DAVID L. LEWIS's District of Columbia: A Bicentennial History ironically comes to us through "The States and the Nation Series," a bicentennial project of the American Association for State and Local History which commissioned a history of each of the 50 states plus this one of the nation's capitol. The authors of these short volumes were asked to present a highly interpretive and personal view of their state's past.
Lewis, an accomplished historian whose previous works include a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. and a history of the Dreyfus Affair, has done just this. Eschewing any attempt at a comprehensive history, he has produced a thematic essay (actually a series of five essays) sketching loosely and selectively those elements of Washington's past which he thinks account for its contemporary character.
The first chapter traces city planning and the growth of monumental Washington, highlighting the L'Enfant plan, the street paving and municipal improvements accomplished by Alexander "Boss" Shepherd in the 1870s, and the work of the "McMillan Commission" and architect Daniel Burnham in the development of the Mall, Union Station, and of several major government-buildings in the first decades of the 20th century.
Next, Lewis sketches the history of race relations and black life under slavery and thereafter, relating the all too familiar tale of black segregatio and persecution, the growth of black communal life, the rigid line drawn by upper-class fair-complexioned negroes in the late 19th century to separate themselves from the black masses, and the struggle for civil rights.Lewis's treatment of race is balanced and sensitive. He notes that conditions of Washington blacks, however bad, have been better than those of most black people elsewhere in the United States, and portrays with empathy (not sympathy) the pressures which caused upper-class blacks to embrace a racism of color shade.
Lewis's third chapter, "Vignettes - Characters and Culture" narrates the story of Anne Royall, a crusading investigative reporter of the early 19th century, of Henry Adams and his disillusionment with the capital of democracy, and of the extraordinary intellectual accomplishments of the rigorously competitive black Dunbar High School; the chapter ends with a lengthy catalogue of contemporary artistic and recreational institutions as diverse as the Kennedy Center and the gay bars of Washington. This is Lewis's least successful essay. The whole of it says no more than the sum of its diverse parts.
Next Lewis presents a panaroma of Washington's residential neighborhoods, taking the reader from place to place, pausing often to relate something of the area's history. Despite the dearth of scholarly research on Washington neighborhoods from which Lewis could draw, the reader gets a fairly good sense of what was built when and who lived where in what period. This is the most original part of the book.
The author ends his history by posing the question, "What sort of place is Washington likely to become during the last quarter of the twentieth century?" In answer, he gives us a lengthy description of the evolution of today's "home rule" and then reminds us of the current problems of poverty, education, housing, race relations, city finance and government administration. He ends on a decidedly optimistic note, boldly predicting that the city has so many assets and remains so attractive a place to live that it will flourish in the succeeding decades.
Lewis's history is unquestionably personal. Those who know something of the city's history will undoubtedly find fault with the book for one thing or another that it does not consider. Particularly conspicuous by its absence is any discussion of the city's economic base. Nowhere do we get a picture of the city's population growth relative to the growth of employment, so discussions of physical structures, cultural institutions or neighborhoods appear in something of a void.
This reviewer's greatest disappointment, however, is that Lewis did not choose to place the city's history within the context of American urban history generally. The planning efforts of the early 20th century, for instance, arose here as part of the development of the planning profession in United States cities generally; the civil rights movement of the 1940s and thereafter stemmed in part from the mass migration of blacks to northern cities after 1914; the relative paucity of outstanding universities, theaters and concert halls until recently reflected the absence of the locally based corporate elites of wealth who endowed such enterprises in industrial-commercial cities like Chicago.
Such a national and comparative perspective can deepen our understanding of the city's past. Still, Lewis has a story to tell, and he tells it in a novel way that will give cause for reflection.
Each of the volumes in this series contains a contemporary photographic essay, this one by Don Carl Steffen. However good these photographs, the series editors should have included instead historical prints and photographs. Historians are making increasing use of pictorial evidence in urban history, and Lewis's chapters on the monumental city and the neighborhoods could have been greatly elaborated through photographic documentation.
Since 1894, the Columbia Historial Society has published its Records. Scholars and local history buffs alike have come to know them well, for they have constituted virtually the only major outlet for short publications on Washington history. The two most recent of these handsomely printed volumes build upon a fine tradition. Superbly edited by Francis Coleman Rosenberger, they deal with such varies subjects as design proposal for the Washington Monument and life in the city's alleys, neighborhood studies from Anacostia to Chevy Chase, unbuilt bridges and the paintings of John Singer Sargent.Moreover, they are beginning to reflect the growing interest of professional historians in Washington, stemming from the extradinary growth of scholarly research and writting in the urban and social history of the United States in the last decade. A large number of the articles are writen by professional historians, and quite a few by graduate students; a good number of the authors subsequently published full length books or monographs on their subjects. At the same time, the Records continue to publish many fine papers by people for whom local history remains an unreunerated passion. Local history enterprises are at their best when they bring together professional historians and local citizens. Since 1974 the Society has helped to foster this marriage by sponsoring along with George Washington University an Annual Conference on Washington D.C. Historical Studies. Several of the papers in the 1973-1974 volume of the Records were first presented at the 1974 conference. Professional and community interest in local history have expanded enormously since then, and we can eagerly anticipate more fresh research of ever greater diversity and sophistication on Washington in the near future. The Records will undoubtedly remain the major vehicle through which much of this research will be disseminated.