A look back at 2000-09 in Washington

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 31, 2009

The first memorable night of the new decade in the District of Columbia was quiet, even for a city that tucked itself in at 8 p.m. You could hear the traffic signals clack as they changed colors. Green. Yellow, red. Green. A lone ambulance drove up Pennsylvania Avenue, lights twirling, siren off. No part of the cityscape moved except the flames to the west, just over the river, as they ate their way around the crater in the Pentagon, sending up smoke that turned hazy blue in the floodlights.

Until 9:37 that morning, the biggest story in Washington was half-buried by thorny brush at the bottom of a ravine in Rock Creek Park. Chandra Levy was murdered in the spring of 2001, but that sensationalized tragedy was consigned to a quainter era of cloak-and-dagger Washington as soon as the new decade arrived at 530 mph.

Everyone says this decade was the decade from hell, the lost decade, but also the decade of tantalizing evolution. The capital was the crucible for this paradox. Living the Aughts in the District was like magic realism, like heightened reality, a fever dream the rest of the world was having. The plane that plowed into the Pentagon carried some of the area's brightest and incinerated some of its bravest, sending our neighbors into battle. In this decade, we built a grand memorial to the Greatest Generation but didn't properly care for the current generation at Walter Reed. We cheered the inauguration of a black man as leader of the free world, even as the capital's HIV rates hovered higher than West Africa's.

Things started bad, got better, but never balanced, settled down or felt exactly right. That was Washington, 2000 to 2009.

* * *

At first it felt like perpetual, jittery twilight. Buildings became fortresses. Downtown was landscaped with bollards and weeded of garbage cans and mailboxes. The black eyeballs of security cameras watched from lampposts and granite crannies. New police perimeters futzed with lunch-hour walks. Billions of dollars poured into the region to defend the homeland. It accelerated the development boom. Construction cranes became the new skyline. Subdivisions latched onto the Dulles Toll Road like barnacles. A wall of glass condos shot up along Massachusetts and New York avenues.

Terror went hyperlocal in the autumn of 2002, when every shape on the periphery of one's vision was a phantom white van, when motorists cowered at gas stations, when the sniper turned suburban tableaux into target ranges. These were the years of living dangerously, of shuffling priorities, of praying for the first time in years, of saying "I love you" before hanging up or walking out the door. You didn't know when a plane or bullet might hit, or when a disgruntled tobacco farmer would drive his tractor onto the Mall, scream something about explosives and shut down traffic for hours.

It all seemed to build toward March 2003, when George W. Bush announced Operation Iraqi Freedom from the Oval Office. His tie was red. Outside the draperied windows, twilight had given way to darkness. Students stopped at TVs in college dorms, nodded or cursed or zoned out, then moved on to their night classes in lieu of joining scattershot protests ("Hey hey, ho ho, we won't kill for Texaco!"). For those of us not connected to the military, what else was there to do those following years except grow numb to the procession of spouses who clutched folded American flags at the edges of graves, to the stream of young soldiers with lost limbs and lost minds?

The city was the engine of war, the repository for its consequences. It bore the symbolic blame for much of the decade's catastrophes (near and far) because whom do we blame if not the government? For the first half of the decade, the city felt industrial, desperate, cold, as clenched as a widow's fist.

* * *

Underneath the hardening husk of the federal city, the other city kept percolating.

NoVa, NoMa. Business districts and blogs. Neighborhoods that had always been here found new life. Eckington, Bloomingdale and Congress Heights became buzzwords beyond their borders. The city moved east, toward the welcome mat of gentrification. The hookers at 13th and L streets relocated to Fifth and K. Communities were upended, razed, rankled, revitalized, chronicled online.

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