Many people tend to ignore the Westin Hotel when they walk by it in Northwest D.C. To any average person, it blends seamlessly with the other “D.C.-esque” buildings surrounding it. It will almost never appear in any sightseeing tours or history books. No major events transpired within its walls; no celebrities visited. Yet, with one small, often overlooked event, the Westin Hotel, formerly the Vista Hotel, was the site of a seminal moment in the D.C. crack epidemic of the 1990s. The arrest of Mayor Marion Barry at the Vista Hotel signaled the ubiquity of D.C.’s crack epidemic and made an issue previously a “them” issue become an “us” issue.
When D.C. residents woke up on Friday, January 19, 1990 and picked up their copy of The Washington Post, they were likely eager to read the full account of Mayor Marion Barry’s arrest the previous evening. The early 1990s showed the beginning of the digital era, yet newspaper was still one of the foremost news sources. Upon Barry’s arrest, television news outlets reported the small pieces of information they received, but ultimately residents would have to wait until the following morning’s Post for the full story. Sharon LaFraniere, a staff writer, was the author of the front page article.
The tone of the article is urgent; it’s atmosphere in disarray. Rather than the typical investigative journalism ripe with political commentary and a host of rhetorical moves, this article thoroughly details the arrest of Mayor Barry.
LaFraniere begins the article by discussing the arrest as “fast-moving;” an oxymoron when looking at the years of preliminary speculation and months of prior investigation. What she is instead describing here are the events that occurred at the Vista Hotel. She discusses how police sealed the section of the hotel Barry was staying in, and once they obtained the proper evidence they needed, raided the room and arrested Barry on narcotics charges. Barry was with a woman who had previously agreed to help law enforcement in the arrest; Barry was indignant.
LaFraniere describes this set-up with a comical tone. Her description of his arrest reads more as a tabloid article than a Washington Post article. The Post used the shock value of the incident to its advantage. For example, LaFraniere describes “the red-eyed Barry” being taken in handcuffs by the FBI (LaFraniere). In taking a more neutral tone, the article could have simply stated “Barry was taken away,” but she chooses to emphasize the crack addicts appearance for its inherent entertainment value. The article then provides us with a unique glimpse into D.C. crack culture in the 1990s. Stories like these were not presented as the human tragedy they were, but rather as entertainment and gossip.
The Vista Hotel, now the Westin D.C. City Center, is located just off Thomas Circle, a few blocks South of Dupont Circle. It is not situated on the nearby circle or bustling avenues, but rather on a small, one-way street adjacent to the circle. The hotel blends seamlessly into its surroundings; the average person walking by would need to be looking for the hotel to find it. It was thus the perfect hotel for Barry’s illegal activities– a small, austere hotel, in a quiet, remote area of D.C.
In S Street Rising, Ruben Castaneda describes the crack scene as one with “slingers leaned against a rusty railing in front of an abandoned bakery” in Northeast D.C. (35). The visceral images one has of the crack-ridden slums of D.C. contrast starkly to the environment in which Barry used. For many, this is what made the issue so unbelievable. No one quite imagined that the crack epidemic would spread beyond the run-down areas of the city. No one worked tirelessly to solve the issue because it was an issue that only affected “them” (Shaffer). The rich couples in Foxhall did not show much concern for the young men in Anacostia. But when Barry was arrested at the Vista Hotel in Northwest D.C., just a few blocks from Dupont Circle, the far-reaching consequences of the crack epidemic became apparent.
After chronicling Barry’s arrest in full detail, LaFraniere then discusses Barry’s political future with similarly thorough detail and comedic tone. LaFraniere goes into much speculation here discussing the possible ways Barry could be removed from office. She makes two main assumptions: the first, that D.C. citizens want to remove Barry from office, and second, that D.C. residents are unsure of whether Barry will retain his office. This is furthered by her quotes from Barry’s chief counsel, who discusses the ways in which Barry could be removed from office, and assures her that Barry is still the Mayor, until he is voted out by referendum, or found guilty of a felony. Barry’s counsel is just one of the many authoritative figures consulted in this article.
“Good” investigative journalism involves consulting and citing many sources. Sharon LaFraniere is not a household name; the average person does not know her, nor does he or she automatically trust her. Rather, she must quote several officials or “experts” who establish her ethos. Once she has established this credibility, she can use her journalistic skills to develop the pathos and logos sides of her argument. In this article she appeals to logos through explicit and thorough detail. When writing of the initial meetings immediately after the arrest LaFraniere writes,
Kenneth Mundy, the mayor’s attorney, arrived about 11:35 p.m. wearing a sweat suit and hurried upstairs. Sources at the center said Mundy went upstairs to meet with Joseph Yeldell, director of the emergency preparedness office; Maudine R. Cooper, Barry’s chief of staff, and City Administrator Carol B. Thompson
There is obvious excessive detail in the statement. There is no need to name each person involved and his credentials. Nor is there a need to state that the mayor’s attorney was wearing a sweatsuit at the time. She describes these elements in detail, therefore, to appeal to logos and pathos, respectively.
At the simplest level LaFraniere is writing this article because she was assigned to the case or perhaps because many writers wrote different versions of the article and the editor liked hers the best. This article, however, is metaphorical journalistic gold. LaFraniere, along with the editors and entire staff of the Post, was very aware that near every Washingtonian would see and read this article. Her exigence is thus one of journalist accolade.
The Vista Hotel gets a small mention in this article, certainly not the notoriety to make it a famed D.C. landmark. In turn, the hotel’s reputation as a quiet, reclusive, elitist establishment is maintained. To this day the Westin Hotel maintains the same atmosphere; few people are likely even aware of the events that unfolded on the seventh floor the night of January 19, 1990. This single event that occurred at the hotel, and the article documenting it, represent the watershed moment of the D.C. crack epidemic nonetheless. The sheer ubiquity of the crack epidemic in D.C. became apparent upon Barry’s arrest at the hotel. Sharon LaFraniere’s Washington Post article highlights the importance of this event and is a glimpse into the city’s response to Barry’s arrest.
Castaneda, Ruben. S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in D.C. First U.S. edition, Bloomsbury USA, 2014.
LaFraniere, Sharon, Washington Post, Staff Writer. “Sources Say Mayor used Crack in Downtown D.C. Hotel Room.” The Washington Post (1974-Current file), Jan 19 1990, pp. 2. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post, proxyau.wrlc.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/140101331?accountid=8285.
NPR Staff. Addiction Battled Ambition For Reporter Caught In D.C.’s Crack Epidemic. kuow.org/post/addiction-battled-ambition-reporter-caught-dcs-crack-epidemic. Accessed 5 Mar. 2017.
Shaffer, Ron. “Prostitutes on Prowl: Thomas Circle the Hub of Activity Thomas Circle Serves as Hub of Red Light Area.” The Washington Post (1974-Current File); Washington, D.C., 9 Aug. 1977, p. A1. ProQuest, search.proquest.com/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/146675592/abstract/3D9C724397A84FAAPQ/2.