My Washington

23 Mar

Spring (or the lack thereof) is by far the most miserable season in Duluth, and by late March, it’s not hard to flash back to those four brilliant springs I enjoyed in Washington, D.C. By now everything is abloom, midterms are underway, and Georgetown basketball has already made its annual embarrassing early exit from the NCAA Tournament. Bouncyball angst aside, Georgetown is such a vibrant campus that one can go all four years without venturing far from M Street and the handful of streets that feed down into it. I can hardly describe it to Duluthians without resorting to a string of bubbly clichés. The neighborhood is a storybook village, the brick and pastel rowhouses lining the cobblestone streets interrupted by old trolley lines, a historical plaque on practically every building. (My personal favorite: one that read “On this site in 1897, nothing happened.”) The Georgetown Bubble is a college student’s pleasure dome, and few are called to venture out into the wider city: classes consume us, special events abound, and on Friday and Saturday nights, a short walk to The Tombs is all we need.

Of course, everyone gets out for at least one Monuments Tour at night, goes and stands before Lincoln and Jefferson in awe, or in the memorials to Vietnam and Korea in reverence. This time of year, the FDR Memorial is the place to be: its lights shine through the waterfalls and illuminate inspired quotes, the whole scene robed in the soft luminescence of the cherry blossoms, a full moon gazing down on the Tidal Basin. And then, of course, there are the Smithsonians and their various friends, usually toured with a group of friends or visitors from back home, though every once in a while on my own, freeing me to stand transfixed in front of Magritte’s “La condition humaine” at the National Gallery for as long as I choose. The sprawling Mall, where everything looks closer than it actually is, the grassy avenue fading away toward the Capitol, down past that spot where I stood as Barack Obama took the oath of office. Across the Key Bridge in the Virginia are more markers of the past, perhaps less visited but no less impressive: Roosevelt Island, Iwo Jima, the Netherlands Carillon with its peerless view of the city, and Arlington Cemetery.

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Today, though, I write not about the DC of monuments and museums and marble at every turn, but instead of the world beyond. It’s a city of both beauty and sorrow, one that encompasses both the best and the worst of the nation ruled from its center. It was never home, but it became a part of me, its little corners tugging me back and inviting a second look.

First, there is Northwest DC, a common haunt for a Hoya with aspirations of calling himself a runner. Quiet, leafy streets, well-tended homes, and the occasional tasteful business district slipped in to make it all walkable. Just behind campus lies the Glover-Archbold Parkway, an avenue of green that heads five miles north through all the bustle, up toward American University. A side trail leads to Battery Kemble Park, an old Civil War artillery outpost atop a hill, where I’d keep watch over the dog-walkers from a picnic table, free to study away from the cloud of stress hanging over the Georgetown library, away from the distractions of campus life. Further along, another site in the ring of forts protecting the District, this one now a reservoir: Fort Reno Park, a windy expanse where I’d flop in the grass and drift off, jolted to life only when the students of Woodrow Wilson High poured out into the sunlight at the end of their day, spray-painting prom invites on a weathered wooden stage and taking me back to afternoons on the lawn out in front of the old Duluth East.

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Shifting west, the city becomes more unique, more authentically DC. There is the Naval Observatory, its daily bugle calls audible from my off-campus house on R Street; the bars of Glover Park, underused by Georgetown students. Beyond that rises the monolithic Russian Embassy, and then the National Cathedral, a Gothic marvel, and one of the few American houses of worship that can rival anything in Europe or Latin America. Its nave could hold the Washington Monument on its side, but its beauty comes out in the details as well: the quiet chambers in the crypt, the contemplative Bishop’s Garden, and the preppy St. Alban’s campus unfolding below. In the midst of the urban jungle, a refuge where no one will ask any questions.

To the east of campus lies a world of great wealth and aesthetic beauty. Down the brick sidewalk past the Argentine gelato place (now sadly shuttered) one comes to Dumbarton Oaks, a walled estate whose very name suggests grandiose affairs. The name does not lie: it was here that, in 1944, the Allies laid the groundwork for the United Nations. It is a wonder to this day, its sprawling gardens offering romantic allure at every turn, tempting the young to hop its walls with a wine bottle after dark and settle along one of its pools or masterfully manicured courts. Behind its grounds are public parks, filled with flowers and woods and babbling streams, with a footpath snaking its way along Rock Creek up toward the giant parkland separating east and west DC. Beyond it is Embassy Row, its stately avenues filled with little monuments: the Khalil Gibran Memorial, Gandhi in stride, a Brazilian aviator, the Bard of Ukraine, the memorial on the spot where Chilean dissidents were killed by a car bomb. The Spanish Steps, plucked out of Rome and shrunk into a shady cul-de-sac with a fountain that never works. Some of the embassies bustle with enthused energy; others hide behind bars and gates, guarding the secrets of statecraft. This is the DC that dreams are made of, its well-heeled families parading about with their perfect children, its shady streets a short walk from the bustle of Dupont Circle.

