With slicked back hair and a dapper sport coat, Courtland Milloy could be confused for a preacher. Which, in some ways, he is: Blatantly reproachful from his pulpit—which just happens to be a Metro section column in The Washington Post—he’s demure and polite in person.
Milloy’s surprisingly tender flock-tending style is on display as he chats people up one November afternoon at the Children of Mine Youth Center in Anacostia. Kids from the center, a visiting lawyer, some Maryland Episcopalians picking up trash—they all get taken in by the man with the good-natured baritone that cracks and squeaks whenever he laughs.
Milloy listens raptly, wrinkles deepening. A handsome, straight-featured black man, he shows no hint of writerly condescension as he works a room full of all those ordinary citizens that media strategists are so perpetually keen on reaching. At moments like this, you’d never guess how ruthless Milloy’s dark side can be. While some kids shoot a sleepy game of basketball on the center’s colorful asphalt court, the 59-year-old gets the lowdown from Hannah Hawkins. Back in the 1990s, in order to feed the children of Southeast, Hawkins chased raccoons and homeless men from a house at 2263 Mount View Place SE, allowing her to move her nascent program there. Now, to feed more children, Hawkins says she needs to expand. She needs to renovate an adjacent and dilapidated house on the property grounds.
Milloy has declared he’s working on a column about the center. He isn’t taking notes, though.
“I’m just here to get a feel for the place,” he says. It doesn’t matter anyway; the most significant exchange to happen that day will be easy to remember. It’s when Milloy asks Hawkins how much she needs for the renovations. “I could do it with $7 million,” she replies. The writer doesn’t ﬂinch. After thinking about it for a while, Hawkins decides she could do with more: Ten million.
A Milloy column could help some of that money materialize. For the last 27 years, his work has highlighted black life in the District. Milloy can bring attention to a problem, which can lead to dollars in the form of donations and city money. The potential chain reaction leads local social worker and activist Ella McCall to call Milloy whenever she sees a dire need emerging. “You’re my mouthpiece,” she’s told him.
Milloy insists he’s no such thing. But if he’s not quite a mouthpiece for a black agenda in the District, he’s the closest thing to it at the Post—or anywhere else in the local mainstream media, for that matter. Milloy’s column cuts against the usual conventional wisdom in journalism these days, giving readers a mirror of an urban, poor D.C. instead of the wealthy suburbs advertisers would probably prefer. And while the newspaper lavishes attention on its new iPad incarnation, and courts Facebook and Twitter like a desperate teenaged boy chasing after a crush, Milloy almost gleefully stays away from the trend.
Like the late Herb Caen in San Francisco, he’s an old-school journalist doing an old-school job: the Metro columnist writing about, and for, the city’s downtrodden. For decades, that was a generally quiet, low-impact job. But following a mayoral campaign that pitted rich against poor in dramatic new ways this fall, Milloy’s knack for reducing post-modern problems to their race-and-class roots has suddenly made him a controversial, buzz-generating columnist—the man that the supposedly liberal class of newcomers to D.C.’s gentrifying neighborhoods love to hate.
In the steadfastly non-gentrified neighborhoods that Milloy covers, though, he’s rarely seen as incendiary. Community broadcast journalist Jerry Phillips, who’s known the columnist since the 1970s, says Milloy is basically a black Norman Rockwell. “Norman Rockwell always had a subject that was American in some way,” he says. Milloy writes the story of America, “but for the black community.”
“The District of Columbia doesn’t care about me,” Hawkins half shouts while taking a walk around the building so she can show off the center’s small vegetable garden to Milloy. She senses that if she has any hope of airing that accusation, Milloy is her guy.
The city has been growing less interested in what people like Hawkins—people ﬁghting for “quality of life” in places where that means more than bike racks—are up to. But Milloy is. Even though there’s nothing coming up in it, Milloy gazes at the garden’s dirt mounds a long time and manages some reverential awe.
Here’s the official national narrative about Washington, D.C., in 2010: Mayor Adrian Fenty was ousted in large part thanks to the bold reforms exemplified by his public schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee. It’s not hard to find examples of the narrative, which holds sway in magazines like The Atlantic and The New Republic, not to mention the editorial page of the Post.