Across the river and into a land of apartheid, American-style

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Until I crossed the Anacostia, two months in Washington had persuaded me there was no more pleasant city on God's earth. I have an elegant red- brick home in a crime-free suburban neighbourhood of ample gardens and tall trees.

Around the corner there's a national park where deer graze and, half a mile away, a deli called Marvellous Market, which sells fine Italian cheeses and freshly baked croissants. Next door to the deli is Politics and Prose, a bookshop where the local literati drink cappuccinos and read poetry aloud.

The White House, the white Capitol, the white National Monument and the white Graeco-Roman facades of the federal buildings in the city's historic centre spaciously convey the imperial splendour befitting the capital of the richest, most powerful nation on earth. Race, I had heard, was a big problem in Washington. But you don't see it downtown. I get on like a house on fire with the black security guard at our building and when I go out to the coffee-shop next door for lunch I see black and white secretaries sitting at the same table, chatting unselfconsciously over their bagels.

"In downtown Washington," my friend Harry said, "you could be forgiven for thinking that Martin Luther King's dream had come true.''

Harry Jaffe, who is a neighbour of mine, has written a book about Washington called Dream City and works on the staff of the Washingtonian magazine. Dream City is about Washington and Marion Barry, the convicted crack-user recently re-elected mayor by the black majority of the electorate. As the year 2000 approaches, Harry's book concludes, the city has become a mirror for America's inability to resolve the paramount problem of race.

At our first meeting a month ago, Harry promised that he would take me on a tour of the Washington "the white folks don't know". On Monday he lived up to his word. He took me over the Anacostia River into deepest South East - a corner of Washington as segregated from the rest of the city as Soweto is from Johannesburg. The only white people who live here are insane - the inmates of Washington's one mental hospital, St Elizabeth's. John Hinckley, who tried to kill Ronald Reagan, is here, locked away inside a four-storey Victorian building with red ramparts and black metal doors.

On the streets you do not see one white face, not one restaurant, not one bank. Plenty of liquor stores, though, and shop after shop with wooden boards for windows. Quite a few churches too and posters on lamp-posts which read "God loves you" and "Thou shalt not kill" - a wishful entreaty in the neighbourhood with probably the highest number of murders in America. The one shop that seemed to be thriving on Good Hope Avenue had a "We repair windows" sign on the door. "This," said Harry, "is the nice part of town.''

Harry was at the wheel. In North West, where we live, he had driven with almost reckless abandon. Here he treated every pedestrian with exaggerated courtesy, fearful he might clip someone and we'd have a major incident on our hands. Every corner we turned we got funny, sometimes menacing, looks - you could see the words forming on people's lips: "What the hell ... ?"

At a junction we spotted a boy no more than 10 years old waiting to cross the road. Harry waved him on. Without a glance the boy passed in front of us, head haughtily high, with a swagger of a walk. He looked old, much older than us.

"It's the kids who are driving the destruction of the city," Harry said. "The parents have lost control and drugs is the best business in town.''

We drive on and see a sign that reads "Welcome to Maryland". Across a small bridge, barely a quarter of a mile away, we see America - McDonald's, a supermarket, a pharmacy.

Harry turns left towards Valley Green, a low-income public- housing project - blocks of flats arrayed like a battalion, all of them empty, windowless - "a testament," said Harry, "to maladministration and corruption and total neglect".

On the way back towards the Anacostia - the moat - we pass a giant billboard carrying words by Frederick Douglass, one of the early black American leaders: "The chains of race are broken ... the means of advancement are accessible." Immediately behind lies a dingy settlement of box-shaped houses - the very image of a South African township.

We cross the bridge and on the other side, down below to our right, we see a marina crowded with gleaming white pleasure-boats. We drive back home, I change into my suit and I drive to Massachusetts Avenue, Washington's Park Lane, for a dinner at the Chilean Embassy. Over the shrimps and the Sauvignon I again recall South Africa, where I was a correspondent before coming to the US, and I have a glimmer of what it must be like to be black in South East, to experience resentment as a condition of life, to vote for Marion Barry because the best life has to offer is hollow defiance.