Why D.C. streetcars are 'preservationist'

By Adam Irish
Sunday, April 18, 2010

The debate over whether to bring streetcars back to the District is being framed as a fight between preservationists and the city. But as an active Washington preservationist, I am thrilled that streetcar service could soon be restored to D.C. neighborhoods, and I know many preservationists who share this view.

Streetcars are no enemy of Washington's historic streetscape. Indeed, they are a missing link to our urban heritage and should be restored to revitalize neighborhoods that once depended on them.

As an important feature of urban life for nearly half of Washington's history, streetcars shaped the city's built environment perhaps more than any other technology. They were a transformative force, making once-remote areas such as Mount Pleasant into vibrant urban neighborhoods and shaping the streetscapes from which they have since retreated. New streetcars would not sully the city's historic character but would affirm its history and aid in the preservation of its historic neighborhoods. By returning the infrastructure many neighborhoods were built to rely on, streetcars could spur revitalization and help neglected areas get back on track. Yes, all reasonable measures should be taken to protect significant views and honor the 1889 law, but streetcars should not be derailed because of a couple of wires.

This kerfuffle is about more than just ugly wires, however. It gets to the heart of an old and familiar conflict over how Washingtonians and Americans at large envision the city. In its coverage, The Post has referred to opponents of wires as "preservationists," but I think "D.C. monumentalists" better describes their stance. For the monumentalist, Washington, D.C., the city comes second to Washington, D.C., the sanitized and photogenic capital.

The monumentalist vision of Washington has choked nearly all urban life from the Mall and its environs. It has fashioned large sections of our city into pleasing vistas for tourists but has given the rest of us lifeless wastelands (if you've ever stepped foot outside at L'Enfant Plaza, you know what I'm talking about).

Streetcar wires aren't pretty, but urbanity isn't always pretty. In fact, a vibrant, organic city is unabashedly messy, as exemplified by the hodgepodge of architectural styles, the variety of uses and the diversity of people in the District's thriving historic neighborhoods. It is hardly a victory for historic preservation if struggling areas of the city are cut off from an avenue to rejuvenation simply to preserve an unfettered view or two of the Capitol dome. The monumental core should be the city's heart, not its parasite.

It's high time we stopped sacrificing the vitality of our city for the sake of a grand and sterile capital. It's a local tradition that has historically failed both our city and capital, and it's one that I think isn't worth preserving.

The writer is a member of the D.C. Preservation League and a volunteer at the D.C. Historic Preservation Office.

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