By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 31, 2009; C01
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.
Barracks Row went boutique. U Street went Main Street, sushi and mini-golf found H Street NE. Seventh Street NW exploded into a bright wonderland where you could eat chain food, watch professional sports live, see a movie and take the Metro home without walking more than two blocks. Rents skyrocketed, Chinatown evaporated. Columbia Heights went from hip enclave to retail anthill. Ward 8 finally got a supermarket, as well as 6,000-plus housing units, but it also played host to the city's most wrenching moments (in the summer of 2007, 14-year-old DeOnte Rawlings was shot in the head by an off-duty police officer and a crack addict steamrolled her car into a crowded street festival).
A decade of nerves became a decade of finallys. Baseball finally returned to the grimy, rickety tiers of RFK Stadium, though the fervor had faded by the time the team moved into their shiny new -- and controversial -- stadium at Buzzard Point. Bike lanes finally threaded through the city (cyclists were still mowed down by garbage trucks and buses). Eight Metro stops opened, and there was talk of Silver and Purple lines (area traffic still ranked near the top of congestion lists, drivers were still among the rudest in the nation, and people still jumped in front of oncoming trains). Maverick women took hold of the District schools and police department and finally produced results. Joe Gibbs and Michael Jordan couldn't save the Redskins or the Wizards, but a 20-year-old mop-haired Russian named Alexander Ovechkin saved hockey.
There was an adult kickball craze.
Washington may have solved (or at least repressed) its crisis of cultural confidence. There will always be that insecurity that trickles down I-95 from New York, but during this decade the District finally became a top-tier restaurant town, finally broke onto the national hip-hop scene, finally found some feel for fashion that didn't reference seersuckers or Ann Taylor blazers. All of a sudden everything was wine bars and gastropubs and social lounges and quality DJ nights. K Street went from lobbyist slum to a velvet-rope avenue, and downtown started staying up late. Suddenly, finally, Washington's night life did not rely on networking happy hours.
Ten thousand more 20-to-34-year-olds live inside the District today than did in 2000. College enrollment went up only by 4,000 in that period, and total population rose by 20,000. You get the feeling more young people are staying here, moving here, instead of hitching their star to an administration, instead of looking for the first chance to scram.
* * *
The second most memorable night of the decade was loud. It was the car horns, mainly. After the election was called at 11 p.m. in November 2008, a tremor shuddered down U Street as everyone tumbled outside onto the damp, smelly pavement. Strangers fell into hugs and screamed "Yes we did" and the skeptics muttered "Not yet you didn't."
The scene at 14th and U streets was sensational by anyone's measure. To that point, the decade's mass gatherings had been bilious protests or solemn candlelight vigils for murder victims in the Trinidad neighborhood and for teenage crash victims in the suburbs. If your experience with the District was limited to the Aughts -- if, in fact, 9/11 was your 18th birthday and the start of your first semester of college -- you'd never seen anything like this.
The city exhaled. There was joy in the streets at the epicenter of the 1968 race riots. Something felt completed, tied up in a bow, the polar opposite of the loneliness along Pennsylvania Avenue on 9/11. After all, in this hopelessly Democratic city, 93 percent of voters got their way.
The mobs went to the White House and shouted at it: "Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye." Two months later they shuffled their way onto the Mall for the inauguration. Young boys climbed bare trees to get a look. The mood was jubilant. The air was frigid, like someone had lifted the bell jar off the city.
The economy continued to crumble, and even Washington wasn't immune (scholarships started drying up in this college town, Virginia's unemployment program borrowed $89 million from the federal government). The squabble over health-care legislation dampened Democrats' expectation of change. Hope has only so much patience.
* * *
Paradox city. City of tangled intentions. There is still no statehood in the capital of a country founded on the principle of federal representation. Same-sex weddings will start this spring, but won't be recognized in most of the rest of the country. It's no longer possible to smoke at a bar, even in a commonwealth built by tobacco farmers.
Chapters end. The sniper is dead. So is Deep Throat. Chandra's alleged killer is behind bars. Five hundred eighty-four bodies from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan went into the ground at Arlington. The most recent such burial, and the last of this decade, was Sgt. Daniel A. Frazier's on Dec. 22. Frazier, 25, of St. Joseph, Mich., was killed in Zabul province in Afghanistan when a suicide car-bomber attacked his unit last month. His mother, father and widow accepted their flags. His commander in chief accepted a Peace Prize.
Chapters continue. The drag queens still sprint in heels down 17th Street the week of Halloween. Marion Barry still dabbles in misdemeanors. Screen on the Green still lures everyone for flop-sweaty picnics during the dog days of summer. The Redskins still raise hopes and wring hearts. Friends buy rowhouses or condos and you wonder, first, "How do they afford it?" and then, "It might be nice to settle down here" and then, "I think I'm already settled. Finally."
A month before the presidential election last year, a memorial to the first casualties of this expiring decade was completed between I-395 and the west wall of the Pentagon. Victims' names were organized by dates of birth, by decade. In this arrangement, something curious becomes clear: No one who died on American Airlines 77 or in the Pentagon was born in the 1980s, the symbolic decade of the generation that came of age in the era of 9/11, the demographic that is now a driving force in this invigorated city.
Will we stay here after the luster of a new era wears off, when this new dawn bleeds into that old familiar twilight? Is that what'll make this decade, or break the next one?