random thursday rant

A few random thoughts about recent happenings in DC:

I’m dismayed that the DC Council’s monthly breakfasts tend to be lavish affairs, especially when the Council is dealing with high levels of unemployment, corruption, and whatnot. Yesterday’s breakfast had a rather flashy spread, complete with individual glass bottles of Voss sparkling mineral water. This water isn’t cheap, and it’s very sad to see such wasteful spending, especially when DC Water is promoting reusable bottles filled with DC’s perfectly drinkable tap water.

So I ask: as the monthly breakfast duty rotates amongst Council members, who went to these wasteful lengths? Hey, DC press (I’m looking at you, DeBonis, Sherwood and Suderman): let’s not allow this to simply pass us by.

(As an aside, this kind of over-the-top, lavish catering reminds me of my time on the DC Democratic State Committee, when the committee was planning its trip to the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. One of the DCDSC’s national committee liaisons spoke of “wonderful, catered breakfasts with crispy bacon, eggs, all the trimmings,” and the need for an exorbitant budget to pay for all of this opulence – for a group that didn’t really have a purpose for being at the convention, other than to cast a ceremonial nominating vote. Otherwise, the Democratic National Convention is all about networking and trying to land a political appointment – whatever. And these funds were raised through less-than-legal means, in the end – DeBonis’ write-up is a good place to start on said research. Needless to say, I was very happy not to run for reelection to such a corrupt – and, in the end, pointless – organization.)

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Word is the Lincoln Theatre on U Street is running out of funds, and needs a quick injection of $500,000 (give or take) to continue operation. This historic building is owned and operated by the District, and I’ve seldom seen it actually host events. From what I can tell, this so-called “hybrid community-commercial venue” is mis-managed, in part by its non-communicative board of directors (who apparently haven’t directly asked the Mayor for assistance, or even a meeting to talk), and in part by its insistance on hosting “multi-cultural experiences and programming.”

Here’s the problem with the latter portion: this charter is essentially code for preserving a culture that has long since left the U Street corridor. Yes, it was the “Black Broadway of DC” in its heyday, a magnet for performers like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway. And the majority of programs booked in the Lincoln try to preserve the historic African-American heritage of the U Street corridor, or play to international arts events.

But over the past 15 years, U Street has changed. It is no longer a neighborhood dominated by one culture, but a melting pot of urban renewal. The old guard establishments, like Ben’s Chili Bowl and Bohemian Caverns, has been joined by thriving new ventures, like Marvin, Nellie’s, Busboys and Poets, and numerous other restaurants, bars and shops. International music and theatre is embraced by performance venues like GWU’s Lisner Auditorum, Warner Theatre, the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s two indoor performance space, as well as other venues in the greater DC area. As people are priced out of the U Street housing market, they often take the culture with them to their new neighborhoods.

A quick study of how many nights the Lincoln is booked for events shows it booked an average of 30-36 days per year – less than ten percent of the time. For any performance venue, this is not an admirable record. And the few times the Lincoln hosted events that were a bit outside of their typical bookings – a LGBT film festval and fringe theatre events, to name but two – there were many obstacles that stood in the way of any perception of success. These obstacles included veiled prejudice with regard to the LGBT festival and mainstream music bookings, as well as negative neighborhood perception on the part of fringe theatre. And those who have worked at the Lincoln have few positive things to say about the management and staff at the facility, ranging from cries of indifference to non-timeliness of essential technical staff.

To put it bluntly: the place is mismanaged on many levels, to its detriment. And DC is now in the midst of renovating the old Howard Theatre, likely embarking on the same path to disrepair.

The solution? The DC government should convert the Lincoln into a stand-alone, non-profit entity. It needs to be weaned from the teat of the DC taxpayers and find its own feet. Such a quality venue, with lovely architecture and a size that’s bigger than many clubs and fringe theatres, yet smaller than places like National Theatre, would be best managed by a firm like IMP (which already does occasional bookings for the facility) or a local guild of theatre companies. This facility needs to be booked more than 65 percent of the year to be relevant or solvent, and it needs management that actually is in tune with the people who now frequent the U Street corridor.

I’m not advocating complete abandonment of the mission of preserving the history of U Street. I’m simply encouraging the Lincoln to embrace the changes, as well: to offer all of Heinz’ 57 varieties of wares, not just things that no longer resonate with the locals.

As far is the Howard is concerned: partner with Howard University and a firm like IMP now, get a game plan in place that is forward thinking in terms of the needs of the city and neighborhood, and don’t step on the toes of your U Street neighbor to the west.

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The DC government also announced that, unless a little over $300,000 can be found in the budget, it will shutter MLK Library on Sundays, thus closing the only DCPL location that operates on said day. While I grew up in a city where the public library was never, ever open on a Sunday, MLK is a vital “third space” for the DC community.

So where can $300,000 be found? Well, Councilman Harry “Tommy” Thomas, Jr., wrongly spent approximately $300,000 of city funds on his own, non-constituent expenses. He has promised to pay them back, so why not have him pay them directly to DCPL to keep MLK open? Seems like common sense, and makes lemonade out of lemons.

(And naturally, since this makes sense, the DC Council won’t do it.)

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And finally: I’d really like to see Tommy Wells get more aggressive within the Council. Sure, the rest of the Council let you down, and in a perfect world it would be wise to sit back and let wounds heal.

But if the culture of corruption and ineptitude that has been the hallmark of the current Mayor and Council is any indication, now is not the time to be quiet, Tommy. Get angry! Get aggressive! Carry that big stick and use it. Your constituents didn’t vote you in to be a soft voice, but to call out the bullshit when you saw it. So….

Just do it!

Hold your colleagues accountable! Point out when things don’t make any sense! Be a champion for sanity in government! Take on the mantel of moving the city into the future, while many of your colleagues want to drag it back into the past!

Seriously, Tommy, you’re one of the few – if not the only – Council member with whom I don’t really have a beef (the same definitely can’t be said of my Ward’s Councilman, Jack Evans). You’ve had plenty of time to lick your wounds and brush off the dirt from being smacked down – now is the time to get back to fighting!

Ahem….

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