POLITICAL TERRAIN

Washington, D.C., from Tidewater Town

To Global Metropolis

By Carl Abbott

Univ. of North Carolina. 252 pp. $39.95; paperback, $19.95

The precise civic character of the city in which this newspaper is published is one of the more beguiling and elusive American mysteries. Unlike other old American cities, which were established in sites hospitable to transportation, commerce and military defense, Washington was located on the north bank of the Potomac River after a lengthy political debate and for reasons having far more to do with politics and patriotic symbolism than with business and economics. It was not exactly set down in the middle of nowhere, a la Brasilia, but its roots are artificial and arbitrary, and much of its past has been spent trying to shape a stronger identity than such origins tend to foster.

This book is an attempt to make sense of Washington, to trace its development as a local, regional, national and international city. It is a short book, but it is argued so closely -- if not densely -- that it requires slow and careful reading. To what extent it rewards the labor this entails may depend on the interests and tastes of each reader. My own judgment is that at times Carl Abbott goes out of his way to make the simple and obvious unnecessarily ambiguous and complex; at others his analyses are original and acute, especially those having to do with Washington's essential, and apparently indelible, Southern personality.

Abbott is professor of urban studies at Portland State University in Oregon and is hardly immune to the jargon of his field, which is one reason why reading his book is not always a pleasant experience. This is especially true of his opening chapter, in which he posits a couple of myths about Washington -- that it is a Southern city and that it "has purchased power at the price of its soul and character" -- that he calls accurate but oversimplified, and then attempts to set these within the larger framework of region, nation and world. Though this discussion does establish the point that the city "has had such an ambiguous and contested regional identity," situated as it is almost at the exact line of demarcation between South and North, in a region (the Mid-Atlantic) perhaps more amorphous than definable, it is more theoretical than specific and relatively useless.

Abbott's outline and analysis of the city's development, by contrast, is lucid and revealing. A brief review cannot do it full justice, but in essence what it says is that just about everything we commonly assume about Washington is true, but not as true as we think it is or as it appears to be. Its passage from Tidewater town to Potomac city to national city to international city is linear in some senses, circuitous in others; its Southern personality may be indelible, but the nature of that personality has changed over the years, reflecting in its fashion changes in the South itself; it is the global capital, yet its "most important international functions are those with low linkages (government, education) or moderate linkages (culture, research), in contrast to the strongly linked financial services that characterize New York."

To say all of this is not to say, as some are wont to do, that Washington has no character, but that its character is complex and hard to pin down. Its founders had high hopes for it, but "in the decades of Monroe, Jackson and Polk [it] reflected the Upper South more than the ambitious nation," adopting "the society and habits of agricultural Maryland and Virginia," not merely the white planter society but also the black society, both slave and free, that existed inside (and outside) it. "By the 1850s," Abbott writes, "both northerners and southerners saw Washington as the first southern city on the road southward from New York and Philadelphia, the last southern city on the way north."

During the Civil War the Northern influence on the city suddenly intensified. It is commonly believed that this was the beginning of the end of its distinctly Southern character, but Abbott finds the truth (again) more complex than the myth. What began, he argues, was a "tug-of-war between the economic influence of the North and the cultural staying power of the South," and the latter proved uncommonly strong. Not merely did white Washington adopt many of the South's responses to Reconstruction -- it was, by the early 20th century, a thoroughly segregated city -- but black Washingtonians, whose large numbers grew still larger during and after the Civil War, maintained strong ties to the Southern black community and observed many of its customs and traditions.

But whatever the precise balance Washington kept between Southern and Northern influences, by the late 19th century it had become a distinctly national city "with cultural institutions, sources of information and symbols of national allegiance that have partially fulfilled the challenge of James Bryce that it become `the embodiment of the majesty and stateliness of the whole nation.' " The near-frenzy of monument building and statue casting, which began in earnest after the Civil War, transformed Washington into "the national shrine . . . the closest the nation has to common ground," a place not only of pleasure and interest, but also of inspiration . . . of national reconciliation."

Yet even as it became the national shrine, Washington itself had sharply limited local resources that ill-equipped it to compete with Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, even with nearby Baltimore. It had no industrial base to speak of and was "the intellectual switchboard for information originating elsewhere." In substantial measure this is still the case, even as metropolitan Washington competes seriously with Silicon Valley and as it strikes an alliance with Baltimore to become the country's fourth-largest Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area. It is not too much of an exaggeration to paraphrase the sign ("Trenton Makes, the World Takes") so familiar to Washington/New York Amtrak riders: The world makes, Washington takes.

Perhaps it is oversimplification, but it seems to me that the lesson to be learned from Political Terrain is that Washington has not a single, definable civic character but is instead the amalgam of many characters, mostly imported from elsewhere. Of the city at century's end he writes:

"Metropolitan Washington [is] a national and international city, understandable as a phenomenon of the modern age. The national roles developed over two centuries and the international roles over one century, driving economic growth and social change. Washington is a Tidewater city, river city and southern city, but it is also networked, centered and large scale -- and dealing with the [racial] legacy of the 19th century."

Fair enough. To put it another way, for all Abbott's diligent research and smart interpretation, the mystery of Washington remains as beguiling and elusive as ever.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.