Welcome to Washingtology

Photographer David Deal goes deep into the city's true infrastructure.
Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010; 12:10 PM

A while back, wandering Meridian Hill Park, also known as Malcolm X Park, I came across the James Buchanan Memorial. Who knew that there was a Buchanan memorial? I guess we're supposed to ignore the fact that Buchanan was an extraordinarily lame president who basically hummed to himself as the nation disintegrated. But this is Washington: Everyone gets a monument!

When you poke around Washington you discover stuff you never knew was there. Just up the hill from Buchanan, for example, is a Joan of Arc statue. How do other cities survive without the weird statues that pop up all over Washington? It wouldn't seem like D.C. without the Gandhi statue, or the monument in honor of the guy who invented homeopathy. In this town, you can't walk two blocks without bumping into someone's extremely heartfelt agenda.

Washington is, to an unusual degree, a consciously invented place, going all the way back to the beginning, when the concept of a federal town on the Potomac emerged from the Residence Act of 1790 (right? Or did I just imagine that?). This was a planned city. For decades it wasn't a whole lot to look at. You know the rest of the story: Every time something really bad happened, like a big war, Washington grew, expanded, became more powerful. Depressions and recessions have been good to us. Look at the recent series on Top Secret America: Terror incited a building boom around the region.

Today, Washington is a top-tier metropolis. It's a sprawling, heterogeneous place that you oversimplify at your peril.

It's never going to be as fabulous, dense, snazzy and overwrought as New York City, as New Yorkers are mostly too polite to mention (but instinctively think the moment they hear mention of our little village of politics to the south). And it's never going to be the classic American hometown, because so many people are from elsewhere, stationed temporarily, holding down the bureau, living in an embassy, or having newly immigrated to the country. But Washington is increasingly going to be recognized -- I think -- as a world-class city, a place rich in texture, color, life, history, nature.

Which brings us to Washingtology. I've just been helping out here for a little bit as a pitchman while others do all the actual work. (By the time this is posted, I'll be on a plane to Denver. Half the battle when doing something new and difficult is knowing when to quit and leave town, I've always thought.)

There are a lot of buttons and levers and thingamajigs on this page, and the niftiest is probably the "TimeSpace" doohickey that apparently can take you all over town and in process violate Einstein's special theory of relativity. (Oh yeah, Einstein: We got a statue of him, too!) The Washington Post Magazine also explores "Unseen Washington" this week with amazing photos by photographer David Deal and an essay by staff writer Steve Hendrix.

This is an interactive forum for discussing Washington, telling stories, sharing photos. All are welcome to dive right in. How this will evolve depends largely on you, what we used to call "the reader," but now in the multimedia age we view more as "our unpaid staff."

Reader feedback is key. Tell us what to do. Be polite. Why don't we all agree that the e-mails saying "This sucks" and "Kay Graham is rolling over in her grave" and "Why haven't they fired you yet" can be pre-stipulated and concurred with, so that we can focus just on the more helpful, practical, level-headed suggestions for immediately killing it.

A final note about the name: When the idea for this new page came up, I suggested "Washingtology," which duplicates the name of a weekly column I wrote for Style very briefly in the 1990s. Although the name was my suggestion, the credit for the page goes to PostLocal producer Meghan Louttit, Washington Post researcher Meg Smith and PostLocal editor Jane Elizabeth - and the Post staffers who have written and will continue to write about the unseen Washington.

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