Six days after Adrian M. Fenty became mayor of the District, he took his Cabinet on a tour of a dilapidated, violence-plagued apartment complex in Ward 8 in Southeast Washington. Strolling around the block, he promised curious onlookers that he would not forget them.
It was the first of Fenty's numerous visits to the city's poorest ward, a strategy aimed at avoiding the pitfalls of his predecessor, Anthony A. Williams, who oversaw a downtown renaissance but was mocked in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, where services lagged.
But as Fenty (D) nears the end of his first year in office, a growing impatience for more tangible development in Ward 8 is testing his pledge to create a government that serves all communities equitably and bridges the economic divide that grew during the past decade.
Led by D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), community leaders contend that Fenty has used their neighborhoods as a political backdrop but failed to follow up his rhetoric with action. Although the mayor titled his State of the District address "Moving Forward Faster" and delivered it at a Ward 8 senior center, residents worry that the ward never made it onto Fenty's fast track.
Theresa Howe-Jones, an advisory neighborhood commissioner, said she has watched the mayor respond quickly to rebuild the Georgetown Library and Eastern Market after fires and demand that fire hydrants in Adams Morgan be tested. But she wonders why her long-standing concerns about hydrants in Southeast have gone unaddressed.
"They had the attention placed on them, but none is placed on us out here," she said. "It's all right to come out here and make an announcement, but when it comes to implementing an idea or issue and you don't do it, that sends a signal that you don't want to do it in the first place."
The flash point for many residents' frustration was Fenty's decision this summer to break off negotiations with D.C. United over a proposal to build a soccer stadium that would anchor a massive mixed-use project on 110 acres of parkland along the Anacostia known as Poplar Point. After three years of meetings with government officials, ward leaders said they had reached consensus on United's plan, which includes housing, offices and stores, only to be blindsided when Fenty reopened the process. During the same period, the Nationals' new baseball stadium has been nearly completed on the other side of the river.
Residents had begun to envision Poplar Point as a catalyst for a commercial revitalization of the area the way Verizon Center helped transform Seventh Street. Because they have waited years for long-promised development, some are running out of patience.
"It caught me off guard. I thought we were moving ahead, but then it seemed like everything stopped," said David Smith, who lives in Ward 8 and runs a youth outreach program there. "We don't have time to wait. We need expediency."
Jackie Ward, an advisory neighborhood commissioner, said that three days before Fenty suspended talks with United in July, the mayor told an audience at Union Temple Baptist Church that he would support the stadium.
"He said it seems to be the will of the people and he will go along with what the people want," Ward said.
Barry, who served four terms as mayor, has held several meetings during which he has urged residents not to allow Fenty to make decisions without their input.
"The community in this ward has been neglected and disrespected and, as a result, there's a lot of skepticism and distrust of government in general," Barry said. "The mayor has to go over and beyond just talking about his intentions. Those other things are wonderful, but where's the beef?"
As mayor, Fenty has been moving forward with an ambitious agenda, including taking over the D.C. public schools and remaking the police department. But he said a city cannot thrive unless all residents feel they are being treated equitably.
"The people of Ward 8 deserve excellent services from the government, as I feel all seven other wards do," Fenty said. "If just one area is getting the focus, that's not a great city."
Fenty aides point out that the mayor and D.C. Council recently agreed to invest $79 million to help prop up financially troubled Greater Southeast Community Hospital in Ward 8, the only hospital east of the river. And Neil O. Albert, deputy mayor for economic development, said that 20 projects are underway in the ward.
The ward's first grocery store, a Giant, will open next month, and 1,100 housing units are under construction, Albert said. The city also is trying to persuade Metro to move its headquarters from downtown to a proposed building atop the Anacostia Station, he added.
Those projects, however, were started under the Williams administration, and they have done little to pacify ward leaders. To them, Poplar Point has become the gold standard, the only project with the scope to make the ward a regionwide attraction.
"There's not a lot of major projects taking place east of river, so this becomes a one-size-fits-all dream for many of the people," said Eugene Kinlow, a Ward 8 resident who works for D.C. Vote and whose wife, Tonya, was recently hired by Fenty to be the school system's first ombudsman.
Fenty said he wants to find the best proposal possible for Poplar Point, adding that competition will breed creativity and give the city a better bargaining hand. Seven companies responded to the mayor's call for proposals by Friday's deadline; only two included a stadium. D.C. United did not enter the contest.
To many ward leaders, Fenty's decision to seek other proposals renewed their skepticism about whether the mayor values their views. Fenty has had difficulty escaping complaints in the ward that he has failed to appoint anyone who lives east of the Anacostia among his top Cabinet advisers, a criticism that also dogged Williams.
Rumors circulated in the ward that Fenty already had a favored developer in mind for Poplar Point when he opened the competitive bidding process.
"Who is better than this community to decide what land on this side of the river should be used for? We are not an ignorant people," former D.C. Council member Arrington Dixon said during a recent discussion of Poplar Point at an Anacostia Coordinating Council meeting. "I'm troubled. What's going on here?"
Fenty aides dismiss the suggestion that the competition is rigged. Administration officials contend that most of the opposition to Fenty is limited to Barry allies eager to ensure that Fenty does not overshadow the council member, who faces a reelection campaign next year. Some residents agree with the mayor.
"A lot of people I talk to on a regular basis don't agree with the councilman. They tend to agree with the approach of the competitive bid process," said Dameon Proctor, 30, an information technology consultant who bought a house in the ward two years ago. "As long as the mayor pays just as much attention to Ward 8 as he does to every ward, he'll win our confidence."
Charles E. Wilson, 31, who also bought his home two years ago, said Fenty will prove justified as long as he selects a development that succeeds in providing services to residents.
"Whatever is built there, we'll have to live with it for the next 30 years," said Wilson, founder of the Historic Anacostia Block Association, a civic group. "It's important to get it right."
But to Jackie Ward, the neighborhood leader, Fenty has not lived up to the promises implicit with his appearances. As an example, she pointed to Fenty's Cabinet field trip to the Parkway Overlook Apartments during the first week of his administration.
Since the visit, the complex has lost its federal low-income housing subsidy, forcing the owner to default. The D.C. Housing Finance Agency foreclosed on the property in the spring, and the 256 families who lived there are being relocated, said agency director Harry Sewell.
Patrice Taylor, who has lived at the complex with her two children since early last year, said she has yet to find a new home. "If I can find a better life, that's good," she said. "But they're not doing a good job helping people move out."
Albert said his office has worked hard to ensure that residents have a smooth transition. The city plans to reopen the building after finding a new owner, he said, adding that some of the units will be reserved for affordable housing.
But Ward said she is disappointed with the mayor's performance.
"That is not the kind of impact I was looking for," she said.