Notes From Underground: The Making of the Washington Metro

(Katherine Frey / The Washington Post)

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Sunday, June 11, 2006

Chalk up one more urban legend. For years Washingtonians have been telling the story of how snooty Georgetown dealt itself out of a subway stop because it didn't want its streets crawling with riffraff from poorer sections of the city. The opposition was there all right, explains Zachary M. Schrag in The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro (Johns Hopkins Univ., $30), but it was irrelevant, "for a Georgetown station was never seriously considered." A historian at George Mason University, Schrag attributes Metro's existence to, among others, John F. Kennedy, "the only president to grow up in a city with a subway." And the author makes us privy to the thinking that went into the system's design. There was a proposal to make each station unique, with architects vying to outdo one another in giving the rider a memorable entry or exit. Instead, however, the system's planners opted for the comfort of uniformity. Metro was being planned in the 1960s, when Americans were responding favorably to standardization: "McDonald's menus and Holiday Inn rooms were the same in Oregon, Texas, and New Jersey," Schrag writes. "A traveler who had once mastered the layout of a Holiday Inn room would never again search for the light switch. Why should a transit rider have to learn each station?"

-- Dennis Drabelle


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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