Snow is black comedy in a place that shouldn't exist

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The Independent Online
Slithering and slipping down what once was a thoroughfare of North- West Washington, called Nevada Avenue, you couldn't miss the sign one resigned resident had stuck on the pavement in neon orange: "At Least Snow Fills the Potholes."

Not perhaps for much longer, though. Ten days after the great blizzard, the snow ploughs of the District of Columbia - beige creatures with red and white insignia which of late have been a species as rare as the spotted Pacific owl - are occasionally and at last to be sighted. It's not quite the relief of Mafeking. But in this benighted corner of the city that moonlights as capital of the free world, it is almost.

Let me say at once, my own street was fortunate. No thanks to DC or the federal government, it goes without saying, but because the director of an old people's home round the corner had his roads ploughed by private contractors, and threw in ours for good measure. Also the nearby Carnegie Institute, where scientific work requires round-the-clock monitoring, knew full well it could not rely on the city to keep streets passable. For the rest though, it has been a black comedy in white.

Long before the snows came, Washington was acquiring a positively Muscovite decrepitude: civic bankruptcy, crumbling services, the flight of residents and business to the suburbs and, of course, the great government shut- down.

To cross into Maryland or Virginia was like the passage from the Soviet Union into Finland, from rutted back roads to billiard-table highways, from the Third World into the first. The only surprise was how long it took the grumbling to start. But then Washingtonians are acquiring a Muscovite fatalism as well. Expect nothing, hope for nothing, and treat a rubbish pick-up as a minor miracle. At least then you won't be disappointed.

Let it be said, the problem is not Marion Barry. Sure, the city's image is not exactly burnished by the presence of the old reprobate, and this week the Mayor has been, shall we say, a less than inspirational leader. But even his former nemesis, the Washington Post, has been relatively tender. For one thing, to borrow the words of a French politician explaining why he did not criticise a doomed opponent, "On ne tire pas sur une ambulance." (You don't shoot at an ambulance.) Far more important, bad boy Barry was as helpless as the rest of us.

In fact, he put up a better performance than last time a big blizzard struck when he was in office and he winged it to California to watch the Washington Redskins in the Superbowl. This time he was in town throughout, making helicopter trips over the region and pleading for federal help, which was granted last Friday. But basically there was not a thing he could do and the city knew it.

For one thing, he runs a place where the chain of command has vanished into a fog of overlapping authorities. Mr Barry has the trappings, but little of the substance, of power. Since Washington went broke last year, a federally-appointed DC Control Board has had the last word on appointments and spending.

The Republican Congress, not an instinctive soulmate of this overwhelmingly Democratic city, has veto rights over the District budget. But in the White House sits a Democratic President, head of the federal government which is the biggest local industry, and which has veto rights over Congress. The buck, in short, stops nowhere.

And even if Mr Barry were in charge, he couldn't do anything. Half the District's own 100 snow ploughs were out of action for want of maintenance, while private contractors refused to help, convinced by previous experience that if they did, they would never get paid. In short, the snow debacle of 1996 has proved the city is completely and irrevocably dysfunctional. Just possibly, good may yet come out of it all.

The remedy is clear. The present District of Colombia, a wretched, half- disenfranchised enclave that will never be able to pay for itself, should be scrapped and its territory and jurisdiction returned to Maryland, just as the part of the original Washington south of the Potomac (including the land on which the Pentagon now stands) was handed back to Virginia in the 19th century. That way, residents would be able to vote in Congressional as well as local elections and see their taxes spent on better roads, schools and the rest, instead of trying to fund infrastructure for a 51st state which does not, ought not and cannot exist.

Maybe there'd be some money left over to fix those potholes. The post- blizzard crop, including specimens the size of elephant traps, is starting to emerge, thanks to thaw (and who knows, snowploughs). For the District though, the order of the hour is less melt-off than melt-down: gradual but terminal melt-down.