Different worlds reflected in the barber’s mirror

Miles apart from each other, two barbershops, one in Ward 8 and another in Ward 3, represent vastly different places — and different expectations of the future.

By Dan Merica

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 Photos by Dan Merica

Click below to hear about the differences found and Troyit’s and Camillo’s Barber Shop. (3:00)

The slow hum of clippers drones on as Maurice Tucker gets his hair cut at Troyit’s Barber Shop in Ward 8. The barber, Prince Rasheed, carefully works around a long scar in Tucker’s head, a scar from when a bullet grazed him in a shootout 15 years ago.

This summer, Tucker finished his 14-year murder sentence.

While Tucker’s perspective is unique — he spent 14 years away from the ward he calls home — his frustrations are not. In that time, he said, little has changed, a frustration 80 percent of Ward 8 voters channeled by voting for a change in the form of Mayor-elect Vincent Gray. In returning to his home district, Tucker says he sees the same unemployment, the same failing schools and the same social problems. The remedy in Tucker’s eyes is a politician that lives up to his hype. He believes Gray could be that politician.

Same old, same old: After being away for 14 years, Maurice Tucker believes the state of everything from schools to jobs is the same. (Photo by Dan Merica)

Same old, same old: After being away for 14 years, Tucker believes the state of everything from schools to jobs is the same. Photo by Dan Merica

Gray’s election gives hope to the men who frequent Troyit’s, several said in recent interviews.

A barbershop across town, Camillo Barber Shop in Ward 3, represents a ward where around 80 percent had a stay-the-course mentality by voting for incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty, although the divisions between the wards are bigger than any election. Forty percent of all high school students drop out in Ward 8, compared to only 1.6 percent in Ward 3. The same disparity is noticeable in unemployment. Ward 8 had a 28.5 percent unemployment rate in 2009, compared to 3.2 percent in Ward 3, according to the DC Department of Employment.

Jobs are the main issue facing residents of Ward 8, said Tucker. To remedy that problem, says Tucker, Gray should learn from one of his predecessors, former mayor and current Ward 8 councilmember Marion Barry.

“Take a Marion Barry for example,” said David Jones, a Troyit’s patron. “Sure he had his problems, but he was for the people, and he made sure there was programs out here for the people.”

“Marion Barry started summer jobs, programs and everything,” Tucker said. “He gave young kids hope. We can’t do it by ourselves. I hope this new mayor take heed and do the same thing.”

Rasheed chimed in, agreeing with Tucker as he clipped his hair, saying that when Barry was in office, “Everyone was making money. It wasn’t like all this crazy stuff going on now.”

Finished: After his haircut, Tucker begins the rest of his day.

Finished: After his haircut, Tucker begins the rest of his day. Photo by Dan Merica

Even though his tenure was rife with scandal and controversy, Barry was mayor of the District from 1979-1991 and again from 1995-1999. In those years, in the eyes of the barbershop customers, nagging social and unemployment problems were remedied. The Barry administration, through the a number of youth job initiatives, created 100,000 jobs for district youth, according to Barry’s website.

“The people want more job programs out here,” said Jones. “There are not a lot of programs out here. We are hoping that Gray can do that.”

In Fenty’s 2011 budget proposal, the last of his tenure, he reduced the Summer Youth Employment program budget by 1.94 million dollars. The cuts would limited enrollment in the six-week program to 12,000 participants.  In 2009, the program enrolled 52,255 participants in the seven week program, making the proposed cuts a 335 percent reduction in enrollment. According to Kenneth Collins, one of the barbers at Troyit’s, when school is not in session, kids ask for money on the sidewalk outside the barbershop.

Steven Taylor, an urban politics professor at American University, said that many in Ward 8 expect Gray to, “bring home the bacon.” Those expectations, he said, need to be realistic.

“It is not a high expectation to expect someone to attempt to bridge a gap. But to bridge a gap, that is a high, unrealistic, impossible expectation,” Taylor said.

The atmosphere of the barbershop is more a community center than a store. Men come in and out, joke with each other for a few minutes and then leave. Those who stay get into deeper conversations ranging from politics to sex. The discussions are broken up by the ding of the door — but after a quick hello, they pick right back up.

Agreement is far from devoid at Troyit’s. It is commonplace for one man to get on a roll, jump into a monologue and the only noise from anyone else would be “yes, sirs” or hums of approval. The barbershop has been around for four decades and according to many of the regulars, the same optimism in Gray was seen during the Barry administration.

The optimism is tempered, if nonexistent, across town at Camillo’s Barber Shop off Wisconsin Avenue. When asked about Gray, though hopeful that he will be able to fix many nagging problems, the reflection leads many to believe it is near impossible for someone to successfully manage an economically diverse city like Washington.

