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Photographer's Note by Kike Arnal - Introduction by Ralph Nader - Foreward by Fred Ritchin

By Ralph Nader

Out of sight, out of mind,” is an adage that provokes most photographers, yet only the finest photographers can focus our attention on what we see every day but too often ignore. In Kike Arnal's collection of ninety pictures of life in Washington, D.C., the most powerful capital city of the world, a tale of two cities emerges with a haunting nuance that gives viewers pause for rumination. The evocative photographers are those whose pictures speak for themselves-a form of visual communication that transcends words.

This native Venezuelan walked the streets of the Washington that few see as well as the Washington that over twenty million tourists visit every year. He watched and waited, listened and spoke, inhaled and exhaled the city’s tragedies, ironies, glitter and ghastliness, its pride and pomposity, its guilt and its shame. For in no other metropolitan area in the Western world is there less excuse for the poverty, misery, greed, deterioration of public services and powerlessness of the people that grind over the pretensions of its rulers.

Washington, District of Columbia, is home to six universities, the Congress, the Supreme Court, the buildings of the executive branch starting with the White House, world-famous museums and theaters, sports arenas, spacious hotels and convention centers, embassies of foreign countries and swank offices filled with an ever-growing number of lobbyists, lawyers, government contractors, consultants and public relations firms. While the city is experiencing widespread gentrification, it maintains its dubious status as having the highest rate of low-income children in the United States (54%), the highest child poverty rate and the highest AIDS mortality rate in the country. The capital’s hospitals, medical schools and clinics have co-existed with the lowest life expectancy of any of the fifty states. Scores of countries have higher life expectancy levels than what prevails in the District of Columbia.

All these plights persist in spite of continual overall economic growth. The federal government is spending ever-larger sums here, making the greater D.C. metropolitan area the highest average income region in the United States. Lots of very wealthy people thrive here among the hard-pressed.

How can this be? Start with the city’s disenfranchisement. Its limited self-government can be overruled by Congress. Residents of D.C. can vote for their president, but, unlike any other Western capital, are denied voting rights and representatives in Congress. It does not help that the budget-starved public libraries provide woefully few literacy programs for the nearly 40 percent of adults who are classified as “functionally illiterate.” The black majority in the district may have equal civil rights now. But the legacy of past slavery, modern racism and today’s grossly discriminatory public services and schools in their “other Washington” perpetuate a legacy of withdrawal and hopelessness that manifests itself in alcohol, drugs and urban violence.

Many white Washingtonians were not born in Washington. Many come and go with the changes in the political seasons, or stay and work in the federal Washington. They do not experience much of the local Washington, such as Ward 6 in Southwest Washington, where police advise residents to walk in groups to the retail outlets. Or Ward 8, whose over 70,000 residents only recently celebrated the opening of the only (subsidized) supermarket.

Blacks occupy most of the local elected seats while whites dominate the economic arena. Which means that Washington, D.C., is still a white-dominated city where most of the campaign contributions emanate. The powerful “industries” in Washington are the developers, the real estate firms and the law, banking, and insurance firms that service them.

At the end of 2008, Washington Post columnist Colbert I. King wrote a column titled “A Hope for 2009: Overcoming D.C.’s State of Denial.” King has a sharp pen. He demands that: “leaders address the real problems that threaten the quality of life in our city: the erosion of public safety, an apathetic and complacent city workforce, and D.C. Council members who fail to realize they are getting duped by the $10 billion municipal enterprise that voters hired them to oversee.”

Week after week the newspapers report cases of dysfunction, corruption, indifference and harmful delays in the municipal government. They report less the valiant efforts of local citizen groups striving to slow the erosion of municipal functions and services. They almost never report why so many of the wealthy and powerful classes rarely come close to even a state of noblesse oblige for their adopted metropolis. Foreign observers of the way our nation’s capital is run, and run into the ground, come away with disbelief punctuated by puzzlement at the vast resources and their unused capacity here. A few blocks from the White House are the headquarters of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, whose pronouncements describe other countries as underdeveloped.

There are truly many tales of two cities in Washington, D.C. There are the two cities of wealth and poverty. By and large, Northeast, Southeast and Southwest Washington cry out for repairs, for affordable housing, for public protection, for health and retail services. The other city, Northwest Washington—the part frequented by tourists—has the private schools and clubs, the gallerias and theaters, the well-kept homes and grounds befitting the affluent and upper-middle professional and business classes.

