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“D.C. really loves characters. It really loves the story behind a person. The policy and the voting record is secondary to the person,” Marcus Sakey, the crime novelist and host of Travel Channel’s “Hidden City,” said about the interwoven tales of former Mayor Marion Barry and Washington, D.C.
Sakey’s show specializes in digging up the more sordid bits of cities’ histories, profiling famous places through episodes many people would rather not dwell on.
Washington gets its “Hidden” treatment tonight. Sakey had a wealth of material to choose from before settling on Barry’s arrest for possession of crack cocaine in 1990, the 2002 Beltway sniper shootings and the 2001 arrest of FBI agent Robert Hanssen for selling secrets to the Russians.
“It’s interesting trying to pick the stories,” Sakey said in an interview last week. “Crime in cities is pretty much the same: drugs, murder. ... You’re looking for ones that tell a story about the place.”
Charmed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s smoke-and-trans-fat-free New York? Don’t worry, Sakey is there to remind you of the horrific deaths of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen.
Left your heart in San Francisco? How about revisiting the unsolved crime of the Zodiac Killer?
Heading down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras this month? Don’t forget about the shootings on the Danziger Bridge, a sordid coda to Hurricane Katrina.
And now Sakey has turned his hard-boiled perspective on Washington. Looking forward to visiting the Lincoln Memorial? Don’t forget to swing by the hotel where Barry was busted for smoking crack!
“These three are such an interesting profile of D.C.,” Sakey said in the interview.
As painful as some of the memories surrounding the topics are, they demonstrate the multifaceted identity of Washington.
Barry’s arrest, and the racial tension in the city that the incident brought out, shows Washington as a municipality that frequently runs into conflict with the federal government.
The sniper shootings, in which John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo terrorized the area for 23 days, killing 10 and injuring three, show Washington as a place of many communities spanning several cities, counties and states.
“The snipers: The whole city was under siege,” Sakey said.
For the episode, the show put together a roundtable of citizens. The killers’ indiscriminate methods — they shot whites, blacks, federal workers, children, a bus driver — put the region “in a state of hysteria,” said Nicholas Benton, one of the panelists and editor of the Falls Church News-Press.
For Sakey, it was striking how the trauma lingered. “Even now, nine years later, everyone was shaken by it,” he said.