All that came of the great upheaval are four pretty gazebos, a jungle of jungle gyms, an empty school building and some sad looking housing.
The place is called Fort Lincoln. It is on a hill some 200 feet high and affords a panoramic view of the entire metropolitan area. On a clear day, you can see the Beltway.
You can also see clearly how we still bungle our best opportunities for "a suitable living environment for every American family," as Congress once put it.
Fort Lincoln is a memorial to a society that does not want to be great.
Fort Lincoln was one of a chain of forts and batteries surrounding Washington during the Civil War. The area is some 330 acres, located in the underused, somewhat messy industrial area in northeast Washington that is bounded by the District line, Bladensburg Road and South Dakota Avenue.
During more than half of this century this beautiful rolling and verdant site served as a federal prison for young men, called "the National Training School for Boys."
Early in the 1960s, the Justice Department let it be known that the prison would be moved to Morgantown, W.Va. A debate ensured as to what to do with the site. Some wanted a park. Some wanted to build a new Government Printing Office. Some wanted to turn Fort Lincoln into the campus for the D.C. Community College.
An open letter to President Lyndon B. Johnson, printed to The Washington Post on Feb. 7, 1965, suggested a model "new town in town" to test the ideas of his Great Society and to show the world that we can overcome urban blight and integrate well-planned communities racially and economically.
Illustrated with a visionary sketch by architect Arthur Cotton Moore, the letter urged that the new town be both a showcase and a laboratory.
On Aug. 30, 1967, the president suddenly announced plans "to move at once to develop a new community within the Washington city limits." Bigger than Georgetown and comprehensively planned for a full range of educational, recreation, shopping and other services for 25,000 people of different incomes, the development was to be "the best of communities." It was to inspire similar efforts in other cities.
The president wanted to prove that effective action was possible. Riots were spreading through the nation's cities and of all the needs in the ghetto, housing seemed the most urgent. As it became evident that America threatened to break into two societies -- one black and poor and the other white and affluent -- it had to be shown that integration could work.
If further appealed to Lyndon Johnson that a new town at Fort Lincoln would require no special legislation. It could be done under the District's urban renewal authority. The land was already owned by the federal government and the site was vacant. No one would be displaced.
Most of all, on the highest hill in the nation's capital, just a few blocks from Capitol Hill, the project had great visibility.
The White House announced the idea on a weekend and virtually every federal and District agency was summoned at once. With the president himself stirring the alphabet soup, it was bound to be good.
It certainly looked good at first, GSA promised federal office buildings as an employment base. HEW promised health, education and welfare services. Interior promised delightful parks. And so it went. There is little a federal bureaucrat would not promise his president at the end of a virtually non-stop, three-day planning meeting.
HUD brought in the nation's top designers overnight. Architects Moshe Safdie, Paul Rudolph and Harry Weese ground out new housing ideas in the supercharged atmosphere of final exams. Edward J. Logue, who had rebuilt New Haven and Boston, headed an urban design team second to none. The architects were Keyes, Lethbridge and Condon.
Logue announced from the very beginning that to attract people of all races and incomes, Fort Lincoln would have "to travel first class." In other words, affluent whites would not mind sharing schools or tennis courts with poor blacks if top quality prevailed throughout.
In the plan, it did -- high density apartments, green spaces, monorail, special schools, citizen participation and all.
But then the quarreling started. Nothing like this had evr been attempted. And, every Washington government agency concerned, each in its own way, made sure that it never would be.
What it all boiled down to was that Logue would develop Fort Lincoln with a nonprofit corporation having comprehensive powers, such as the successful Urban Development Corporation he later launched for the State of New York.
But that is New York. No Washington agency was prepared to yield an ounce of its power to some new-fangled corporation.
As Martha Derthick, a political scientist, has written, the idea could only survive as a presidential project. The president was by then Richard Nixon. His urban adviser at the time, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, now a senator from New York, was still interested in the idea, but not enough to risk White House support for his welfare reform program.
Nor was the failure entirely that of the federal government. Washington's citizens took advantage of the government planners' commitment to "citizen participation" in a particularly ugly way. Middle-class blacks organized to prevent housing for lower-class blacks -- not in their own neighborhood, but in a new community a mile or more away from most of them.
There were seemingly endless and senseless fights between rival citizen groups, one led by Kenneth Kennedy, the other by Jesse Jackson. The federal government paid these citizen groups for their obstructive "participation.
By 1970, the leading local and federal agencies, RLA (Redevelopment Land Agency) and HUD, threw in the towel and agreed to let free enterprise develop Fort Lincoln.
At first, Westinghouse was given a chance to revive the Logue plan and prove its financial feasibility. It soon became obvious, however, that the Nixon people did not want to be convicted. (Logue's similar Roosevelt Island project in New York City turned out to be entirely feasible.)
So the Park Service came and built those gazebos and a playground. The designer, Paul Friedburg, packed so many jungle gym doodads into a small sand box that there does not seem any room left for children.
The the District came and built a $7.7 million school for 700 students with a swimming pool and another two-story jungle gym that looks like an oil refinery, plus a multi-chrome sculpture by Ann Truitt that looks like oversized costume jewelry. The only thing it lacks is children.
The school has been empty for five years.
At an as-yet-undetermined time this spring or summer, some 200 children enrolled in special programs all over the city will be bused to Fort Lincoln. About 150 more students are expected to come from the new homes that are slowly being built on the site.
The Fort Lincoln New Town Corporation is a group headed by Ted Hagans. Its $40,000-to-$60,000 houses are not likely to win architectural awards. Its bulldozers chew up the natuaral terrain with the same reckless abandon that prevailed in lower-class suburban developments 20 years ago. Two ugly, eight-story high-rise apartment buildings for the elderly complete the dismal picture.
I now wish Fort Lincoln had indeed been turned into a park.
There are no villains in this story to blame.
But, then, there are no heroes either. There was, and is, no one with power in this city who really believes, as President Johnson did, that Washington deserves "the best in community planning."