Eternal Washington

Historians know (and will tirelessly remind us) that, “What is Past is Prologue” and, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  The first is Shakespeare and the second, Santayana.  Both have something to say about how we are inevitably shaped by the circumstances from which we arise and how much, after great efforts to be different, things end up with an uncanny resemblance to the way they used to be.

Take, for instance, Washington, D.C.

In 1860, when Mr. Lincoln was elected, the entire District of Columbia had a population of just 75,080.  What was then known as Washington City had a population of 61,122.  Compared to New York’s 813,669, that looks pretty small.  Still Washington was 14th among U.S. cities.  Her real problems were twofold: First, physically, Washington was a small town in a big city’s suit.  Second, she had an attitude problem.

When Pierre L’Enfant laid out the design of Washington on the marshy Potomac flats, he planned it to be on a scale befitting the mighty future he saw ahead for America.  That was all well and good, but until it grew into his dream, it became what one ambassador called “a city of magnificent distances.”  That is, although laid out on a vast scale, by 1860 it had built only a few (mostly incomplete) grandiose Grecian-fronted buildings built on the same scale.  That left some enormous spaces in between.  In all of Washington, general opinion held that the only buildings worth looking at were the Capitol, the General Post Office, the Patent Office, the Treasury, the Executive Mansion, and that odd architectural anomaly, Joseph Henry’s Smithsonian Institution.  Of places that matched the overall concept of the city, that was about it.  The many blocks in between were occupied by fairly mean little buildings or were simply trash-strewn vacant lots.

The main streets were wide, planned to be broad, sweeping avenues.  But they were unpaved, turning to dust and/or mud in the summertime and into icy mud and snow in the wintertime.  Pennsylvania Avenue, the only street where any real effort had been made at matching the city’s pretensions, had been paved along its main sections with rough cobblestones.  Unfortunately, by 1860, the heavy traffic had broken a lot of it up, creating teeth-jarring holes that were dangerous in dry weather and even more dangerous in wet.

The town smelled heavily, as all towns of the time did, of horse manure.  However, since hogs and geese were allowed to run wild and sheep and cows were kept in many yards and even grazed on the Mall, Washington’s aroma was richer than most.  One area of the city, though, produced a miasma so thick and rank that no other city even approached it.  Going across the city to reach the Mall meant crossing over the old canal that ran from the upper Potomac down to the East Branch (Anacostia) alongside the Mall.  Having no particular fall of water to drive it along, the current had been sluggish in its best days.  By 1860, it had fallen into disuse except as a place to dump trash and dead animals.  It was just a green, fetid, reeking trap for the unwary.  There were a number of bridges across it, but it required a strong stomach to use any of them.

The whole town had an raw, unfinished look, but a few places stood as special symbols of the distance between the capital’s (and the country’s) dreams and realities.  On the Mall, the great obelisk of the Washington Monument was a stub, reaching to less than a third of its planned height.  It had stood like that, unfinished and embarrassing, for the last six years.  Political squabbles and a lack of funds had stalled what had been designed to be the tallest structure in the world.  Now tourists liked to visit there and read the inscriptions on the dedicatory stones scattered about the site.

On a hill in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue stood the Capitol, surrounded by scaffolding and cranes.  It was undergoing a major overhaul, so the grounds were one large building site.  Stones and pieces of columns seemed to be everywhere, blocking the way to the newly expanded North and South Wings.  But the most conspicuous problem was the dome.  There wasn’t one.

The old wooden dome had been removed, and a new, cast-iron structure was being assembled at a leisurely, start-and-stop pace set by the funding whims of Congress. It was busy enough to drive the occupants crazy with the noise, but not enough to show much progress.  Just now, where the dome would be, there was a rotunda surrounded by a ring of bare iron ribs that rose into the sky, adding a certain air of desolation to the skyline.

Washington’s attitude problem came from two simple facts: First, it was a southern town, complete with ubiquitous slaves, a slow (i.e. to Yankees, lazy) pace of living, and certain slovenly habits of hygiene.  Second, it was a seasonal town.

Newcomers from the North were shocked at Washington’s foreignness.  To someone used to the energetic, neat cities of New England or the brawny newness of Chicago, there was something alien about this shabby town full of people, black and white, who spoke a slow drawl and seemed in no hurry to accomplish anything.  The dirt and the cluster of unwashed sheds that seemed to surround every large house (one author said that even the Executive Mansion looked like a typical plantation house) and the crowds of unwashed people were like nothing they had ever seen.  For those who had traveled in the South, though, the atmosphere of Washington was all too familiar.

Most capitals around the world had been business and industrial centers long before they were capitals.  Not so Washington.  It had virtually no industries and its sole business was to be a capital.  As one author put it, it was an idea set in a wilderness.

So when Congress was not in session, there was little beyond petty administration for anyone of rank or wealth to do.  And since Washington enjoyed (as it still does) about the most miserably hot and humid weather the country had to offer, everyone who could (which certainly included the politicians) left town well before the hot months.

This was not just a matter of comfort.  Summer was known as the “sickly season.”  Malaria, typhoid and yellow fevers, and that new disease, cholera, arose with the season and reaped a predictable number of victims.  It was often a matter of survival to be absent from the District in the hot season.

Around the country, Washington had something of a reputation as a sinful city.  When the politicians started returning, around November, they brought in their wake thousands of office-seekers, government contractors, shoddy merchants, and all of the other myriad hangers-on produced by the full-fledged spoils system.  Their greed was even then something of a national scandal.

But that was not the only reason the capital was considered sinful.  A pretty fair percentage of the politicians and most of the hangers-on left their wives at home.  The politicians lived in boarding houses while the rest crowded the city’s hotels.  As a result, Washington had about the highest percentage of prostitutes to be found anywhere in the country.  They ranged from the grubby whores (black and white) in the city’s rundown slums to the lace-curtain courtesans of upper Pennsylvania Avenue.

Times change and so has Washington.  It has grown into its suit.  Now all the empty spaces are gone and the crowded city has property prices that power the gentrification of shabby neighborhoods.  It’s hard even to find enough room to step back and gaze at all the pretentious buildings, but they are finally pretty impressive.  And the Spoils System is gone, so hordes of office-seekers no longer crowd the hotels.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Still, those hotels are full.  And K Street is crowded with lobbyists with that same old gleam in their eyes.  The committee rooms are full, and now incomplete, half-funded programs have replaced the old incomplete, half-funded buildings.  The hookers of all classes still do a fine business, thank you very much.  And the town still has a great fondness for pork, even if the hogs don’t run free in the streets anymore.

Mind you, I wouldn’t want you to think I am comparing the bad old Washington to that of today.  After all, we Americans are a people who believe in everyone’s ability to remake oneself and escape the old bonds of the past that try to shackle and shape us.

So obviously I’m not saying that.

But what I am saying is that old Will Shakespeare and George Santayana were pretty clever fellas.

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