That is only one of the city’s many faces, though. Much of downtown DC is a drab wasteland of government buildings and everything that comes with them, a sclerotic mix of government and contractors and the echo chambers of K Street. This is the heart of L’Enfant’s city, but his plazas are now mostly a home for the homeless, a reminder that all is not well, even as the capital’s wealth overflows. At night, all is dead. Even vibrant Chinatown further along is a bit manufactured, but there is at least some life here: the bars, the restaurants, the National Gallery, and the Verizon Center, home to Georgetown basketball. (Let’s please not talk about this season.) There is the government center where we endured Zoning Commission meetings on a proposed campus plan, plus the National Building Museum, where I once spent an evening with Ann Coulter. (Ask Uncle Chuck about that one.) And, to the east, Union Station, its great atrium modeled on the Baths of Diocletian, the site of many of my DC comings and goings, plus that final senior ball the night before I walked across the stage.

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For more interesting environs, head north. To Adams-Morgan, with its bar-lined cosmopolitan boulevard, a pleasant break from the pretension of M Street, though the creep of gentrification looms. Indeed, that is a theme all across the north side, from Hispanic Columbia Heights to the historically black corridors of U Street and H Street Northeast, with a vibrant Ethiopian community mixed in. The food is delicious, the diversity is real, the rents aren’t through the roof—but one suspects they will be soon, and with them will go the vibrant city. But for now it is a delight, teeming with life, melting seamlessly into the bourgeois Northwest by the National Zoo before drifting into the part of the city that is still uniformly African-American. Wedged between Adams-Morgan and that Latino nonprofit in Mount Pleasant where I once doused myself in silvery paint while brushing up a balcony lies Meridian Hill Park, among the greatest of DC curiosities. Up top, a stately lawn reminiscent of a European capital; below, a sprawling fountain and a memorial to the not-so-memorable James Buchanan, to say nothing of the statues of great American heroes like Joan of Arc and Dante. It has a little of everything, attracts some of everyone, though that rare mix may prove fleeting.

To the east lies a DC few outsiders visit, though that is changing, as the money flows in and developers snap up the real estate. The District’s black population, no longer its majority, is drifting eastward into Prince George’s County. The southeast riverfront looks nothing like it once did, with Nationals Stadium and its crisp sightlines rising up on the banks of the Anacostia. RFK Stadium, once the main attraction on the east side, is on its way out, with its last tenant—the DC United soccer club—headed for a soccer-specific stadium near Nationals Park in the not-so-distant future. To the north, one monument stands unchanged while DC shifts around it: the National Shrine, the nation’s largest Catholic church, and one unlike any other with its exquisite Byzantine look.

Across the Anacostia’s polluted waters lie a few sites worthy of a visit. The Anacostia Community Museum, exiled far from the rest of its Smithsonian brethren, and the Fredrick Douglass House, sitting stately atop a hill. Parts of Southeast aren’t nearly as blighted as conventional wisdom would have you believe. Yet the troubles persist. The projects and planning schemes have amounted to nothing; even Marion Barry’s patronage machine couldn’t do much to change the fate of his home ward. Just past the corner of Martin Luther King and Malcom X sits Ballou High, where I spent part of a semester in a class that had us trying to instill some civic engagement in a struggling, all-black public school. Through the metal detectors, down chaotic halls, into a classroom where maybe half of the kids would show up—and these were the survivors, the seniors, the thirty percent who’d made it through from freshman year. Midyear we were thrown from the school, ostensibly for lack of communication, but more likely because we were witnesses to the shock therapy imparted by Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

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The status quo was untenable, but the vicious cuts and relentless turnover didn’t make much of a difference. Five years later, not much has changed, save for the changes brought on by the eastward march of urban renewal schemes. A few heroic teachers and community leaders battle on, trying something, anything, that hasn’t been tried before, but one senses that Black DC is slipping away, scattering through suburbs off toward Baltimore. The new District will be beautiful, and offer ideal urban living—for those who can afford it. It will continue to attract the best and the brightest, those who believe they’ve outgrown wherever it is they’ve come from, a transient city for the ambitious of all political stripes. I could have been happy there, in among the interesting neighborhoods and people, perhaps living in a grand old house, raising children amid all that cultural wealth while still being able to show them the other side, and to do what I could to keep the vibrancy alive.

And yet I made no effort to stay in DC after I graduated from Georgetown. I left in part for reasons my old professor and fellow ex-Washingtonian, Patrick Deneen, describes here; in part for more personal reasons. Distance, however, has eased some of my jadedness, and I can now remember all those little details with unburdened fondness. I no longer reject Washington; it left a mark I cannot deny, and in many ways it was a positive one. I’ll happily go back and dip my feet in from time to time. But it was also just one chapter in a much longer book, and the strength of those chapters is measured not in my closeness to power, nor in my rejection of it. It will come instead, I think, in how fully I lived in each of those years, what I learned from them, and how I took those lessons and used them to write the later chapters. In that, Georgetown proved an excellent guide—but it couldn’t have done it without its city, one whose streets my mind will forever wander.

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3 Responses to “My Washington”

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