Capital divided by race is a symbol of Obama's task

The President-elect's promise to heal America's wounds has caught the imagination of the city he will now call home. Leonard Doyle tests the mood in the ghettos of Washington
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The Independent Online

Larry Coles is a security guard for the dilapidated Marie Reed Recreation Centre. There are holes in the ceiling, breezeblock walls and it has a well-used basketball court. Ever since Barack Obama and a few of his mates showed up there to play ball for 45 minutes last week, Mr Coles has been walking on air. Nobody but he knew there was a game going on and the regulars are still talking about the missed chance of a lifetime to go toe-to-toe with the man some call the Hoopster-in-Chief.

Not far away at Ben's Chilli Bowl in the historical heart of black Washington, the staff still beam at the memory of the President-elect's visit last week.

Jermaine Jefferson, behind the counter, said Mr Obama ordered a local favourite called the "chilli half smoke" and sat down in a booth. Mr Obama handed over $20 bill £13.50 telling him to keep the change. The bill is now hidden inside Mr Jefferson's Bible. It's a very short trip from the White House to Washington DC's Shaw neighbourhood which is overwhelmingly black and poor.

All recent presidents have ostentatiously crossed the city's sharply delineated colour line –accompanied by a brace of heavily armed Secret Service agents.

Bill Clinton delighted in being referred to as "America's First Black President" and just after his inauguration he took a stroll down Georgia Avenue calling out "Yo, my man" to passers-by. George Bush too made the obligatory dash to the rough and tumble "U Street corridor". Like Mr Obama, he headed for Ben's hole-in-the-wall, which is right in the heart of what used to be known as "Black Broadway". But Mr Bush was never spotted eating there – in either white or black neighbourhoods.

Today, Washington's black neighbourhoods are abuzz with hope that the first black president will treat their part of the city as more than an occasional backdrop for a photo shoot. Instead of being a remote figure spending four years locked inside a security and policy bubble, they hope Mr Obama will live up to the promise he made to bridge this divided city. Church time on Sunday is the most segregated hour of the week – and when the city's stark racial divisions are clearly on view.

A short drive north of Washington's federal area with its monumental architecture lie some of the poorest communities in the US. Not far from where Mr Obama will be sworn in tomorrow, poverty is such that there are not even any supermarkets.

A little further north where Mr Obama played hoops and ate his hot dog is the "U Street Corridor", a thriving jumble of bars restaurants and shops. Long the cultural hub of Black Washington, it exploded in rage in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Many black-owned businesses burned to the ground. In the midst of it all Stokely Carmichael's Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee tried to keep order and the US army was called in – with bayonets fixed to stop the rioters reaching the White House,

After the riots U Street, like many black neighbourhoods, became a virtual no-go area for drugs and gun violence. In the 1970's, drug dealers peddled heroin openly on street corners and Bill Cosby – who courted his wife Camille in Ben's Chilli house in the early 60's – pushed hard to regenerate the neighbourhood.

For much of last century, U Street was home to many of America's most talented black artists and performers. There were dozens of clubs and unofficial drinking dens where the likes of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway and Nat King Cole perfected their acts. Mr Cosby himself came to fame here. Washington's era as a black cultural powerhouse is only dimly recalled today. Away from the bright lights of U Street, many black families depend on handouts from food banks to get through the week.

Power and politics is what makes this city tick and for generations the hub has been the North West sector where the wealthy and influential whites live in leafy suburbs minutes from the centre of the city. It is home of the "Georgetown dinner party" shorthand for the way power is subtly traded for influence and money.

Mr Obama tipped his hat to the old guard last week when he attended a dinner party hosted by the conservative columnist George Will. The soirée took place in a colonial house near Rock Creek Park, which separates the city's mostly white communities from the blacks. Just across the park is where well-to-do blacks live in an area impishly known as the "Gold Coast".

Today, the most prominent black residents include the veteran civil rights lawyer Vernon Jordan and Mr Obama's incoming attorney general Eric Holder. Its fair to say that Washington's power-driven social scene – the black-tie dinners, the $1000-a-plate fundraisers, the Smithsonian receptions and private book parties – has largely ignored this side of Rock Creek Park. That is now rapidly changing and gold embossed invitations are dropping through residents' letter boxes. There is an elaborate minuet in Washington after every change of administration when the new power brokers are welcomed to town. They are then assiduously lobbied for access to government largesse.

George Bush brought his cowboy boot and rhinestone set from Texas. Before him Bill Clinton swept in with team of rough diamonds from Arkansas. Now the face of ultimate power is black, which is offering a new challenge to the city's long established power brokers. As a Washington Post column pointed out yesterday suddenly "the all-white dinner party feels all wrong", Washington's movers and shakers are feeling the need to make or re-establish black friendships. Just a couple of years' ago, when the president elect was a greenhorn Senator from Illinois, he gave a damning verdict on Washington's power-broking scene, mocking it as a city consumed with a sense of its own importance: "I think everybody's very status conscious about, you know, who's a senator and who's in power and who's not," he said in 2005.

The boot is now on the other foot and the black community has gone from not making the invitation list to running it. Those just arrived in town are snapping up elegant houses along the "Gold Coast" and elsewhere.

At a party thrown by one of Washington's most powerful black couples Vernon and Ann Jordan, there was a buzz of activity around Valerie Jarrett, one of Barack Obama's best friends and senior adviser. She delicately pointed to the need for some long overdue changes.

"Everyone knows that [Mr Obama's] campaign was about inclusion," Ms Jarrett said. "We would expect that spirit of inclusion to also reflect on Washington's social scene."