Is Washington, D.C. finally about to become a state?

Washington, D.C., yesterday. Image: public domain.

While Americans go to the polls on 8 November to elect a new president, the residents of Washington, DC will also vote on a slightly lesser known issue - whether their district should become a state.

The District of Columbia is unique in this denial of its civil rights. DC does neither have full control of its local affairs, nor voting representation in the House of Representatives. As the nation’s capital, it falls under the direct jurisdiction of the US Congress.

Over the years, a political movement has formed calling for statehood. There have been many fruitless attempts towards statehood,  the most recent in 1982, when citizens were last consulted on the issue. The effort went largely ignored by Congress…

Will this referendum be different? DC Mayor Muriel Bowser hopes so. Her idea for an advisory referendum plan and a state constitution was unveiled back in April. A draft document was debated, and in October the city council approved the proposed constitution should the district became a state.

The initial name ‘New Columbia’ has been dropped for the simpler ‘State of Washington D.C.’ - D.C. standing for Douglass Commonwealth, in honour of the abolitionist reformer Frederick Douglass.

So how would DC become a state?

DC can do so by either amending the US constitution, or by having Congress pass a bill that would grant the district state rights. Many believe constitutional amendment is necessary, however, Alan B. Morrison, the Lerner Family Associate Dean for Public Interest & Public Service at George Washington University, asserts that technically “no amendment to the US constitution is required for DC statehood.”

Hence, Mayor Bowser is pursuing option two. The plan would follow the steps of the process used in 1796 to admit Tennessee as the 16th US State, that included establishing and ratifying a constitution and establishing necessary governance means such as selection of delegates and representatives.

Were a possible future state to be formed, a constitutional convention to allow residents to fine-tune the document would be held – a last-minute DC Council requirement that vindicated Bowser’s critics for drafting a state constitution with limited citizen input.

Who wants statehood?

Statehood approvals within the District of Columbia are at record high, with recent polls pegging them at 70 per cent. However nationwide, the approval only amounts to around 27 per cent.

President Obama expressed his support for statehood in 2014, though more recently he has been accused of remaining silent on the issue. The Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has promised to be a vocal champion for D.C. statehood if elected president. Naturally, DC Republicans have been supportive too. Yet, at the national level, the GOP oppose the plan aggressively, while Donald Trump also appears to be reluctantly against

Muriel Bowser has been mounting the pressure. In April For the first time in 200 years, the DC Council has challenged Congress over its power to approve the local city budget. The Mayor and Council planned to implement a $13 billion spending plan without congressional approval. Yet, soon afterwards the Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee advanced a bill to block the city from enacting the measure. Subsequently Mayor Bowser maintained that such difficulties with Congress helped demonstrate the need to make the city the 51st state.

What happens after the election?

The morale boost of a decisive statehood backing would be immense. DC voters have not expressed themselves about statehood for 34 years. The referendum is both a means to gauge public opinion and a tool to put pressure on Congress by acknowledging that the three pre-conditions for statehood are met: a state constitution, boundaries, and acceptance of a representative form of government by a majority of the city's residents.

Still, it will take determination to get Congress to go along with DC statehood.  The biggest obvious barrier to achieving statehood is Republicans in Congress. “As long as they have a majority—or strong minority—in either chamber, they're not going to let it go forward,” says Washingtonian staff writer Ben Freed, who covers local politics. “For states that lean Republican, the likelihood of two more democratic senators will be a problem,” agrees Alan B. Morrison.

Mayor Bowser is hoping for a more favourable political environment – especially if the Democrats gain control of both the House of Representatives and Senate. However, even that wouldn’t be a silver bullet to statehood, as also Democrats have proven fickle with regards to this issue.

Alan B. Morrison believes that the biggest challenge in achieving statehood is “getting the word out and getting others interested in our plight.” It is important that people understand “how unfair the current regime is,” he says and stresses the unfortunate situation in which DC residents pay federal taxes and serve in the army but have no say in their government (hence the famous slogan Taxation without representation).

