While taking a walk through the John A. Wilson Building Friday, I noticed that outside of each D.C. Council member’s suite sit two flags: A U.S. flag and a D.C. flag. The display is similar to that of the offices on Capitol Hill that show off their home states’ banners.
I appreciated the civic pride. And while the image of the three stars and two bars of the D.C. flag are more popular than ever — emblazoned on T-shirts, used as tattoos, co-opted by local businesses — it’s time to take this home-town spirit to the next level: We need to develop flags for each ward to illustrate our varied and unique history as Washingtonians.
The D.C. flag is inspired by the coat of arms of George Washington. Personally, I love it. I have an automatic affinity for anything showing off the design. If nothing else, seeing people displaying the flag shows me that they at least have some clue about their surroundings.
But it might be time to empower the residents of this city to represent themselves artistically and emblematically, since it doesn’t appear it will happen anytime soon legally on Capitol Hill. Recently, there has been much discussion in this town about who “owns” the city. This might help show that we all do.
Back in 2002, the D.C. Council first considered a proposal to create a protest flag, that would have added the words “Taxation Without Representation” to the two red bars. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. That’s the kind of gimmicky foolishness that leads people to think that the city is nothing other than a town full of angry political types.
We’re obviously not a state yet, but our existence is unique and varied enough to warrant individual representations within our overall jurisdiction. Kind of like the way states have flags that express that state’s personality. Even some counties have their own flags. Montgomery County’s flag, officially adopted in 1976, uses some elements of the family arms of General Richard Montgomery, for whom the County was named. According to the county, “The gold fleur-de-lis in two quarters of the flag are reminders of the French ancestry of the Montgomery family.”
In Arlington County, the board held a design competition in 1982. They ended up adopting a county seal first, which features Arlington House, originally the property of Robert E. Lee, now at Arlington Cemetery. Also pictured are dogwoods, the state flower of Virginia. Then they stuck that seal on a flag and called it a day. Those two nearby examples might be boring, but there’s no reason that the District can’t improve on that.
I think one of the most valuable parts of this process would be the exercise itself. Imagine legislating a process that involved local businesses, schools, historians and residents in the creation of an image that symbolizes the diversity of the District’s eight wards.
The city could commission a contest and take submissions for ideas. Let people vote on ideas at local libraries. Ask school kids what they think. It could be an empowering experience for local artists who don’t have the reach to get their work in galleries or public spaces.
I grew up in Ward 4. Personally, I’d love to see a flag that included an homage to Rock Creek Park, much of which exists there. Maybe also a nod to the history of churches that have lined the 16th Street corridor for decades. A mention of the ward’s Civil War history with Fort Totten and Fort Stevens would probably be appropriate, too.
But those are just my ideas. A healthy discussion of how we can best represent ourselves locally is long overdue. We’ve been arguing over who deserves claim to what for decades; it’s time to collaborate. No, it won’t be easy, but that’s the whole point. Everyone has a vested interested in what a flag representing your ward looks like.
Though it may seem to difficult to tackle, a District-wide art project might be exactly what we need to remind ourselves that the history of the city is lengthy, varied and worth commemorating. Let’s see what we’re capable of.
Washington is more than just a place with the namesake of our first president. It’s about time we made an effort to show the world that throughout all eight wards, we’ve got a living, breathing history that, when put together, creates a distinct city worthy of being called the capital of the United States of America.
Yates is a columnist for TheRootDC.
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