The two Washingtons live apart—still an all-too-prevalent de facto segregation. The city’s professional basketball, baseball and football teams feature mostly black players and white spectators able to afford the big-bite tickets, parking and food. The affluent have their own specialized libraries and personal bookshelves, while the poor are given twenty-six underfunded branch libraries barely in minimal repair and bereft of acquisitions. The big tax money in recent years went to building a more than $611 million baseball stadium for the privately owned, chronically losing Washington Nationals team.

The well-off and the poor do share some common experiences: potholes, constant sirens, unreturned calls to municipal government officials, expensive housing and gridlock traffic. The difference is that the former have the means to mitigate, endure, avoid or override. There lies the rub. Those who can make change are not part of the daily risks and desperation: so they do not have to be part of the solution. A Washington Post expose of a multi-year scandal of lead in the public drinking water struck fear among the poor, especially young mothers. The well-to-do can afford bottled water delivered to their homes.

Awakening the people of the District of Columbia would deserve a Nobel Prize for “civic motivation” if that category existed. The two or three thousand regularly active citizens suffer burnout and despair. Many stay the course because of their lasting high expectation levels and self-respect. They know and feel the capacity in this community for a far better, more equitable and creative life for its citizens. They often sustain each other with versions of the belief that if you can’t turn around Washington, with all its resources and know-how, how can any less endowed city be turned around in our country?

Actually, they may be mistaken. Washington, with all its assets, has unique liabilities. In George Washington’s day, its very creation was, in part, a reaction to the hatred of the Southern states toward the temporary capital, Philadelphia, and its abolitionist Quakers. Built from nothing and starting as a private enterprise in the 1790s from an expanse of marshy bottomlands (on the Potomac River to satisfy influential Virginia), it was not until 1796 that Congress passed a loan bill. The absence of sufficient investors meant the emerging city could not attract enough laborers, which meant that the capital, in the words of one historian, became “at least in part, a slave labor camp.” In 1791, the population counted 720 inhabitants in the Washington City section of the District, of whom 591 were slaves who built the Capitol building and the White House!

All the way to the 1950s, Washington was a segregated city, often called the South’s northernmost metropolis. The fallout from the abolition of legal segregation was residual racialism, de facto segregation, and the continued mindset of subjugation that remained among the downtrodden. But over nearly two centuries black family life endured in Washington’s segregated but sociable neighborhoods.

The latter half of the twentieth century brought forth forces of social and familial disintegration that overwhelmed the new forces of integration made possible by the civil rights movement. The drug wars, the public underinvestment, and the exodus of upwardly mobile blacks (the backbone and sustainers of neighborhoods) to the suburbs all played their multiplying part, among many other little-understood economic, political and environmental factors. The cruel results for the children have been reduced to statistics. The great majority of homes are not two-parent homes.

In 1968, Philip and Leni Stern produced a book of photographs on Washington, D.C., based on page after contrasting page of savage, myth-busting irony illustrating the two Washingtons. It was titled: O Say Can You See by Dawn’s Urban Blight. One of its point-counter points read as follows:

“Children’s Hospital is one of the finest in the country. It might not be open next time you visit Washington. Because it treats all charity patients who come to it for help, it has been on the brink of financial collapse. Congress was asked to come to the rescue with $110,000. Congress said no. [picture of a nurse with two children] On the other hand (to give Congress its due), it did vote $10 million to give Washington … an aquarium.” [picture of the aquarium]

This kind of overt contrasting photography is not Kike Arnal’s style. His way is more than artistic choice, though his photos are taken with an exceptional artist’s eye. His photos, standing alone or connecting to one another without words, make you wonder, and ponder. One can allow them to enter into one’s thoughts and values. Perhaps they may incite you toward a new level of engagement. For the human condition portrayed in this volume is, to be sure, Washington, D.C.-based, but it is also part of the grand tradition of photographers worldwide who have recorded the inhumanity of the few toward the many through this form of indelible visual communication.

The Center for the Study of Responsive Law is pleased to be able to sponsor Mr. Arnal’s opening of another window onto the nation’s capital for all to see here and abroad—a window through which we are witness to a reality that the city’s ruling pretenders would rather have us not know.