration it’s worth taking a half-hour ride on the Washington metro system.
Start at Friendship Heights on the north-western edge of DC. Even just a few days after the biggest winter snow storm on record Wisconsin avenue sparkles.
The sidewalks have been swept clear and de-iced. The up-market Mazza shopping mall is well stocked and well patronised. The well dressed and well off locals cruise Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdales.
There’s high fashion of all sorts to choose from; designer home wares and gourmet food shops. Business is so good here – even in this recession – that a new shopping complex is already filling up with new stores even before it’s been completed.
Take the escalator underground and board the train for the seven stops on the red line with the other commuters heading downtown. The academics and students get off at the university stops of Tennlytown and Van Ness; the lawyers, lobbyists and government workers start peeling off at Dupont circle.
Change trains for the green line at Gallery Place and you’ll notice the demographics shift even before you emerge back into the daylight, five stops later at Anacostia.
Here the sidewalks are still impassable. Dirty snow is piled up in huge mounds – pushed off the road with no concern for the pedestrians now forced to share the icy road with the traffic.
Walk a block – past the United house of Prayers and the Bethlehem Baptist church – and turn left on Martin Luther King Ave. There’s a mobile police station parked on the side of the road, the lights are flashing.
Every few minutes a patrol car cruises past the small groups of young African American men hanging out on the street corners outside boarded up shops.
Most of the shopfront windows are covered with corrugated iron sheeting or heavily barred and it’s certainly been a long time since the King City Chinese served anything like a meal. There’s nothing inside but broken floor tiles and piles of rubbish.
Further down the street a hopeful ‘For Sale’ sign hangs on the fence surrounding three condemned houses. There’s a pawn shop and a few more religious outreach missions offering redemption and a free feed.
Amidst all this a brave entrepreneur has defied the trend and opened a coffee shop. The owner told the Washington Post she just wanted to do something for the neighbourhood. I went in for a coffee. It was 10:00 am but I was the only customer.
This is the sharp end of the economic downturn. The national unemployment rate is now just under 10 per cent but the jobless figures among African American men is upwards of 25 per cent and in some of the most depressed areas of the US like this it’s thought to be more likely around 70 per cent.
In cities all across this country the American dream often crumbles in just a few short blocks but not every American city is home to the President. And this country’s first black president need only to take a very short drive to be reminded of the burden and responsibility that comes with his symbolic election victory and the weight of expectation still hanging off his political mantra of ‘hope’ and ‘change’.