But there are other barriers, too. Quite simply, DC is not ready to be a state because it is not equipped to carry out many of the functions that states are expected to. “The elements of statehood fall into two categories. One can be called the ‘levers of democracy,’ like budget autonomy and changing the attorney-general position from an appointed one to an elected one,” explains Ben Freed, adding that there is also “the public services residents of states expect from their governments.”

DC does not fund its own judicial system. Criminal prosecutions are handled by the US attorney's office, courts are paid for with federal funds, and convicted criminals are housed in jails all over the country. Nor does it have a reputable public research university that can attract top-tier academic talent. “Quite simply, even if we're emotionally ready for statehood, we're not structurally prepared,” he says.

Even if statehood attempts do not succeed, there are steps that could improve today’s deadlock. Allowing the district’s representative in Congress to vote would be a brilliant first step that would allow for direct representation. An overwhelming win in next week’s referendum would certainly help. As Washingtonian’s Freed puts it: “the moral case for statehood is unimpeachable.” 

 
 
 
 

A warped mirror: on gentrification and deprivation on London’s Caledonian Road

The London Overground crosses Caledonian Road. Image: Claude Lynch.

Capital cities are, more often than not, a focal point for the stark divide between rich and poor – places where the most economically deprived meet the most economically empowered. In London, these divides can be more than stark: they can be close, even intimate, and there are districts where crossing the street can be like entering a different world. One such street is the Caledonian Road.

Known local as “the Cally”, Caledonian Road runs for about a mile and a half, from Kings Cross to the Nags Head junction in Holloway, and was built in 1826 to provide a new arterial route to the north from the West End. At first, developments on the road were sparse; among the first notable buildings were the Royal Caledonian Asylum, which gave the road its name, and H.M. Prison Pentonville.

For some time, the northern half of the road was seen as far removed from central London, which stymied development. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 19th century residential development really got going. By the time Caledonian Road station opened on the Piccadilly line in 1906, the area was flush with Victorian terraces.

These, though, mainly lay on the eastern side. To the west, the proximity of King’s Cross prompted the development of heavy industry, particularly the clay kilns that were helping to build Victorian London proper. The divide had begun:  the east side of the street, the area known as Barnsbury, was notably quieter and calmer than the west side. Ever since the 19th century, the ‘V’ formed by Caledonian Road and York Way has been known for a high incidence of gang violence and social problems.

As in many parts of London, the end of the Second World War brought a chance to start from scratch. Many of the slums to the west of the Cally had been bombed to smithereens, and those that remained still lacked gas and hot water.

But this was the era of municipal dreams: Islington council cleared the slums and constructed the Bemerton Estate. Instead of reflecting the industrial history of the area, the estate reflected Barnsbury back at itself, treating Caledonian Road as some sort of warped modernist mirror. The square gardens of Barnsbury were reimagined as the spaces between the highrises of Bemerton, and this time, they were actually square.

The estate was immediately popular, its open design prompting a renewed sense of community in the west. But it didn’t last.

Square gardens on one side, not-so-square on the other. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric

As far back as the 1950s, Islington had already become synonymous with gentrification. Forty years later, before moving to Downing Street, Tony Blair’s London residence was Barnsbury’s leafy Richmond Crescent. House prices in the area have gone through the roof and now Barnsbury is mainly home to a the professional elite.


At the same time, though, Caledonian Road’s warped mirror has given Bemerton the exact opposite: in spite of attempts to rejuvenate it, downward spiral of deprivation and antisocial behaviour have blighted the estate for some time The promise of inviting square gardens and communal living has been inhibited by crime and poverty; the gardens lie empty, while those in Barnsbury thrive.

The disparity of wealth across Caledonian Road is regrettable. That’s not just because it speaks to a wider segregation of London’s rich and poor – a phenomenon exemplified last year by the Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington & Chelsea, the richest borough in Britain. It’s also because, in the Bemerton Estate, planners had thought they saw an opportunity to offer more Londoners the idyll of square gardens and leafy streets, often reserved for the richest.

It might be too much to claim the estate as a failure; events such as the Cally Festival aim to bring together both sides of the road, while other council programmes such as Islington Reads help to foster a greater sense of neighbourhood.

Road should never divide us; rather, they should unite those who live on either side. The spirit of Caledonian Road should cross the gap – just like the railway bridge that bears its name.