Friday, November 20, 2009

The Walled City

There is another city within the boundaries of the independent Virginia city known as Alexandria.

You won't find it on Mapquest. You won't find it on Zillow. And you won't find it on Alexandria's Web page.

That other community is known as Parker-Gray.

It is not a legal entity and to a surprising degree it is not a physical entity. People don't need to reside within its geographic bounds to consider themselves its citizens. In fact, they feel entitled to dictate how it evolves even if they don't live in the City of Alexandria proper.

Parker-Gray is a political construct based on race and income. It is not logical or rational. It is costly and inefficient. It exists less in the realm of the tangible than in the minds of certain prominent Alexandrians, including Mayor William D. Euille and others, many of whom left the place decades ago.

If you currently live in the local historic district called Parker-Gray, the odds are that you are not a citizen in good standing in this peculiar world. You are an alien, and even those who moved here 10, 20 or 30 years ago are seen as foreigners.

The fantasy construct of Parker-Gray is based on an unthinking commitment to separatism. It is an insular world in which nostalgia for long-lost loved ones and vanishing landmarks has degenerated into a stubborn refusal to face the future. It is a community whose dwindling ranks of citizens are often marked by an inability to integrate into the larger world and accept change.

If you want to understand the phenomenon known as Queen and Fayette, this is what lies at its heart.

A casual observer might surmise that this second city was born and shaped by a long history of racial segregation. But in fact, as the Growler and others have labored to demonstrate with demographic facts and statistics, this community was for more than a century a neighborhood where blacks and whites lived and worked side-by-side, though Jim Crow dictated a separate and unequal approach to their children's education.

No, this city within a city is a development of surprisingly recent origin. Listen carefully to its spokesmen and you will discover that the point of reference for many of its champions is some golden age between 1970 and 1980. Not 1880, or 1930 or even 1960.

A few key Alexandria players of a certain age have used their political power and the City of Alexandria's resources to help freeze this community in 1980, a date when the nation's cruelest and most restrictive laws that denied opportunities for better housing and education had already been revoked.

We shall never known all of the motivations that drive key leaders to insist on locking this neighborhood in amber. Undoubtedly some feel their motivations are of the best -- that their actions and advocacy constitutes leadership, and that they are taking on a solemn and important duty to protect those who simply cannot move on. But it sounds suspiciously like traditional paternalism to the Growler.

The question that really needs to be asked is whether those who promote this city within a city are actually nurturing or harming its citizens. Are the invisible walls around this city really meant to protect or to keep its citizens confined?