A familiar scene: Camillo Damiano is Jon LeMon's only barber and has been since 1969. (Photo by Dan Merica)

A familiar scene: Camillo Damiano is Jon LeMon's only barber and has been since 1969. Photo by Dan Merica

Separated from the rest of the shop, proprietor Camillo Damiano carefully cuts Jon LeMon’s hair, as he has for 40 years.

LeMon worked as a special education teacher in the District for 25 years. After a short stint as a facilities manager at a retirement home, he retired.

When he spoke, LeMon’s reserved, carefully selected words are indicative of the feelings in Ward 3. Even though Fenty saw a strong mandate for his leadership in the ward, he wasn’t always enthusiastically supported. But his steps to fix an education system rife with problems, with the help from now-departed schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, was seen as enough of a reason, for many, to keep him.

“I think she tried to do an awful lot of things that had not been able to be done for a long time in D.C.,” LeMon said. “It is going to be interesting to see what kind of legacy she leaves and how much of what she tried to do to improve the system… can continue.”

Damiano is clearly the patriarch of the establishment. Walking into the store and asking for the owner gets a quiet point to the back room, the area that Damiano holds court and has for the last five decades. Even with his numerous political clients, Damiano is remarkably apolitical. Bad business, he says.

The same cannot be said for his regulars, though the atmosphere of outspokenness found at Troyit’s was lost at Camillo’s. The talk of politics seemed unnatural, but when it arose, Damiano silently let it continue. The same reserved nature in conversation was seen in the opinions of Gray. Though at the ballot box support for the mayor-elect was limited, many were hopeful he would succeed.

“Hopefully he can be the person who can bring it a little closer together as one community,” LeMon said.

Steady hands, politically silent: Damiano lets his clients dictate the conversation but because of his politically varied clientele, he keeps his mouth closed. (Photo by Dan Merica)

Steady hands, politically silent: Damiano lets his clients dictate the conversation but because of his politically varied clientele, he keeps quiet. Photo by Dan Merica

A mayor having to balance a fractured electorate is nothing new. But the divisions were particularly stark in the last election. Fenty went from winning every precinct in 2006 to losing his base. Many, though, liked some of the changes — from dealing head-on with a broken school system to establishing a citywide bike share program.

Others, though, said they felt left out.

Taylor, sitting in his office at American in Northwest D.C., hypothesized that Fenty’s failing may have been not in a lack of accomplishments, but a lack of visibility. When Fenty was running for the first time, said Taylor, he made himself very visible in the eastern wards. That was not the case in the recent election.

“When people see somebody, then they can stop them, talk to them, explain to them what some of the problems are and then that person gets a chance to communicate what they are doing,” Taylor said.

The advantage that Gray has, and one that he shares with Barry, is that he is from the eastern wards. (Gray is from Ward 7, and Barry, from Ward 8). Voters got to see Barry drive home every day, said Taylor, and this grew into a feeling that he understood his voters. “People don’t want to just see someone on television,” Taylor said.

With visibility come expectations, patrons said. Is it possible for a mayor, who ran under the campaign slogan of “One City,” to lead such a divided city?

“You can’t meet the needs of one group and still accommodate the needs of another group when those two groups are so vastly polarized,” Taylor said. “I don’t think most mayors can.”

The hope in both wards, no matter what the expectations are, is that Gray will do what doesn’t seem possible.

“I think his track record indicates that he can bridge the gap there and talk with both elements of the city,” LeMon said, speaking about the eastern wards.

“We have been on the bottom of the totem pole for years now,” Tucker said of Ward 8. “Hopefully, all the good things he says out of his mouth, he lives up to, or puts forth the effort to really do something.”

Until then, said Tucker and LeMon, they are going to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Hopeful but focused: After the bad economy forced him out of his vending job, Prince Rasheed got his barbers license. (Photo by Dan Merica)

Hopeful but focused: After the bad economy forced him out of his vending job, Prince Rasheed got his barbers license. Photo by Dan Merica

5 Responses to Different worlds reflected in the barber’s mirror

  1. We shouldn’t expect VG to bridge this gap all by himself, the responcibility of this change is going to be on all of us to create one city. That is the message he is trying to convey to us all with the slogan. If we are to coexist in this city, I think some changes in how we see oneanother is going to have to take place, real civility for your fellow man. Is that really possible in this so called civilized society of ours? is the real question to ask of each and everyone that lives in this great city.

    • Dan Merica says:

      Those are all great points. When I spoke with the men at both barber shops, they were, at the same time, hopeful and cautious. It almost seemed that they doubted the possibility of politics bridging that gap, so maybe what some of them thought was what you were expressing. In Ward 8 especially, many of them feel that Vincent Gray can revitalize Ward 8 like, in their mind, Marion Barry did. The question for you is, do you think it will happen and will it be because of politics or people?

      – Dan Merica

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  3. Pingback: “There is this hope that Vincent Gray will do a good job” | DCentric

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